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Shea butter

Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s northern savannah, is getting ready for the shea season.

The small bright green fruit, which contain a large, oil rich kernel, have started ripening and falling from the trees. In the markets, the women who trek into the bush to harvest the fruit, and spend up to a month extracting the butter by hand, are selling what is left of last year’s haul at a discount.

The middlemen who have inserted themselves between the women who power the shea industry and the multinational companies increasingly snapping up their products, are scrambling to sell off wizened shea nuts well past their prime before the new crop comes in. About 8km away in a quiet village called Kasalgu, Senyo Kpelly is standing under the tin-roofed platform where around 200 women parboil, roast and grind shea nuts. He is taking a call from Swiss firm Barry Callebaut, the world’s leading producer of bulk chocolate.

Shea butter, more commonly recognised as an ingredient in lipsticks and lotions, has become an increasingly vital ingredient in confectionary. Around 95 percent of all shea products are used by companies such as Nestlé and The Hershey Company as a substitute for cocoa butter, to create the melt-in-your-mouth texture and clean snap consumers associate with good chocolate.

The market for shea butter has doubled in the past 10 years, according to the Global Shea Alliance, which is based in Ghana’s capital, Accra. That demand has sent the price of unrefined shea butter soaring, from around $900 a metric tonne before the year 2000, to an average of $2000 over the past three years. Last year, after a bad harvest, prices reached a high of $4000 a tonne as demand outstripped supply.

The sudden explosion in the shea industry is a boon for northern Ghana, which is home to most of the country’s poorest citizens, and has seen very little of the growth that has lifted the west African country’s economy over the past decade. Many in northern Ghana can still remember the exact - and fairly recent - date the power lines reached their village. Literacy rates are half the national average, and for the vast majority without a university degree or extensive training, jobs are scarce.

Agriculture, which is the only economic activity in much of the north, has been so hard hit by climate change that a wave of migrants – most of them young, unaccompanied women and girls – are flooding into larger cities in search of work, while men and boys stay at home to watch family farms or go to school.

The shea industry has been dominated by women for generations, largely because shea butter is a cooking oil first, and a cosmetic second. Now that the rest of the world is finally catching on, and the shea industry is worth $280m a year, many finally see homegrown economic opportunity for women in Ghana’s northern savannah.

“In our attempt to improve the quality of our shea butter we located shea suppliers and discovered their social issues,” says Mr Kpelly, after ending his call with the Swiss chocolate-maker. Mr Kpelly’s company, Sekaf Ghana, buys nuts from around 3000 women.

In the beginning, “it was hard to get consistent bulk orders, the women did not have the facilities,” he says. In response, the company fused traditional methods and scientific knowledge and built a factory which produces 250 metric tonnes of organic shea butter a year for export to buyers in Europe and the US.

Sekaf also makes Tama Cosmetics, a line of shea butter-based lotions and soaps which are sold largely in Ghana as part of a plan to add value to the raw material in an industry with serious limits. “The trees are not domesticated, so we cannot increase the quantity to meet demand,” says Mr Kpelly. As a result: “Shea will remain a niche market, it cannot go into the mass market.”

Other companies, like The Savannah Fruits Company, focus squarely on that niche, producing fair trade and organic shea butter with an emphasis on preserving shea trees, which grow in the wild, and can take up to 25 years to start fully fruiting. “It is a good thing for communities, they see the value of the shea trees, some of them cut them down for firewood,” says Diana Banuro, general manager of the Savannah Fruits Company, which works with about 7000 women.

In 2014, the company exported about 40 shipping containers of processed shea butter to the Netherlands, where it was refined and sold to cosmetics companies. At present, there are no shea refineries in Africa.

“There has been increasing demand, but also an increasing number of players, so the supply of nuts is a bit tight,” says Mr Banuro.

Ghana is the third biggest producer of shea products in the world - after Nigeria and Mali - exporting around 60,000 metric tonnes of shea nuts every year. Until the industry was liberalised in 1992, the government of Ghana bought and exported all shea nuts, according to Vincent Anchirinah, manager of the Shea Unit at the Ghana Cocoa Board.

There are currently plans to set up an independent Shea Board to establish floor prices, and to conduct much needed research. The government has already invested more than $800,000 in a plantation of 1 million high-yield seedlings over 5 acres of savannah. Researchers are hoping a new grafting technique will reduce the time it takes shea trees to bear fruit to just six years.

Empowering women?

There are parallels between the growth in the shea market and other valuable oils such as Moroccan argan oil, and Kenyan marula oil. All these products have been produced by women in poor, rural areas for generations. Improving quality, encouraging demand and increasing production is widely seen as a way to alleviate poverty.

Moroccan argan oil sells up to $400 a litre around the world and is used for everything from hair products to salad dressing. The oil is traditionally produced by Berber women, and as demand has soared, non-governmental organisations and government initiatives have helped organise producers into co-operatives designed to give poorer women in rural areas a chance to earn a living. The industry now provides an income for up to three million people in Morocco.

Marula fruit has always been harvested by women all over southern Africa. Until the late 1990s, the fruit was largely used to make Amarula, the South African cream liqueur made by multinational brewer Distell. In 1999 a women’s co-operative began selling the oil extracted from marula kernels to the cosmetics industry and within a decade, retailer the Body Shop was using marula oil in over 140 products.

In Ghana, “One hundred percent of the shea industry is women,” says Fatima Alimohamed, the outgoing general manager of Ghana Specialty Fats Industries, which is owned by Singaporean firm Wilmar International. Wilmar, the biggest edible oil trader in the world, processes over 30,000 tonnes of shea nuts every year in its factory in Ghana's port city Tema.

However, the system may not be as beneficial to poor women as the industry would like to portray: “Women hardly get the money because the middle men tend to take it,” Ms Alimohamed says.

Still, she sees the growth of the industry as beneficial for these producers. “Right now it is really making a difference. Even though they are not making 100 percent of the money, they are benefiting from the demand,” she says. “The challenge is how to remove the middlemen,” so that more financial benefits accrue to the women driving the process.

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