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On Sept. 22, the West African nation of Mali celebrated 50 years of independence. Inspired by this momentous occasion, Fox School of Business student and social entrepreneur Mohamed Ali Niang has never had a clearer vision of what he needs to do for his home country.
For more than a year, 22-year-old Niang and his brothers have been building Malo Traders, a company designed to help Malian rice farmers protect and retain more of their crop, boosting their income and alleviating poverty.
Drawing from his successful experiences in four national and international business plan competitions, Niang now has the opportunity to connect and inspire entrepreneurs in Philadelphia, giving back to the community that he says gave him the tools to build his business.
He was recently selected as one of 14 students from across the nation to be part of the first class of student ambassadors for the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, a network of faculty and students who advance invention and innovation in U.S. higher education. Niang will assist in an upcoming Invention2Venture workshop, a one-day workshop that promotes sustainable, environmentally and socially responsible innovations from colleges and universities.
Stronger people, better business
Niang spent the summer in Mali and Senegal conducting a feasibility study for PATH, an international nonprofit organization based in Seattle that creates sustainable solutions for cultures and communities suffering from poor health.
Interviewing nearly 40 government agencies, international organizations, non-governmental organizations and private stakeholders, Niang expanded his original business plan to include the introduction of nutritionally fortified rice into Mali and Senegal.
“It looks like rice, it feels like rice, it tastes like rice,” Niang said, pulling out a small plastic bag full of the white grain. “But it’s fortified with micronutrients that will help infants and the malnourished grow stronger.”
Niang said he is extremely optimistic about partnering with organizations that complement the business and cultural know-how of Malo Traders. With the addition of a health and nutrition component to his business plan, one of Niang’s biggest challenges is finding a team of engineers to help with the nuts and bolts of the operation, such as building factories and storage facilities.
“I still feel the biggest problem that he will face will be that of security and dealing with the government bureaucracy. His planning for transporting the rice is well thought out and easily executed,” said Dwight Carey, one of Niang’s mentors and a professor at Fox and Temple’s School of Engineering. “He is very self confident, as he should be. He is dedicated and bright. He must succeed. This project has important humanitarian possibilities.”
On Oct. 15, Niang traveled to Mexico as a Cordes Fellow to officially pitch Malo Traders to investors for the first time. He was one of 50 participants chosen from a competitive pool of 250 international social entrepreneurs and nonprofit leaders to attend the intensive, four-day Opportunity Collaboration.
A week after he returned, Niang traveled to Ohio State University with Temple’s Center for International Business Education and Research (CIBER) to compete in the International Case Challenge.
Despite his hectic schedule, Niang said each conference and forum is a chance to connect with open-minded peers. “Being on a team and having one day to collaborate and present a business plan helps reinforce my business skills,” he said. “Leveraging different perspectives is the whole premise of social entrepreneurship.”
And his hard work is paying off. For the second year in a row, Malo Traders won first prize in the undergraduate track of Temple’s Innovative Idea Competition. Niang was also selected to be a featured speaker at the 2011 Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale University in April.
A year from now, on the 51st anniversary of Mali’s independence, Niang hopes to be back in his home country, devoting his time to the business that was once just an abstract idea. He plans to move to Mali after he graduates from Fox in the spring, while his brother lobbies for support in the U.S.
“I will be focusing full-time on getting Malo Traders off the ground, gaining credibility and ultimately fighting malnutrition,” he said.
– Julie Achilles