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  • 12.18.15

How A Skincare Company Is Creating Jobs In Africa And Ending The “Thatchwork Ceiling”

Tiossan is a social enterprise that is trying to do it all: preserve local Senegalese culture, create a large market, and build a sustainable local economy. But that takes time.

On a drive down the Pacific coast from San Francisco at the height of the first tech bubble, Magatte Wade had a sudden epiphany. She had a successful career, but she couldn’t stop thinking about friends and family struggling to find work back in Senegal, where she’d grown up.

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“I just basically lost it,” she says. “I was no longer able to reconcile the discrepancy between the type of life that I was afforded to live, and for those who stayed back home.”

For years, she’d heard the stories of friends or acquaintances heading for Europe in tiny fishing boats, desperate to find work. “You’d get the news that the boat didn’t make it,” she says. “And there’s nothing you can do.”

She decided to change careers and work on the heart of the problem: creating local jobs so people didn’t feel forced to leave home. The answer, she thought, was social enterprise.

Her first attempt at a startup–a beverage company making a drink based on a traditional recipe from Senegal–quickly grew, though it ultimately folded. Now Wade is growing a new business building on the lessons learned the first time around. Step one: creating a market in the U.S. Step two: taking production back to Senegal, where she wants to create meaningful jobs.

“A lot of us in the West have created I call it a ‘thatchwork ceiling’ instead of a glass ceiling,” she says. “We’re excited buying from co-ops in the developing world. But no one is pushing it further. We’ve got to move things vertically so that people can learn better skills that have more value.”

Her new company, called Tiossan, makes skincare products also based on traditional Senegalese products. Part of the purpose of the company is to save aspects of local culture that are quickly disappearing.

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“In Africa and the rest of the developing world, if you end up ‘making it,’ the way of being modern is the Western way,” she says. “It goes at the expense of our indigenous way and our indigenous identity.”

The products are now at stores like Nordstrom, and Wade is crowdfunding to build a modern factory in Senegal to, as she puts it, “go home.” She’s hoping that she can inspire other entrepreneurs to do the same thing, so would-be migrants can find work without leaving.

She sees this model of social enterprise as an attempt to build a sustainable local economy.

“My own village is a mecca for artisan shoemakers,” she says. “Right now, it’s giving hundreds of people a livelihood, selling to the local community. It feeds those who work there. Imagine that that person’s worst-scenario happening: All of the sudden a Toms shoes truck shows up with a bunch of free shoes.” It puts local artisans out of business, she says–and every other Tom’s copycat has the potential to do the same thing.

“Basically they’re creating companies that give jobs to people in the developed world, while we dump all of this crap in the developing world, effectively ruining their economies that they need so badly at the end of the day,” she says.

Half of the profits from Wade’s new company go entrepreneurial schools in Senegal, where she wants to train others to build lasting local businesses. “This is only a drop in the ocean of need,” she says.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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