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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Youth Employment Conference Abidjan, Cote d'Ivoire

Last month I was invited to speak at a Youth Employment Conference organized by the Ministry of State and Ministry of Labor in Cote d'Ivoire. It was an incredible experience and I wanted to share the speech on this blog as it relates to Sarafina and what we stand for.

Chères invités, son Excellence Mr. Daniel Kablan Duncan, le Ministre d’Etat, Ministre de la Formation de l’Emploi, des Affaires Sociales et de la Formation Professionnelle, et ADEA, je vous remercie pour cette opportunité de vous adresser aujourd’hui. Cet un grand honneur et événement très spécial pour moi car mon père était Directeur dans le Ministère de l’Emploi dans les années ‘90s. On peut dire que c’était dans mon destin d’avoir cette passion pour la création de l’emploi en Afrique. Je change en Anglais maintenant car vous m’avez dit que vous cherchait une anglophone et je suis plus a’laise en Anglais.
My name is Bita Diomandé and I am half-American, half-Ivorian. I’m here today to speak to you as an entrepreneur and member of the African diaspora in the US who is looking to come back home. I’m currently a second year MBA student at MIT Sloan, where I focus on entrepreneurship in developing countries. My passion lies in economic development and job creation in Africa. Today I would like to speak about my own entrepreneurial experience working in Africa, and the challenges I’ve seen with small businesses, the need to develop our local industries, and concerns facing the diaspora.
Three years ago I started Sarafina, an e-commerce fashion company, with the aim of promoting fair trade fashion and creating sustainable employment opportunities in Africa and Asia. You see, to me it is not enough to just create jobs but we have a responsibility to equip our workforce with the skills needed to function in the global economy and to pay our workers a minimum that will allow them to benefit from a higher standard of living. To date we source from 5 difference countries including Uganda, Kenya, Madagascar, Uganda, Liberia, and India where we support employment for over 40 women. What I’ve learned through this experience is that we have an immense pool of talent with the skill and ambition to compete in the international fashion industry. All that is missing is access to capital and opportunities for growth. If we want to talk about youth employment it’s imperative to focus on the role of small businesses in creating innovation and employment opportunities. What we need is access to capita and mentorship. For the past month and a half, I have been in Abidjan looking for suppliers to manufacture men and women’s apparel at an international quality standard. During this time I have met an incredible group of small business owners who all have the same issue- inability to scale. In addition to issues related to capita, we need more African entrepreneurs who can advise small business owners about building businesses in Africa while competing in the global economy.
My second point relates to building local industries to participate in the global economy in a way that benefits African countries. I’m talking specifically about promoting agricultural productivity value addition. Focusing on building industry to generate wealth within the country and creating employment opportunities rather than continuing to export raw resources and not capturing the maximum wealth. I have heard many good things about the Fond Nationale de la Jeunesse and its focus on agricultural productivity value addition and it gives me great hope to see this direction for Cote d’Ivoire.
Finally I would like to end with concerns facing youth in the diaspora. As a member of the Africa Business Club at Sloan, I have met many other African students across the country. I can tell you that we have a big contingency that wants to come back home. Issues that are often raised include: Will we be able to continue to have political stability in our respective countries? Will we be able to find comparable job opportunities? What happens if we are not well connected, will we be hired based on merit? Will we start developing our local industries? I believe that many will start to come back to Africa, I know I will. The future is bright, opportunities are many; however, our success will depend on our ability to grow our small businesses and protect our local industries to compete on our own terms.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dawn of a new era

I’m sure a lot of you watched the Kony video or at least read about it. I didn’t quite know what to make of it. As an American-Ivorian, I appreciated the awareness that it raised about Kony and the LRA; however, I did not fully understand what Invisible Children’s message was or what role they had in “solving” Ugandan issues.

One thing about the campaign that was brilliant is that it unintentionally united a number of Africans and non-Africans in speaking out against the way Africa and Africans are portrayed by certain players in the West, including aid groups. As a good friend of mine said, Invisible Children isn’t the problem, it’s just a symptom. For the longest time countries in Africa and other developing countries have been viewed as backward places with high levels of poverty, faced with wars, HIV epidemics, and whatever else you want to add to the mix. I grew up in a number of developing countries, and am not here to deny that these countries have problems but rather to say that they do not need to be defined by it. Last time I checked they also had a wide range of natural resources, immense potential, human talent, just like other countries out there. The time has come to stop viewing Africans and other developing country nationals as helpless individuals who need to be saved from these problems that they apparently are predisposed to having.

There was an interesting article in the Atlantic in response to the Kony video entitled the “White Savior Industrial Complex” by Teju Cole in which he argued that we, the so called 'rescuers', should do our due diligence before interfering in other people's lives. Cole stated that we should first understand the role we play in negatively affecting African countries. You can start with how African countries and other developing countries have been severely impacted by protectionist agricultural subsidies in the West, including the US, which have contributed to increased poverty. Additionally, these countries have been viewed as countries with cheap labor and immense natural resources to be exploited. Take a look at the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country with the world’s largest deposits of cobalt and significant quantities of the world’s supply of diamonds, gold and copper. It continues to provide multinational corporations with cheap raw resources, while it remains one of the world’s poorest countries. The bulk of the profits continue to flow to multinational corporations as well as a small group of local elite businessmen and politicians. As consumers, we are connected to these issues as we purchase from these companies and unintentionally allow them to continue exploiting people and looting resources. 

