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Dec 18, 2013
by Oscar Tollast
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Mame Diene: “I want to go back to basics”

Entrepreneur keen to create value and growth in Africa

Mame Diene, CEO and founder of Bioessence Laboratories, doesn’t appear to stop working. Our interview is slightly delayed whilst she waits to hear via Skype if her company’s natural cosmetic products will appear on TV. A flaky Internet connection prevents her from finding out.

Whilst she waits to hear back, we sit down in Schloss Leopoldskron’s Chinese Room to discuss why she’s attended Salzburg Global for a third time, her entrepreneurial lifestyle, and her thoughts on rural enterprise development in Africa.

Diene says, “Every time I come to Salzburg, and I said it to my colleagues in here, I am really impressed by the intelligence and the value of people who intervene in the debates. Everyone is eager on actions, what can be done to have an impact.”

The session taking place at the time, ‘Africa’s Growth Engine: Partnerships for Rural Enterprise and Impact at Scale’ had brought together a number of different practitioners from the public and private sector.

Participants were building on the work of another session Diene attended in 2011, ‘Transforming Agricultural Development and Production in Africa: Closing Gender Gaps and Empowering Rural Women in Policy and Practice’.

“I want to go to basics,” Diene confidently proclaims. “This is something for the very first time that we can talk about: creating value and creating growth in Africa without any complexities. We can talk about making money and making wealth.”

Bioessence Laboratories works within the rural areas of Senegal, but has since expanded to other countries such as Guinea and Mali. Speaking from experience, Diene describes scaling up as a challenge.

“You have to sometimes deal with issues that are bigger than your own company. We have challenges that are related to the environment of business itself that should sometimes need collaboration.”

Diene suggests the regulation of barcodes was an issue before collaboration between the public and private sector helped brought about change. She says, “The US Embassy helps us to intervene with our own officials in our country and it was a partnership private and public that helped us after six year to get the barcode, which identified the products.”

Other challenges also exist and Diene likes to point out that scaling up doesn’t necessarily mean more money. It concerns a company’s assets and its value.

“As a business model, we’re an exporting company. It means regulations, certifications, meeting international standards, and this usually is very constraining for a company like mine. But at the same time, it helps you scale up in a good way because you are in a model that is more sustainable.”

Diene suggests the purpose of the session is to define the scope of intervention needed in order to create healthy businesses. She says, “That is how a country becomes richer and can maybe invest in other areas.”

Prior to starting her own business, Diene used to be a business consultant on banking risks, working within Europe. But whilst this provided her with a comfortable way of living, Diene felt she was missing something.“I couldn’t define my life as something that can benefit others. I wanted to have an impact for Africa and an impact for my country.

“Today I’m in the business of agribusiness, the business of transforming crops and products coming from Africa and that’s something that can help people.”

Diene’s family has generations of entrepreneurs. Her grandmother sold donuts, whilst her mother was in the business of rubbish bins for the government.

“Every time I talk about this business I am in I can see that it may be considered as a model for other people in other countries. It shows me that no matter how difficult the business is, we are on the right way.”

One of the session’s participants joked Diene would be the only participant leaving Salzburg Global with more money than she came with. The entrepreneur uses breaks in between workshops to sell her products.

“I came with my product because this is my third time at Salzburg and last time all people asked me about it. This time it is the same. I’m happy to be consistent in this quality business and happy to help people discover the richness and wealth of Africa.”