By FRANKIE EDOZIEN
Monday, June 08,
TAMALE, Ghana -
Like many of her friends, Safia Alhassan
spends much of her free time either picking the ripe fruit that have dropped
from the millions of Shea trees dotted around here, or turning the kennels into
been doing this since she was 8 when her grandma showed her the ropes.
Alhassan is happy. Happy that after years of talking and planning, change is finally
coming to how she and her friends do business.
that is sure to bring them more cash.
warehouses are being built for storage of these kernels for women who toil at
the lowest ebb in the Shea industry. And
they get to have them for free.
is used in millions of confectionary products by various companies like the
candy giants Hershey’s and Nestle.
it is more known for its hair and skin nourishment properties in cosmetics from
the likes of L’Occitane
Burt’s Bees, the Body Shop and Sundial.
of us are not able to store our nuts and butter that we produce in bulk,”
Alhassan, 56, said. They end up storing them amidst their other
belongings in their tiny one-room huts.
we have to bathe in our rooms. Sometimes
we cook in the room when it rains. And
with children already one space is being used for so many activities. It is a
really small space to spread the mats in,” she said.
the last decade the Shea industry has nearly doubled in size providing
employment for an estimated 16 million poor and rural women in 21 African
the same time it has gained traction in the West and is now prominently labeled
as a key ingredient in many products.
many of these women here in northern Ghana, collecting the nuts and then making
the butter must not interfere with domestic duties. So pickers here do it
before dawn, so as to be home in time for breakfast and farming.
women don’t own land or property so Shea often is their only income outside of
what their husbands bring in and control.
However the smell of the raw kernels is pungent enough that if a husband
doesn't want too many stored in the home, out it goes.
who heads the Pansung Shea butter processors & Shea nut pickers Association,
a cooperative of 1,600 women, is a Home Economics teacher by day.
knows that even though the women make little money from Shea, they can make
Shea picking is one of the few industries dominated by women:
They pick the fruit, store the nuts, then process them to make butter and soap.
And then they sell them.
But the Shea harvest season is only from May-July, so Alhassan
says it is essential to store nuts somewhere so processing can continue year
Once the season ends, or if the pickings were slim, they cannot
continue processing the butter if there is no place to store them. And so many
have to sell them at rock bottom prices.
they have buy them back at much higher prices so they can process butter later
in the year. Warehouses would a great help to us,” Alhassan added.
2008, the Japanese Embassy gifted Pansung small warehouse spaces and that made
a difference, but only a fraction of the women can access them.
after 24 months of a working group devoted to sustaining Shea that included
buyers, sellers, processors and producers, all brought together by the trade
group, the Global Shea Alliance, (GSA) storage space emerged as the
Number 1 priority.
some 250 100-ton warehouses are being built by the GSA to be donated to women’s
groups in Ghana, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Cote’d’Ivoire and Benin Republic.
$10 million estimate is to be funded by members of GSA.
about 137,000 rural women collectors will be able to store two 85-kilo sacks
annually. And once all 250 warehouses
are in use, in about five years, GSA estimates that at least 25,000 tons or 7
percent of Shea exports from Africa will be traceable.
that makes manufacturers and retailers happy.
alliance is currently run by Joseph Funt, an affable New York transplant who
spent years running a community service organization in Brooklyn before de-camping
to the GSA in 2012.
the project to succeed the team based in Ghana’s cosmopolitan capital Accra, --
270 miles and a 12-hour drive away -- has to ensure that the collectors pick unblemished
us, a big part of empowerment is helping the women's groups sell and earn a higher profit,” Funt, 35 said
GSA spends considerable effort training in the local languages on best
practices in storage, quality collections and even accounting.
“If these groups are going to sell in bulk,
they have to be able to manage contracts." he added.
Funt first arrived in Ghana, GSA’s main funder was the American taxpayer. It
was a small project of the West Africa Trade Hub.
hubs are part of the development strategy of American government funded by the
United States Agency for International Development, (USAID).
most people associate Shea butter with cosmetics, only 10 percent ends up for
cosmetic use. The other 90 percent ends up in confectionaries as a vegetable
the end user is doesn't matter to the women who do the picking as long as more
people want the products.
over two decades, Anna Maria Fati Paul, has worked as a trustee to the
Tungteiya Women’s Association in the nearby hamlet of Mbanaayili, nine miles
is rural village with dirt paths, grazing cows and mud huts. One needs permission from the village chief
before entering and walking around.
said while picking Shea for processing is difficult work, it is also frequently
dangerous, particularly at 4:00 a.m., when the ladies set out.
Shea is ripe, it simply drops off the tree. It is never plucked.
“There is a lot of competition for the
Shea. We have snakes rushing for it. Bats, rushing for it, rats, mice, all the
creatures that you can imagine in the bush all want it because it taste good,” Paul, 74, said.
are always around. In picking one has to be very careful.”
of frequent snakebites, monies the Tungteiya women have earned have gone
towards building the village its first clinic and accommodation for nurses to
medical personnel and teachers have troubling staying over in such rural
settings so Shea earnings have been used to get homes for teachers too.
has been rather successful because for 26-years, the women have been supplying
the Body Shop company. It started slow but now they sell up to 450 metric tons
of butter annually.
women, mostly married mothers, work in an enclosure in which their animals, (fowls
or goats) and little children aren’t allowed inside to ensure the purest form
of Shea gets processed with zero contamination.
a recent visit babies were looked after by older members while the younger
mothers worked. Other children played outside, looking in sometimes, but
forbidden to enter.
women are planning on building their own warehouse and through the GSA have
applied to USAID for matching funds to complete their project. Their hope is to
add another big name buyer.
a major priority for us,” said their community coordinator Thomas Pang, 36. “If
we get bigger buyers then we can produce in larger quantities.”
the women process the butter, -- an arduous traditional process which involves
stirring a concoction for long periods after the nuts have been boiled -- they easily get boils.
African savannah that is home to the Shea tree doesn't necessarily have
unlimited trees. Yes the tree grows wildly across it but they cannot be farmed
tree roots go deep and outward so planting them in an industrial farm setting
is tough. The trees are always in danger of being cut for firewood or charcoal.
Zakaria, a longtime imam at the Tamale Central Mosque points out that youth in
the area often go into the bush to set fires to get rodents to run, so they can
then be easily hunted for food. But
those brush fires he said, harm Shea trees.
annual bush burning affects a lot of the trees and they are unable to produce
to their fullest capacity. It is one of the most disastrous activity that we keep
making noise about but we are unable to stop it,” he said.
officials are also exploring other ways at conservation including encouragement
of inter-cropping. That is encouraging people to plant other crops that thrive
near the Shea trees that way the land is arable and Shea remains
for now Alhassan and others are thinking warehouses, warehouses, warehouses. She is hoping to get assistance for tricycles
so women can go deeper into the forest and pick more nuts. Currently each woman
only picks what she can carry on her head in a small pan.
her, Shea will only survive here if women can earn more from it. That she said
would stop the myriad of young girls who rather than process Shea escape to
urban centers like Accra only “to take menial jobs there.”
@image by Frankie Edozien
Frankie Edozien is a journalist, writer and
academic. He is a media professor with New York University.