I say we because, I too am part of this. I own a laptop and a cell phone that I’m sure contain minerals contributing to conflicts in Congo. I enjoy produce from US agro-businesses lobbying the government to maintain subsidies, while our government encourages other countries to remove trade barriers. I own clothes from a number of companies with less than stellar labor conditions for their garment workers.  Having said this, now is not the time to blame but rather to be aware of how interconnected we are and to stand up for what we believe is right.

I’m sure you are reading this now and are thinking what does this have to do with Sarafina? It has everything to do with Sarafina. I want this company to be part of a movement that presents developing countries in a positive light and empowers individuals by using ethical trade practices. We have had a very unbalanced relationship with these countries and profited at many people’s expense. It’s time to stop exploiting people and start respecting them.

-- Bita Diomande

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fabindia: An inspirational story

I recently read the story of Fabindia as told by Radhika Singh in her book “The Fabric of our Lives”. For those who are not familiar with Fabindia, it is one of the largest retail companies in India. It was started 50 years ago and is largely credited with the revival of the Indian handloom industry. The beauty of Fabindia goes far beyond their use of local products for upholstery and garments, to their commitment to empowering their suppliers. Since the start of the company, Fabindia has been paying their suppliers fair prices and giving them access to a number of markets. They have reorganized their suppliers into community owned companies where suppliers are given the option to be shareholders. Fabindia’s success is evident in its numbers. In 50 years it has gone from having 3 employees to 850, one supplier (Cottage Industries Emporium) to 40,000 suppliers, and finally Rs 40,000 to Rs 350,000,000 worth of sales. The suppliers have equally benefited from the business, with an influx of cash to invest in materials for their trade, new construction for their homes and workplaces, schools for their children, and most importantly steady jobs, all provided by selling their products.
As a young person starting a social business, the story of Fabindia is one that inspires me to continue to grow my business. People often tell me it’s naïve to run a business and keep a social goal at its core, but my answer is always that profits do not need to be made at the expense of the supplier.

A funny thing happened to me earlier this week. I was at the beach in Goa, reading the book on Fabindia when Sarita, a woman selling beads, stopped at my table. I immediately sat up and started thinking of all the necklaces I would design and sell through Sarafina. After I picked out my strings of beads, we started negotiating on the price. Let me just say that I’m a true West African and no one, no one can pull one over me when I’m negotiating. As we continued to negotiate I realized that I had been priding myself for working with suppliers and paying fairly for their work when it came to ready made clothes that I sold through Sarafina and here I was trying to squeeze this woman’s profits from beads I needed to design jewelry on behalf of Sarafina. I quickly retreated and accepted her price. Sarita and I have since become friends and as I was leaving today, she brought me a necklace as a gift for doing business with her. I’ve promised to return next year to buy more beads for my jewelry designs. I learned an important lesson from this, one that it is easy to get swept into profit only mode but also that it is an even better transaction when you know that your suppliers have also benefited from the business.

I have tremendous respect for companies who have succeeded using a social business model. As William Bissell, current Managing Director of Fabindia, said in a Harvard Case Study on Fabindia:  “We are promoting an alternative vision for the future. It is collaborative (with the suppliers) in the true sense of the word; it is participatory (with the customers that share our views); …I believe that the only way to alleviate rural poverty is to generate sustainable employment, and the only way to do that is if we run our business in a profitable manner. It seems contradictory that we pursue both a social goal and profit, but I believe that is the only way to do it.”

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why I started a socially conscious business

Around this time last year I started Sarafina, a fashion retail company that works with tailors and seamstresses in developing countries. I wanted to create jobs but more importantly provide a living wage for those I worked with. I spent the first 18 years of my life living between Cote d’Ivoire, Pakistan, and India and I have always been determined to empower people that make up the lower income brackets in the developing world.

Growing up I saw many people who didn't have access to an education pick up jobs to provide for themselves and their families. My parents were always big advocates of giving jobs to empower people. That included the people working for my family who were always paid a living wage. I could tell you stories about people that used to work for my family when we were in India, such as Anish who now earns a living as a driver for a large international company or Rakhi, my former maid whose two children are both in school and living a carefree life as children should, but I won't. 

Looking back I think what shaped me the most wasn't my experience living in various developing countries but witnessing poverty in my own family. I was born in Cote d'Ivoire, West Africa to an American mother and Ivorian father. While we were financially secure and lived in one of the nicest parts of town, a sizable part of my Ivorian family did not have access to the same opportunities that my father did. My father was the only one of his siblings that completed secondary school. After completing his BA in Cote d’Ivoire, he went on to study economics at the University of Colorado and later at Wharton, at the University of Pennsylvania. Meanwhile many of his family members were coming from my family village and were struggling to provide for their immediate family. I grew up sharing my house, clothes, and toys with my relatives' kids while my parents selflessly helped relative after relative. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was happening but now realize the importance of what my parents did. Instead of only giving them money, my parents helped my relatives get jobs. Twenty years later, my uncles and aunts are financially independent and every single one of my cousins had access to secondary school.

It's with this in mind that I created Sarafina. As a socially conscious business, Sarafina only works with designers who have chosen to pay their tailors a living wage. It is our hope that with a steady income, the tailors will be able to provide for their families and break the cycle of poverty. At Sarafina, we believe that empowering people starts with giving them the tools to allow them to lift themselves up. Please join us in our journey and visit our website at 

- Bita Diomande
Founder and CEO of Sarafina