(All photos by Sarah Watson)
By Akinyi Ochieng
I knew it was used in cosmetics. But chocolate and medicine?
Before I started working with the Global Shea Alliance in Accra, Ghana, I was familiar with shea as a cosmetic product.
So I was surprised to learn that shea — from the tree of the same name — is mostly consumed in chocolate, and in Africa’s Sahel region it is used as a vegetable oil. Butter from the tree’s nuts is even used as an anti-inflammatory balm and to treat dermatitis.
Shea plays a critical role in West Africa’s economy. In the cosmetics industry, shea is well known for its excellent moisturizing properties and has become a popular go-to for hair and body products.
In the chocolate industry, shea is used as a cocoa butter equivalent (CBE) because it helps prolong chocolate’s shelf life without altering its taste.
As shea’s reputation grows in the food and cosmetics industries, it has the potential to substantially drive regional growth, especially in under-resourced communities, where shea can account for up to 12 percent of a family’s income.
Shea comes from shea trees, which grow in a belt that stretches across 21 African countries from Senegal to South Sudan. In the dry, arid Sahel region, shea is a critical source of income and nutrition. The fresh, green fruit serves as a sweet treat for shea communities where it is eaten raw. Shea can even be transformed into ice cream!
Local people use shea oil to cook but also sell the dried kernel — sometimes transformed into shea butter — to regional and international suppliers, brands and retailers.
Collected by over 16 million rural women, shea is known as “women’s gold.” Women collect fresh fruit that falls from the millions of shea trees across the region. Inside the fruit is the shea nut, which the women dry to expose the shea kernel. Through boiling and roasting, they process the kernel into shea butter.
In the last 10 years, as the European Union changed its regulations to permit the inclusion of CBEs like shea in chocolate, the shea market has grown by more than 1,200 percent. As large countries like the United States consider changing their chocolate policies, the market for shea has the potential to grow exponentially, so it’s important that women who form the base of the industry are a part of this growth.
In conventional shea markets, traders travel the region to purchase kernels from individual women in rural communities. But without access to market information and with little bargaining power, these women become price-takers.
We can change this dynamic by empowering the women through organizing them into cooperatives, facilitating access to warehouses where they can aggregate their kernels and providing training in business development, health and safety.
When women are able to aggregate shea kernels in large volumes, they have greater leverage that enables them to reach out directly to buyers and demand a fair price. Business development training helps teach the women how to manage a warehouse, negotiate and adhere to contracts, and handle group dynamics.
Shea has a story too fascinating to go untold.
To ensure that shea collectors and processors have safe and decent working conditions, buyers should help provide them health and safety equipment to prevent snakebites and boiling burns.
Not only is shea a key ingredient in some of my favorite products from African brands like Naya Naturals and TAMA Cosmetics, and international brands like The Body Shop, Shea Moisture, and L’Occitane, but it also has a big development impact. Shea touches on myriad areas: women’s empowerment, economic empowerment, food security and sustainable agriculture.
For most consumers, it’s easy to become detached from the stories behind the products we purchase, but shea has a story too fascinating to go untold.
As a staunch supporter of women’s rights, I’m happy that more companies in the shea industry are pursuing sustainable business practices — and helping me put my money where my mouth is.
Akinyi Ochieng is a writer and researcher of Gambian and Kenyan origin who studies the culture and politics of emerging markets. She holds a degree from Yale University, where she won an award for her research on Africa. She currently works in Accra for a local NGO as part of the Princeton in Africa Fellowship. You can follow her on Twitter @kikiochieng or on her blog..