Women Who Work: Ghana’s Shea Butter Industry

Women, at all different points in the process, sit chatting and kneading the shea butter. In the center, the basin with a white version of shea butter is near the stage prior to boiling.

Around 20 women sat in rows underneath the shade of a nearby tree using their bare arms as blenders during the kneading process of making shea butter.

These women were just some of the 16 million women across Africa involved in collecting and processing shea. The process starts with the women who pluck the shea fruit from trees, competing with snakes who feed on the shea fruits and risking snake bites.

After peeling the fruits, the remaining nuts are sold to processing centers like this one where the nuts are washed, crushed, roasted, kneaded, and boiled. The entire process of creating shea butter, from the green fruit to the creamy yellow butter, can take around three to four days, according to Cynthia Doubureh, 26, a packaging officer at the Tiehisuma Shea Butter Processing Centre.

The price of shea butter was around $1.50 per two pounds and three ounces in the past, which is around GHC 6 per one kilogram, according to Doubureh, but prices fluctuate.

Cynthia Doubureh, 26, a packaging officer at the Tiehisuma Shea Butter Processing Centre for three years, describes a final step of the shea butter process. The final version of shea butter is thick and creamy. Within a few hours, it hardens in its plastic packaging.

Grace Perkins, 23, of the Global Shea Alliance echoed that uncertainty.

“Prices are determined by markets for those products and subject to numerous factors including location, time of the year, production of trees, global demand,” said Perkins in an email.

The GSA is a non-profit which aims to eliminate the middle-man between corporations who want the shea butter and the women who are processing it.

Oftentimes women who are picking the shea “are being exploited by private buyers who count on the ignorance of women on the price of the nuts in the world market,” said Dr. Wolfram Laube to Ghana Web.

“Our objective is to empower women’s groups through the provision of warehouses and business development training so they can achieve greater profit in the supply chain,” said Perkins, who has been the communications manager at GSA for one year.

Large basins filled with unfinished shea sit to cool while the smell of chocolate lifts off the surface from a warm breeze. Shea butter can be used as a substitute for cocoa butter.

In addition to ensuring women are earning their fair share of the profits, the GSA plans to take part in the conservation effort of shea trees to keep the industry alive.

“The decline of tree populations in Africa is a serious issue and a threat to the long-term sustainability of shea,” said Perkins.

To conserve and grow trees that can quickly bear fruit, the non-profit is teaching women how to attach branches from grown trees to younger trees. This method, called grafting, helps trees bear fruit in two to five years, compared to 20 without grafting, explained Aaron Adu, also of the GSA.

The industry has untapped potential for exports in African countries with shea. About 650,000 tons of shea kernels are processed, while 40 percent are exported.

This is a theme across all of agriculture. Instead of exporting shea and other readily grown food products, Ghana has a high food import bill.

The goal is to cut down on the food import bill, according to Nelson Akatey, 49, a public relations officer at the Ministry of Agriculture. The ministry wants to “create an environment that will promote the sector [of agriculture].”

But to promote the sector, specifically in shea, it must start at the root of production with the women. At the processing centre, one woman, wearing an orange and purple dress, kneaded the shea butter with her arm, smooth from the shea butter, while simultaneously breastfeeding her toddler girl. After, the woman laughed and cooed to keep her daughter entertained while stretched out on a piece of cardboard.

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