GUINGOUINE (AFP) - Leaving behind chic gowns and catwalks to stomp in the mud in heavy work boots, Guinean former fashion model Tiguidanke Camara has made herself west Africa s first woman mine owner.
In the small forest village of Guingouine, in the west of Ivory Coast, Camara runs a team of 10 geologists and labourers who are probing the soil for gold deposits.
She readily wades into a mucky pond to help take laboratory samples.
"When I was a model, I showed off for the jewellers. They have licences in Africa to provide their precious stones," says Camara amid a swarm of gnats, still youthful and trim in her 40s.
She does not recall any macho male resistance to her rise in an industry almost devoid of women, though bemused men have been prompted on occasion to ask whose assistant she might be.
"When it got too much one day, I had to produce my CEO s ID badge!" she protests mildly.
Camara says that modelling for jewellery firms "roused my curiosity. I started to ask myself questions. What if African men or women took charge of business in the mining sector?"
"I m the answer to that question," declares the entrepreneur, who has been ranked by France s weekly Jeune Afrique among the 50 most influential businesswomen of Francophone Africa.
Inspired to join forces, she and a number of other women last year created an association of Women in the Mining Network of Ivory Coast (Femici by its French acronym), while Camara is also seen as an example to village girls.
We lack everything
Camara had to dig deep into savings -- earned on runways for big international fashion labels and jewellery brands and in promoting the wares of luxury design houses -- to launch her Tigui Mining Group in 2010 and acquire two licences to prospect for gold in her homeland.
Then last year she followed up with a mining concession to look for gold in Ivory Coast, which she has turned into "my base in west Africa".
"I m the owner of a mining company that belongs to me 100 percent," says Tigui s founder, stressing that she is a continental rarity, "apart from South Africa, where there are other women bosses, but mostly in partnerships."
In Guingouine, inhabitants have started to dream of the big changes that could benefit the village if the site proves to be rich in gold and a mine is opened.
"Guingouine means happiness (in the local Yacouba language), but we lack everything," says village chief Alphonse Doh, clad in his traditional blue and white robe.
"The school of six classes is a shed without electricity. Women in labour have to be taken in wheelbarrows 10 kilometres (six miles) to the nearest health centre," Doh explains.
For the chief, opening a mine could transform the lives of thousands of people. Apart from the potential economic gains, he also hopes that Tiguidanke Camara may serve as a successful role model in a region where more than 80 percent of girls are illiterate.
In the meantime, the "mining lady" has encouraged the women of the village to form a cooperative, providing them with agricultural equipment and two solar panels.
"We are very pleased with this cooperation," says Elise Kpan, who runs the Women of Guingouine association. The cooperative has enabled villagers "to place their farming produce on the market easily and to make money".
Future growth sector
The mining sector, dominated by the production of manganese (two mines) and gold (five mines) has been growing for a decade in Ivory Coast.
Current activity accounts for five percent of the gross domestic product of the country, which also has diamonds, iron, nickel, bauxite and copper.
Women are poorly represented in Ivorian mining, where they account for just 112 of some 6,000 jobs directly involved in the sector and about 400 of the 30,000 connected secondary jobs.
Concerned women have bonded to improve this state of affairs. The newly launched Femici association pools the resources of women professionals as diverse as geologists, drivers of heavy industrial vehicles, lawyers and environmental specialists.
"Mining activity is a future growth sector that will attract many women," says Christine Logbo-Kossi, director of the Professional Group of Mines in Ivory Coast, the only employers organisation in the industry, founded in 2008.
"If I flourish in the mining sector, it s because I have benefitted from the welcome that men gave me," Camara says.
Asked what quality most helps women succeed in business, she is quick to say: "Passion."