June 23, 2014 - At 4 p.m. on a dry Friday afternoon in Mbanayili, a remote village in northern Ghana, two women sit together and vigorously knead shea butter in large mixing bowls. The paste thumps as the women rhythmically churn the butter in swooping circular motions. With synchronized movement and uninterrupted concentration, they aerate the thick chocolate-colored paste until it is smooth.
As the women knead, patches of sunlight slowly shrink on the courtyard of Mbanayili’s outdoor shea butter processing center. Mbanayili is one of 11 Ghanaian rural communities working with the Tunteiya Shea Butter Association, established in 1994 to promote the production of quality shea butter for both local usage and international export.
Shea butter, a solid, yellow fatty substance used as a main ingredient in food and cosmetic products worldwide, is in high demand. The sustainability of the shea industry depends upon the commitment of the women shea nut collectors. In turn, the women’s future depends upon the success of the industry.
The economic empowerment of women collectors in rural communities is a key objective of the Global Shea Alliance (GSA) Sustainability Program, launched in March 2014 in consultation with women’s groups and partnering international food and cosmetic brands.
“We feel that the economic benefit for the women can be greatly improved,” explains Joseph Funt, 35, managing director of GSA. “If they’re not getting a good enough part of the profit, the incentive for them is too low.”
GSA offers training in shea nut processing, cooperative organization and shea kernel aggregation. In 2014, GSA trained 35,000 women, approximately 22,500 more than the year before. “Our goal in the next five years is to train more than 150,000 women,” Funt says.
The construction of 250 (100 ton) warehouses within the next five years is expected to dramatically increase production by creating greater shea nut storage capacity. The warehouses will benefit approximately 138,000 rural women who would otherwise have to store large quantities of shea nuts in the inadequate space of community facilities.
With funding from the Northern Ghana Community Action Fund (NOGCAF), Tunteiya plans to construct a warehouse in the Mbanayili community. The storage space is expected to increase production levels of shea butter.
Trainings on contract management will provide women collectors with the skills and authority to sell their shea supply directly to large-scale buyers without middleman, who demand a fee, reducing the profit to the collectors. According to Aaron Adu, assistant director of GSA, the program will provide the women with better access to international markets and increase their income between 25 and 50 percent.
The Body Shop is the Tunteiya women’s only big buyer, placing up to 24 19-ton orders of shea butter per year. “We are looking for more buyers,” explains Thomas Kofi Pang, 35, Tunteiya community coordinator. “The women think they can produce more than twice of what they are supplying to the Body Shop currently.”
“There has been a very big improvement in the economic state of these women,” says Anna-Maria Fati Paul, 73, chairperson NOGCAF. “When we started, the poverty among them was very high.”
Afishetu Yakubu, 48, a longtime shea nut picker, reflects on the economic benefits of her Tunteiya membership. “In my house, if I don’t have maize, I just go to the market and buy two or three boxes for my husband,” she says.
As the sun falls behind the walls of Mbanayili’s processing center, the women add water to the thick brown paste. “We are now enjoying a good life and a good family,” Yakubu concludes.