How Magatte Wade is Waging War on Poverty in Africa

Behind every successful entrepreneur is a cause or passion that pushes them to persevere even though the toughest situations. For Richard Branson, his desire to create a more reliable and affordable air travel experience for consumers helped him navigate the exhaustive regulatory hurdles that stood in the way of creating Virgin Airlines. For Dr. Devi Shetty, his desire to make heart surgery more accessible to the masses fueled him as he used economies of scale to create surgical centers that now bring life-saving procedures to more people than ever before.

But for Senegalese-born Magatte Wade, her passion for business is driven by her desire to demonstrate firsthand the role entrepreneurship plays in creating prosperity.

In addition to bringing high-end, organically made skincare products to consumers via her company Skin Is Skin, which will soon be sold in select Whole Foods locations, Wade, as she explained in a popular Ted Talk, wanted to bring something else to the world: the antidote to poverty.

Wade was born in Senegal in a small fishing village south of Dakar in 1976. Her parents moved to Europe for work shortly after she was born, so Wade was raised primarily by her grandmother for the first several years of her life.

After leaving Senegal as a girl to live with her parents in France, Wade was immediately struck by the differences between her new home and her home country. She was puzzled as to why one region of the world was so prosperous, while another was struggling with extreme poverty.

In the documentary Made in Mékhé, produced by the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), Wade commented:

Why is it that a couple decades ago, China, for example, was at the same level as many African countries. And yet today … countries like Singapore made it, countries like Hong Kong made it. Even a place like Dubai, bare land of sand—desert sand—and then all of the sudden within 12 or 15 years Dubai is one of the financial centers of the world. What happened?

The question took root and would eventually shape her career.

The difference, Wade came to believe, boiled down to a single word: entrepreneurship. She noticed that in wealthier nations, commerce and trade are allowed to occur and even encouraged. In places like Hong Kong and Dubai, she saw, it was much easier for individuals to start and operate a business than it was in her own country. And more business means more economic opportunities for the entire country.

Each year, the Fraser Institute, as well as other organizations like the World Bank, releases a report that ranks each country by their degree of economic freedom. According to the 2018 annual report, Senegal ranked 125 out of 162 countries. Hong Kong, on the other hand, leads the world in economic freedom, besting America by five spots.

Starting a business might not seem linked to economic prosperity at first glance, but it’s through the formation of new companies that new jobs are created.

Starting a business might not seem inextricably linked to economic prosperity at first glance, but it is through the formation of new companies that new jobs are created. And with more employment opportunities comes the ability for more people to improve their circumstances and rise out of poverty.

In many African countries, and especially Senegal, excessive regulations prevent many would-be entrepreneurs from starting businesses and not only bettering their own lives but also the lives of those for whom they are creating new employment opportunities. And without a robust job market, many are forced to take on dangerous trades.

In Wade’s hometown, there are few jobs available for those wanting to break the cycle of poverty. As a result, many young men eager to provide for themselves are left with no other option than to take positions as fishermen, leaving their homes and families for shoddy vessels. Many never return.

“Some of my most entrepreneurial people … are right now serving as fish food at the bottom of the ocean,” Wade tearfully told an audience recently.

I grew up with stories of people dying at sea. Why? Because they had to leave their country because there are not enough jobs, and why are there not enough jobs? Because the business climate sucks.

Wade came to believe the only way to change the situation at home would be to take on the challenge herself and bring the manufacturing of her products to Senegal.

Of her company, Skin Is Skin, Wade often says that it was born in Austin, Texas, and made in Mékhé, as Wade splits her time between those two places. Recognizing full well how regulation was inhibiting her country’s economic well-being, she decided to brave the bureaucratic storm and navigate through a sea of red tape to bring the production of her skincare products to Mékhé. Since she only uses the best available ingredients for her products, she imports many that she can’t find within her country from elsewhere, which means everything she purchases is subject to a 45 percent tariff. That alone causes huge financial strains, but Wade has persisted nevertheless.

Skincare products might not seem revolutionary, but workers employed by Skin Is Skin say it has been life-changing.

Production manager Ibrahima N’Dour lived in a small one-bedroom house with his wife and their five children before he was hired. At night while they slept, three people would crawl into bed while the rest lay next to each other on the floor, he says. After being hired by Wade, whom he considers family, N’Dour was able to move his family into a bigger home where his children have space to play and beds to sleep in at night. N’Dour is not the only one who has bettered his circumstances thanks to Wade’s entrepreneurship. In addition to economic prosperity, employment gives individuals a sense of dignity and self-sufficiency that helps them lead more fulfilling lives.

Traditionally, in Mékhé, the women stay home while the men go off to fish or farm. This is just the way it has always been. Adji Maria had never held a job before meeting Wade. Now employed at Skin Is Skin, she has been able to provide not only for herself but also for her entire family. Her work has helped her gain a sense of independence she would not have had otherwise.

In addition to economic prosperity, employment gives individuals a sense of dignity and self-sufficiency that helps them lead more fulfilling lives. Mame Mareme Cisse, another female employee at Skin Is Skin, explains, “This work has changed a lot in my life. Now I can provide everything I need for myself without having to ask anyone for it.”

The jobs created by Wade’s company are not limited strictly to the manufacturing of the actual skincare products, however. She is also helping other local businesses survive the harsh economic climate of Senegal. Each Skin Is Skin product comes in a hand-sewn leather bag made by CAWAAN, a family-run Senegalese company that has been making handmade leather goods for five generations.

CAWAAN, like Wade, has struggled to obtain the goods they need to offer quality consumer goods because of high tariffs. Understanding these difficulties firsthand, Wade has continued to use CAWAAN. The company has said that Wade’s commitment to their businesses has “encouraged us to work hard and optimize everything.”

Through one small business, Wade has been able to transform the lives of many living in Mékhé and encourage more commerce to occur.

Above all, Wade holds that in order to break the cycle of poverty you must strike at the heart of the problem. She believes the real problem is unemployment caused by barriers to entrepreneurship in Africa. And when it comes to doing what she can to remedy the problem, she is not content to merely stop at Skin Is Skin.

Wade recently created a new school curriculum in Senegal to promote entrepreneurial skills to young people.

Wade has been working closely with the mayor of Mékhé—whose name is coincidentally also Magatte Wade—to provide and support more opportunities for farming, energy, training, and educational ventures. She recently created a new school curriculum in Senegal to promote entrepreneurial skills to young people by teaching children the power of business and entrepreneurship.

“I never woke up one day and said, ‘Ohh, I am going to become an entrepreneur,’” said Wade, who was recently named director of the new Center for African Prosperity. “I think what happened for me is what happened to a lot of entrepreneurs and businesspeople. I think a lot of founders, the way they get into starting a business is they see something that sucks or they get inspired by something that’s awesome.”

Brittany Hunter is a senior writer for the Foundation for Economic Education. Additionally, she is a co-host of Beltway Banthas, a podcast that combines Star Wars and politics. Brittany believes that the most effective way to promote individual liberty and free-market economics is by telling timely stories that highlight timeless principles. 

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Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore