Global Conversation with the Senegalese Industrialist-cum-Designer Aïssa Dione

Rapid population growth, mass unemployment, the need to develop African economies: all these issues call for entrepreneurship and enhanced know-how of the African populations, especially among its youth…  

Beyond the great debates on development and the necessary financial aid, Aïssa Dione proposes the concept of “soft industry”, which is based on the concrete skills that people already have and upgrading these through technical training.

Global conversation with an outspoken, down-to-earth industrialist


JR: Aïssa Dione, you are a designer, gallery owner and textile industrialist with two production sites in Senegal, and ranked by Forbes Africa as a woman of influence. What is your take on industry in Africa?

AD: We always talk about infrastructure, but silence reigns when it comes to developing skilled industries. Our leaders have set their sights on mega-industries, imagining that they were going to compete with the rest of world, whereas they could easily have developed a new industry, known as “soft industry.” Relying on the skills that people already master, this soft industry can penetrate the international market while also occupying the local market. And it would require very little equipment and investment.

I created my small carpentry business in Senegal, but there is no carpentry training. Yet, what do we see? A multitude of imports from China, India, Italy, France… It cost me 15,000 euros to set up a small carpentry workshop. I don’t know how many billions are spent on roads. Give me the financial equivalent of 10 km of roads and I’ll start a whole industry in Senegal.

JR: So, soft industry is not a concept, it already exists. Is it simply a question of getting support?

AD: Yes. The Italians started like this, with small family businesses. Today, large groups there rely on family businesses. This model could have flourished in our countries and would have been far more suitable. Today, in Senegal we don’t know how to make nails, needles, or candles; instead we talk about an enormous infrastructure all the time!  “Development policies” are unable to set up small production units. The idea of production in Africa has not yet arrived. Today, it is perhaps trickling into the agri-business and is starting in the service sector as well. But we also need to address the secondary sector and crafts.

JR: When you talk about soft industry in Africa and supporting know-how and skills, how do policy-makers react?

AD: The problem is that politicians don’t know and don’t master the craftwork field and its technical training. They have always reasoned with the French administration’s ideal of literary schools, universities or medical studies, but they have never had access to a carpentry school. They assume that all these things are imported, and don’t even give this idea any thought.

JR: So without waiting for governments—even if it is understood that they should ideally provide support—how can entrepreneurs move forward? Can you give us an overview of dynamic sectors in West Africa where we can see the beginnings of this soft industry?

AD: There is not much, actually. The textile industry fell apart because it aimed at mass production. In the carpentry sector, there are signs that some carpentry workshops are developing. But as there is no proper training, things advance by trial and error. All the money invested in education should have been in vocational training instead. Today, technical training in our country does not represent even 10%, even though we have abundant raw materials.

JR: Many people think that Africa, West Africa in particular, can industrialize with support from China.

AD: Industrialization is a big word. There are several levels of industrialization. In a first phase, I think industrialization means developing small manufacturing units. Wanting to fit everyone into the same industrial scale does not seem appropriate. There are 14 million people in Senegal, whereas China has about 1.4 billion.

Mass production is adapted to a population of 1.4 billion. In Senegal, we can develop the country by producing for niche markets and in smaller quantities. If quality could become more valued than quantity from time to time at least, I think that would help.

FC: Can you tell us about the opportunity for raw material processing chains?

AD: In West Africa, more than one million tons of cotton are produced, but not a single meter of cloth. This is the absurdity of not having invested in research and development. We simply want to copy everything that has already been done elsewhere. We don’t leverage our national competences.

FC: Where will new momentum come from, if governments and states are unable to come to this realization?

AD: Governments are not interested in the subject, even in Senegal, despite all the talk about developing a national furniture industry.

Our country continues to build houses to accommodate its increasingly dense population. This policy could create new markets, in furniture or interior design, but today we keep on importing. To change this, we must open small schools for iron welding, furniture upholstery, etc.

JR: Senegal has created a ministry for artisanry and training.

AD: Yes. But the word “artisanry” itself is very much demeaned. I don’t use that word any longer; I prefer to talk about skills and manufacturing. “Artisanry” is limited. and is often carried out in associations, cooperatives or on an individual basis, in structures that often don’t pay taxes. Ultimately, this makes it impossible to develop a market geared towards export, or to eventually enter the market economy. To my mind, the idea is to bring together expertise and manufacturing in order to create a force that can penetrates the market economy.  The market is big enough for these mass industry and creative industry to co-exist.

JR: It is remarkable that, despite the multiple debates and actions in West Africa geared for example to integrated farming or training, it seems that, on the contrary, less emphasis is placed on the challenge of transforming other materials such as wood, leather and what comes from the ground, like cotton.

AD: There is an outright raid on wood, but some countries are reacting. I think that Gabon has banned the export of logs and that the Ivory Coast and Senegal have also begun to implement the same policy.

As for cotton, it is unbelievable. The vicious circle is very simple: cotton is handed over to China, Vietnam or elsewhere; it is processed there, sold in the West, and the waste comes back to us. Let me explain: If you give away your old clothes to a charity like Emmaus, they take them to Africa, and then you are killing the industry! This eternal charity and aid mean that we are unable to develop.


FC: Are you saying that we must stop charity for Africa?


AD: Absolutely. Many African scholars argue for this.


FC: So, how can we help Africa?


AD: Africa does not need help! Why help? It must be about partners on equal terms.


EL: No assistance? I share your idea that donations destabilize industries, but isn’t aid sometimes the only way to react, in a humanitarian crisis, for instance?


AD: Listen. Europe has been through crises and has come through. Africa is going from one crisis to another, so at some point or other we will have to manage the crisis situation and overcome it.

EL: There are huge opportunities for raw material processing, so why are so few companies structured to effectively process these raw materials?

AD: Because Senegal has adopted the French administration’s model. It was cut and pasted from European systems that are not adapted to countries where 90% of people are unemployed. This gives us the same labor code as in France and the same VAT. As a producer, I want to produce, I want to sell in the domestic market, and I can’t because I have 18% VAT, which beta-blocks anyone wanting to create a company in the formal sector.

JR: So perhaps what West Africa is lacking is a sufficient number of would-be entrepreneurs? I’m asking this question to you as you are an entrepreneur.

AD: There are entrepreneurs, but they are facing huge difficulties. They never obtain funding. Banks do not support them financially, so when you do anything it is most often with your own money. Over twenty years, I have received only 150,000 euros of bank loans. That’s why I laugh when they say that we take billions for development. But we, the entrepreneurs, we haven’t seen any of it.


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