In Rural Mali, Small Businesses Are Key to Women's Empowerment and Economic Development

In early 2011, Pietronella van den Oever, PRB visiting scholar,visited the Malian staff and villagers she worked with in a UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) rural training project in the mid-1970s. As part of PRB’s 2011-2012 Policy Seminar series, she discussed her recent research on the project’s results, which continue to be economically and socially important 40 years later.


A direct outgrowth of the training project was a “women’s bank” for savings and loan programs, income-generating activities, and literacy/numeracy training in collaboration with 32 affiliated women’s groups made up of more than 1,200 members. These activities are the ones rural women had identified as high priority when first surveyed in the 1970s. She found that the first women the FAO project trained as agricultural engineers and extension agents had flourished. A number owned small businesses and were among Mali’s decisionmakers; several had risen to senior government posts, she reported.

Van den Oever recalled that in the early 1970s, FAO-funded agricultural extension projects in Africa first started to experiment with women’s programs. But they were only just beginning to fully understand the division of labor in agriculture between men and women in Mali. Malian women, now as 40 years ago, are primary producers on the family farm, she explained. They work land owned by their husbands and his family, but they do not control the farm’s proceeds. Women do control the income from the small-scale processing of agricultural products to make bean and millet cakes and local beer, provided they buy the raw materials rather than taking them from the family granary.


Appreciating these distinctions is important to efforts to empower women today. During her recent research, van den Oever identified a number of obstacles women faced in their efforts to generate income. Specifically, she noted a shortage of locally produced food packaging materials; the high cost of business licenses (about US$70) that must be purchased for each product line; monopolies on some products held by politically well-connected people; and women’s lack of legal rights in some areas.

Eliminating these obstacles “must be central to any program aimed at women’s advancement and Mali’s economic development in general,” she said. Such changes could unleash untapped potential: “I am thoroughly convinced that Malian women can and will transform and market just about anything that is potentially edible, drinkable, or wearable,” she said.


Since the early 1970s, the population of Mali has nearly tripled (from 5.2 million to 15.4 million). While literacy has increased and electricity is now more widespread, many demographic indicators have not changed, van den Oever noted. The infant mortality rate has barely improved—120 deaths of infants under age 1 per 1,000 live births in 1971 compared to 116 per 1,000 today. And the total fertility rate (the average lifetime births per woman) rose slightly from 6.0 children to 6.4 children between 1971 and 2011. Measures to drastically reduce infant mortality are urgently needed, she argued. She reported that historical trends suggest that the total fertility rate is unlikely to change without improvements in infant and child survival.