* This article was first published by the IFC. View original.
By Abdoul Maiga
Last summer, my wife Sarah and I were preparing to move from France to Senegal for my new position as Communications Officer for IFC. We had a lot to think about, some of our concerns about our seven-month-old daughter, Talia, including what we were going to feed her in Dakar.
In France, we prepared Talia’s food with fresh organic produce to ensure she ate nutritious meals without additives. But knowing that we would have a million things to do after arriving in Senegal – and no time to prepare Talia’s food – we wondered what we would find on the supermarket shelves in our new country.
Sarah turned to her online social networks to learn more about health and child nutrition brands in Senegal. She soon discovered an organic Senegalese baby food called Le Lionceau, or Lion Cub, that parents praised for being both organic and nutritious.
Shortly after arriving in Dakar last August, we went to the supermarket and found Le Lionceau and its many varieties: millet, fonio (a type of grain), sweet potato, moringa (a type of plant), ditakh ( a type of fruit), bouye (baobab fruit), solom (a type of tamarind), papaya, mango, and cowpea (black-eyed pea).
They were quite exotic flavors compared to Talia’s usual spinach, leek, and broccoli dishes, and we wondered if she’d like them. When we put some in his mouth, we quickly had the verdict: a big yes for these West African flavors!
We were relieved – and happy – to have discovered a West African brand that used local foods to produce quality products for local consumption.
The more jars we bought, the more curious I became about the company. I wanted to know why and how the company started. What was the secret of his success? And could this company inspire other small Senegalese companies to exploit the treasures of local agriculture?
A local focus
This last question was particularly important to me. In too many cases, West African raw materials – whether mined or grown – are shipped out of the region and refined elsewhere. In fact, less than 30% agricultural products from Senegal are processed locally. In 2019, Senegal imported nearly $770 million food for consumers, mainly from Europe and Asia. Imports constitute about 70% of Senegal’s food needs.
So I contacted Siny Samba, a 30-year-old Senegalese, co-founder and CEO of Le Lionceau, to find out more about her role in combating this import trend. She told me that she had always been passionate about food production. Earlier in her career, she had worked in France as an R&D engineer at Bledina, the baby food arm of French food multinational Danone.
One day she had an idea that changed her life.
“When I came back to Senegal on vacation, I noticed that 100% of baby food in stores was imported, even though we have very rich resources in terms of nutrition,” she said. “I felt we were missing an opportunity.”
She believed that local fruits and grains could be processed in Senegal – for the benefit of babies as well as local farmers. A few months later, Le Lionceau was born.
In 2018, she started the business with Rémi Filastò, an agricultural engineering schoolmate, with funding and support from Women Investment Club (WIC), Hub Impact Dakar, and more recently Investors and Partners. Today, their company employs 20 people and offers 15 varieties of organic baby food, compotes, biscuits and cereals. All are nutritious and support local agricultural value chains.
The company, which has quadrupled its sales in three years, plans to expand into Ivory Coast, Ghana, Guinea and Mali (my home country). The Cub also hopes to feed babies in the African diaspora overseas through a pilot partnership with online retailers Amazon and C-Discount.
Partnership with farmers
Le Lionceau is still part of a very small group of agro-food industrialists in Senegal. A study in 2015 – the latest available – revealed that Senegal’s agribusiness industry consists of around 15,000 companies that manufacture food products, but nearly 97% are mostly small-scale, informal operations. At the time, only about 20 companies were running large-scale operations using modern food manufacturing.
For Le Lionceau, the expansion will include the launch this year of a high-end processing unit to boost production.
Seeking and learning all of this – an effort sparked by a simple question about my daughter’s food – was inspiring. I hope Le Lionceau will inspire other Senegalese entrepreneurs to pursue their dreams. As for Siny Samba, she attributes her success to solid technical knowledge, hard work and passion.
She also believes in the importance of building the capacity of local farmers and working closely with them to achieve common goals. This includes teaching them sustainable farming techniques to produce organic produce and partnering with women’s cooperatives to work on the pre-processing of raw materials.
“The more you help build their capacity, the more efficient their returns and the more markets can be created. Everyone wins,” Samba said.
Our daughter Talia is now 14 months old. She eats more solid foods, but we continue to buy Le Lionceau products, which she still loves.
We love it too – the food has become a wonderful part of our move to West Africa.
Abdoul Maiga is IFC Communications Officer for West and Central Africa in Dakar, Senegal.