Street Cooks Of Sikasso. The Lady Making A Living By My Door.

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The Lady in the Story on the bottom left- Picture was taken out my office window after it got brighter at 6:45 am. The Gentleman’s street side Breakfast table is to Top left side of the truck.

Street-side cooks and cafes are everywhere here. Most of them do not have a roof. They consist of a worn old wooden table stained black with age, and a bench or two, set up on the side of the road. When you are marketing to some of the poorest on earth, how much can you actually charge?

At the corner only 150 feet from my window, I am looking at a table where you can actually sit down and have 1 French Baguette, omelet (Nothing in it but onion) and thick coffee thickened with sweetened condensed milk for about 65 cents per person. It’s not clean, it’s not nice. In fact, it looks nasty. I doubt any of you would eat there, and I don’t blame you. It’s what tour guide books, and field trainers tell you to avoid at all cost. But to be honest, I have rarely gotten sick eating at such places, though I am not a regular. It all depends on the person cooking and his cleanliness habits. Like the guy I used to go to, cracking unwashed eggs with dried chicken poop still on the shells and cracking them open in the palm of his hand with a butter knife.  (Shipping eggs this way actually makes them stay fresh longer without refrigeration – but they should be sterilized  before use)  Most breakfast shops (that serve eggs and coffee) are male entrepreneurs.

However, I want to talk about the the lady sitting by my door. These ladies do the more elaborate cuisine. Nothing fancy, but preparation is involved.  She is there every morning.

At 5:45am this morning, I headed out in the darkness for bread, and she was already there. She has never not been there. No matter what time of the morning I do my errand, she is there. Her daughter is sweeping away the street debris around their 1 *1 meter table. They have one bench. The mother of the children is heating oil over an open fire. As I walked by, she had her face in her hands, not awake or just incredibly tired, and not really in tune with anything around her.

On my return, I saw that she and her son were cutting up overripe plantains to deep fry into a delicious mush known as Alocho. An acquired taste, that I acquired  eighteen years ago in Ivory Coast. A plastic bag of Baguettes that she retrieved hours before I ever arrived at the bakery, was leaned up against the table. She was deep frying something else I couldn’t make out today. When breakfast is sold out she begins on dinner, and so on.

She is making something, but probably only pennies per customer.  It must work, because she survives and returns every day. She is obviously filling a need in the community, people needing food on the run, before an early morning voyage, or a busy day’s work begins, or single young men who have no time or no one to cook at home. Truthfully, I can get these items from them cheaper than I can cook it myself most times. I am not sure how that can be.

“I thought I’d take the time here to write about what I thought and felt after having returned to my homeland for a short time, with a new African perspective. The worlds are so different, and now I find myself in a no-man’s-land between the two, wishing to pick and choose what I like from the two cultures”  (Peace Corps Workers comments about Benin, West Africa. Aug 24, 2010)

There are a lot of things to love about this place.  But I don’t want her job.

However, as an NGO and Humanitarian, I can learn a lesson from these street side cooks. They know how to market to the poorest on earth. They know how to accept modest profit margins per unit of sale, in favor of luring more customers. More customers add to a more secure and stable sales base. And when you have enough of them, the pennies add up to enough.

The average cost of most solutions we bring to Africa is ridiculous. It is based on a charity model, not a sustainable marketing model. At the price per family unit, our projects are often ridiculous.  Paul Polak  in, “Out Of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail.”,  suggests that the poor will purchase their own solutions out of poverty, if we can market things that meet a real need, demonstrate that  it will make them more money, and are under $50 in price.

$50 seems to be the upper limit of the sweet spot. Our drip irrigation fits the bill. His book encouraged me, because I was using drip irrigation when many never heard of it, and it affirmed to me that drip irrigation is the best economic choice on the planet for substance farmers to increase yields and make more money.

This street side cook is not lazy, works long hours at her business, and it works. It’s not much, but it does not take much here. I admire her, because in many ways she is a better business person than I am. She certainly has a simple approach that makes more sense than many NGO agencies’ ridiculously costly endeavors.

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