By Abigail Salisbury, KF12, Senegal
We all know the story of Marie Antoinette’s callous response upon being told that the people of France had no bread, right? “Let them eat cake!” Except she never actually said that, and the attributed saying didn’t involve cake, it referred to brioche, a rich bread made with eggs and butter. Well, when Senegalese bakers went on strike this week, the only alternative really was eating brioche, and it made me think a bit about the limitations of microfinance.
Because Senegal spent many years under French rule, elements of French culture are visible in many aspects of daily life. That staple of French cuisine, the baguette, is also vital to Senegalese people, and the price and weight of this basic food is set by the government. This system helps to keep food affordable, but the problem is that the cost of flour goes higher and higher, but bakers are not free to raise the prices of their bread accordingly, so that what is already a razor-thin profit margin gets smaller every day.
A week ago, people living in the capital city of Dakar awoke to find that there were no baguettes to be had, because the bakers had gone on strike in an effort to make the government raise the price of that basic bread from 150 CFA to 200 CFA (from 30 cents to 40 cents U.S.) in response to increased flour costs. I am told that a few bakers chose to continue producing regular baguettes during the strike, but in my neighborhood the only bread available really was brioche. Bakers resumed production of baguettes after four days, and talks continue on possible price adjustments.
Reflecting on the bakers’ strike, I tried to think about whether microfinance could help their businesses. When we were trained at Kiva headquarters in San Francisco, we were taught that it is a popular misconception that microfinance is for the poorest of the poor, because it is not a cure for all types of poverty. When the price and exact nature of your product are set by the government, it seems to me that there is little room for creative business maneuvering, whether you have access to capital or not.