The seasonal rains have nourished seeds scattered during the last dry season, and small bushes are mustering all over the grounds. Foundation markers are visible above the new growth, a new well is being dug by hand in a corner, and the staff cafeteria looks about halfway done. Looking around this 10,000 square meter parcel, one would have little idea of what’s in store for the space. Other than a two meter high wall that encloses the entire area, providing a certain hint of fresh progress; one could be forgiven for missing the point.
The point is however not to be missed. Tahirou Sy, the owner and founder of Malian corporation SADASY, insists that these grounds, approximately twenty kilometers from the Malian city of Koulikouro, will soon be the site of a revolutionary new factory. Revolutionary not only for the west Africa region, but for the world as a whole. His idea is green, sustainable, and supportive of small-scale agriculture and local value-added manufacturing. Mr. Sy, trained as a chemical engineer and a veteran of many manufacturing projects in his native Mali, is building a particle board plant. While most particle board is made from wood scraps which are rare in a country covered mostly by desert, this factory will use plentiful local waste scraps created as by-products of rice agriculture.
The project is innovative in several ways. First, particle board made of rice is not common. Although it has been studied academically and provided the basis for several successful large scale business plans, it has never been produced profitably on a commercial scale. The list of those who have tried and failed is significant – failures in Canada, California, and Idaho litter the path to this project. While it’s broadly acknowledged that rice by products – straws and husks – go mostly wasted as they dry up on the ground alongside rice fields and scatter in strong winds, until now no one has figured out a solution.
Mr. Sy seems to have done this. Still, he acknowledges the challenges. “The number one risk for this project is the technical production.”, he says. “Many plants create similar products from sugar cane and wheat waste, but rice is a more complicated raw material. It has a waxy property that requires us to cut and blend it very carefully and employ a higher percentage of glue.” However, Sy believes he already has proof his project will work. “I sent two hundred and fifty kilos of our local rice stalks to a lab and Germany, and flew there after them to personally supervise the testing. There, we compressed, shredded, and glued a product that surprised me. I brought the samples back home to Mali and tested them in every possible circumstance. Here, we know that building materials will have to sit outside; so I immersed small samples in water for long periods. I left them in the sun, and they all came out fine. In the beginning our product wasn’t perfect, but we’ve got it down now.”, he says confidently.
Sy is not the only one who is confident. Ten years in from the initial idea, he has attracted the international donor community. “I have put a lot of my own funds into this project, but now I have been promised funding from the South African IDC.” This is a good thing, because such a project is enormously expensive; estimated at approximately $25M USD.
The current political crisis in Mali is a major thorn in Sy’s side. “The current situation is suffocating this country, and my business with it. I made a huge personal investment and got commitments from international donors for the rest. Now they’re holding off on disbursements because of the political instability.” Sy is also Vice-President of the Malian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, and says he is trying to leverage his role to help resolve the issues the country is facing. Even when the money comes through, the challenges will not evaporate. Sy is currently revisiting the logistics of rice straw collection. In a country where small-scale agriculture has limited access to markets for its most valuable commodities, his project depends on even less valuable by-products. He is currently consulting with Nuevva to find the most efficient way to make sure his raw materials get delivered on time, for an affordable price, and in the right quantities. Nuevva is exploring a number of different logistics options, and plans to utilize a modern fleet management system, for example, to follow the transport of the straw from the production areas to the plant. Partnerships may include other projects that support access to market strategies for agricultural production. One thing is sure; the project will not be limited by its leader’s ambition. “I believe I can become the Ikea for Africa, basing it on local raw materials production”, says Sy. “Just next door there’s an iron ore smelter getting set up”. They can make the furniture fittings, screws, and hinges, and Sadasy can make the particle board.
The Sadasy project is a perfect example of development that is good for Africa, and led by Africans. Green, recycling, local value-add, and sustainable agriculture; it ticks all the boxes. Nuevva is confident in this project and will work with Sy to make sure it enjoys the success it deserves.