Gabrielle and Mohamed

Gabrielle J., 22, and Mohamed N., 23, both 2nd year students at ESCPI ParisTech, are part of the winning team for the Team Total Go For It Grant: Tofu Solidaire. Interview with two combative and generous students…


What was the origin of the idea behind the project?


G.J. We are a team of 12 students all in the same year and all members of an association within the school ‘PC (Physics-Chemistry) Helping Hand’, that has for its vocation to build long term development projects. In January 2014, we decided to support a group of thirty artisan tofu producers, a sort of cheese made from soybean milk, in Djougou, Benin. The idea behind it is to help the women who make the tofu create a cooperative in order to coordinate themselves better and improve production. As is stands, each of them rents the equipment needed in order to produce individually, or they manage with the readily available tools (soybean pressing between two large stones).


M.N. Originally from Djougou, where I grew up until the age of 17, I am fully aware of the difficulties faced by the people who live there. We chose Benin because the various contacts I have there made the approach easier. We opted for the ‘Tofu Solidaire’ project, amongst other development ventures, because it was what we considered to be the most viable and the most pertinent choice. A real alternative to meat and often too expensive, tofu is a food that has become more and more in demand due to its nutritional content.


How was the project set up?


G.J. In August 2014, two of us went on our first trip to Benin, during which time we met up with the women to establish their needs. We decided to structure our course of action around four important stages. Firstly, to establish a cooperative. Secondly, to purchase a premises in order to centralise the production. Thirdly, to buy several mills and to build an oven. Finally, to make a mechanical press in order to obtain the soybean paste and therefore the final product.


M.N. This fact finding trip was a chance to hear the requests of the women and to take a first look at some of the possible obstacles facing us. When we got back we set about making up a plan of action, writing up a press release and establishing a provisional budget closely followed by a campaign in order to seek funding.


How did your application for the Team Total Go For It Grant come about?


G.J. The Team Total Go For It Grant is one of the most sought after grants available to students. In January, we decided to try our luck. We brought together as many people as we could from the school as well as people close to us in order to rally up enough votes online. At the beginning of March, we found out we had been selected to go through to the final. Five of us came to head office in La Défense to present our project to Total in front of a jury made up of people from the Human Resources department and from Total Campus. We were a little taken aback by some of the questions, such as “Are you not afraid of saturating the local tofu market?”. But all in all we managed to answer most of the tricky questions well and in April learned of our victory!


M.N. To set ourselves apart from the others, we wanted to convince Total Campus that our project was both solid and sustainable by going into detail about each of the different stages. We also put importance into the organization of our team, each phase assigned to a small team of two people, both if whom were given precise tasks to carry out. I, myself, was project leader, Gabrielle, in charge of communications and external relations (namely via Facebook, Twitter and a blog). Weekly meetings have been planned as well as a decision making committee made up of five members who oversee everything.


What is the next step for Tofu Solidaire over the coming months?


G.J. The grant we have received has been an enormous help towards a total budget of 7.000€! The cooperative was formed back in April during our second visit, the amount of money is enough to see us through our third trip in February 2016, to pay for premises, various equipment and the construction materials needed to build the press. We count on keeping Total informed of any developments made through regular activity reports and photographs.


M.N. We would like to outline the importance of building to the largest scale possible in collaboration with local artisans, certain material devised by ourselves (oven, press…). We also have the mills to purchase and the people who are going to use them to train. Everything needs to be installed in the premises dedicated to the cooperative (currently being negotiated). Over and above the financial aspect we hope to have established a long term partnership with Total. We have, moreover, invited one member of the Total Campus team to join our follow-up committee, made up of former students who have invested time in the project and a lecturer from the school.