The story of the two young women fell by chance into the ears of Abdoullah Coulibaly, the president of the Bamako Forum, who awarded them during its recent edition held last week in the Malian capital.
They were the little stars of the last Forum, one of the most important conferences in Africa, where politicians, diplomats, financiers, economists, intellectuals and civil actors from all over the world gather every year. However, nothing predestined the two young girls to attract so much attention and consideration at this event, which was held on May 26-28 and where the average age of the participants is at least that of their parents.
Alice Ouedraogo, 25, and Madeleine Delma, 26, are third-year agro-economics students at a private polytechnic school in Ouagadougou. In this institution, nothing distinguishes them from their fellow students, except that every day, before going to class and at the end of classes, they make a small detour of about an hour to tend a 300-square-meter plot of land located not far from their school where they grow amaranth, a very popular plant with cooks in Burkina Faso as an ingredient for sauces.
“These two girls are proof that young people in Africa can make it on their own, work, finance themselves and pursue serious studies at the same time. Their story is so exemplary that they deserve to be congratulated and shown as an example for other young Africans,” argues Coumba Traore, the secretary-general and kingpin of the Bamako Forum Foundation where Alice and Madeleine were awarded the “Prize for Excellence of the 22nd Edition of the Bamako Forum.” A distinction sponsored by the head of Ecobank-Mali, Boubacar Sidiki Traore, and presented by the representative of the United Nations Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
“We never thought our history would one day earn us such a distinction,” admits Madeleine, remembering the day when she and her friend were informed of the choice of the Bamako Forum to distinguish them. “Like every morning, we woke up at dawn to water and maintain our little plot, and then we went to school to attend the class that starts at 7:30. The school principal then called us into her office to inform us that we had been chosen to receive an award in Bamako, Mali,” Alice says. “This is the first time we’ve heard about the Bamako Forum. It’s also the first time we’ve heard that we were going to get on a plane and leave our country,” Madeleine says in a smile, abruptly interrupted by a Forum official who came to tell the young women that they have been asked to come to the big tent where the Forum’s working discussions were held.
“They were called to receive the financial envelope that goes with the Prize,” Madeleine explains, a few hours later as the two laureates had just attended the closing ceremony of the Forum at the Azalai Hotel, a property of one of the main sponsors of the meeting, the Malian businessman Mossadeck Bally, who is also the president of the Azalai Hotel chain, which is present all over West Africa.
What effect does such an award have on the two students, whose story fortuitously fell into the ears of Abdoullah Coulibaly, the president of the Bamako Forum, thanks to a local television report that went viral in West Africa?
“We take this prize as an encouragement to our choice not to stay with our arms crossed or to reach out, as is generally the case with young Africans of our age who expect everything from the family or the government, not to mention girls, especially students, who prefer easy money instead of working,” Alice says modestly, in allusion to the not often “honorable” practices that some girls of their age indulge in, not only in Burkina Faso but almost everywhere in Africa.
What do they intend to do with the money they were offered during their visit to the Malian capital?
The two students, affectionately called “agri-businesswomen” by their fellow students, started with “nothing,” as they like to say. It was during practical exercises in their first year of study in their school’s experimental field that they had the idea of acquiring a small plot of land to grow a few vegetables to sell on the local market. To finance their project, the girls work during the following school vacations as salespeople for a local juice manufacturer. The money earned during this summer job was far from allowing them to buy their own land.
Madeleine then had the idea of asking an “old man” who owned large fields near the experimental field of their institute, located near a hydro-agricultural dam which they had met during their practical exercises. After a first attempt with onions and tomatoes, on the 300 square meters piece of land lent by the old man. The activity worked well but required a lot of water, the two students then converted to amaranth growing.
“It’s an easy plant to grow; it requires little water, does not need much maintenance and is very popular in Burkina and the region. In four months, we can have four or five harvests. We don’t need anyone anymore. We finance our studies ourselves and also contribute to the family expenses. This plant has completely changed our lives,” insists Madeleine who, like Alice, “dreams of going very far” already.
The two young women want to become “real entrepreneurs in the agricultural field.” They now plan to buy their own field, diversify production and export their produce. “The money received with the Bamako Forum Prize is very timely for us. It will allow us to move faster towards our goal of transforming our project into something bigger and stronger,” Alice concludes.