Wild Shea Tree Benifitting Burkina Faso: Women Engaged In Shea Sector Gain From Trade In ‘Shea Butter'
‘Karité’ in local Dioula language- commonly known as Shea to the world is termed as “women’s gold” by the villagers in Burkina Faso, a country situated in West Africa with a population of 13,902,972 (July 2006 est.). Burkina is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world. The population of women in Burkina Faso is 6,982,128 (July 2006 est.) and a large number of them, approximately 300,000 to 400,000 (more than 50 percent), are engaged in Shea related activities.
Shea related activities mainly include collecting the nuts of shea tree and processing the nuts by crushing and grinding to yield ‘Shea butter’, a commonly used vegetable fat. Shea butter has long been a useful ingredient in local foods and soap, but its qualities also make it a valuable export, for use in the manufacture of chocolate and cosmetics. The tree grows throughout the semi-arid Sahel region of West Africa, but the largest concentration is in Burkina Faso, where exports of shea butter and unprocessed shea kernels brought in CFA5 bn ($7 mn) in 2000, making it the country's third most important export, after cotton and livestock.
The harvesting and processing of shea is primarily an activity of rural women. Shea generally grows wild, with little need for any special cultivation or nourishment. Almost all parts of the tree have some practical use. The bark is an ingredient in traditional medicines against certain childhood ailments and minor scrapes and cuts. The shell of the nuts can repel mosquitoes. Above all, the fruity part of the nut, when crushed, yields a vegetable oil that can be used in cooking, soap-making and skin and hair care. Harvesting the nuts and making the butter have traditionally been women's work. A single kilo of butter requires more than 22 different steps and six hours of hard labour of women involved in processing the nuts. Men usually are involved only in transport and marketing.
Unprocessed shea nuts have been exported to Europe for decades, primarily for the manufacture of chocolate in Switzerland and the UK. During the 1970s and the first half of the 1980s, Burkina's earnings from shea exports came in second, after cotton. But the world price for shea nuts plunged in 1986-87, and the quality of Burkina's output declined as well, bringing a reduction in its share of the world market. By 1990, Burkina was exporting only 22,000 tonnes, just a tiny fraction of the shea nuts grown each year.
The government's adoption of structural adjustment policies in the early 1990s further disrupted the harvesting of the nuts and the marketing of shea products. Liberalization of agricultural marketing, through elimination of the price stabilization board, brought considerable instability to domestic trade and left the sector as a whole poorly organized.
Impact of structural adjustment
Theoretically, the devaluation of the CFA franc in 1994 might have made it possible for local producers of shea nuts and butter to earn more from exports. But Burkinabè women were in an especially weak position to take advantage of any new economic opportunities. An estimated 88 per cent of rural women are illiterate, and have limited technical skills to improve the quality of their butter or acquire information about market trends. Even when they do have the skills or knowledge, few women have access to formal credit to purchase shea butter presses or to better promote their products.
Burkina's structural adjustment programme placed a heavy emphasis on exports, but throughout the 1990s the main focus was on cotton and shea exports were thoroughly neglected.
In 1994, the Burkina government was forced to announce certain relief measures for the Burkinabé people as structural adjustment and devaluation had devastated and destroyed livelihoods of numerous poor families in the country. As living conditions worsened for many Burkinabè under the impact of fiscal and financial reforms, the government announced "six commitments" to help the poor and ensure environmental sustainability. One of the commitments specifically highlighted the potential for promoting women's economic empowerment through development of the shea sector.
The government sought help from NGOs, civil societies and other donors to come forward and help the rural women engaged in the shea sector. In response to government appeals for assistance, a number of external non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and bilateral donors began to support various projects. One of the first initiatives was the Projet national karité (PNK, National Shea Project), launched in 1995 with financial and technical assistance from the Centre canadien d'étude et de coopération internationale (CECI), a Canadian NGO. By the end of 1999, Taiwan also came in with a funding of about CFA1 bn ($1.4 mn).
Role of UNIFEM
In the year 1997, UNIFEM's West Africa regional office, headquartered in Dakar, Senegal, sent a mission to Burkina at the government's request. It found that despite the PNK and other shea projects, women still did not have secure access to means of production. It was then that UNIFEM became directly involved, specifically to help women's groups bolster their ability to produce shea butter and to link them up with potential export markets.
Because of the proliferation of shea projects, the government decided the following year to establish a coordinating committee to ensure that the different donor institutions did not operate at cross-purposes or duplicate efforts. The committee enjoys a high political profile, functioning directly under the authority of Ms. Gisèle Guigma, the then minister of women's advancement.
Unifem conducted its own research to identify the problems and prospects involved for the women in this sector. The researchers confirmed that for women producers, the greatest potential income lies in the production and marketing of shea butter, rather than the raw nuts.
In 1997, a tonne of unprocessed shea nuts sold domestically for CFA70,000 (US$ 980) and externally for CFA1,00,000 (US$ 1400). But the same tonne, when processed into shea butter, fetched CFA1,48,000 (US$ 2072). In fact, while a kilo of butter sold locally yield an equivalent of 60 cents for the women, the same quantity sold elsewhere brings in twice, and even three times that amount on the fair-trade market!
Such earnings were possible as several foreign cosmetics firms began using shea butter in their lotions, creams, soaps and other products, including L'Oreal and the Body Shop. UNIFEM also acted as facilitator in striking a particularly important deal with L'Occitane, a French cosmetics company. Unlike most firms, L'Occitane does not use intermediaries, but buys its shea butter directly from the Union des groupements Kiswendsida (UGK), a network of more than 100 shea groups. This ensures that a greater share of the revenue goes to the producers, instead of middlemen. In 2001, L'Occitane contracted for 60 tonnes of shea butter, that increased to 90 tonnes in 2002. In addition, it provides the women with training in quality control and pays for the shea butter in advance, giving them greater economic security during the production phase.
Such regular and certain source of income to women engaged in shea butter production has imparted a certain sense of self-respect among the workers. It has also helped the women producers earn the respect of their family and the right to speak out in the community.
Apart from its use in cosmetics, shea butter has become an important ingredient in chocolates. Despite its cost, shea butter is particularly favoured because it complements cocoa very well. This has expanded the market for shea butter in to the European region as well. The cosmetics industry in France and Canada alongwith the chocolate industries in Europe are important client for this product. Again such support of Northern consumers is clearly crucial to the producers’ profits and to the improvement in their quality of life.
In Burkina, the provinces of Sissili and Ziro are one of the major areas of production of shea butter. In Sissili one-third of rural women are engaged in shea production. Shea butter producers, working as a group within the Union des groupements des produits de karité (UGPPK), number more than 1,200 in these provinces.
The Union’s role is to commercialize its members’ products at more favourable prices and to establish stable relations with international clients. Since its creation in 2001, the Union – an initiative of 18 women’s associations, supported by CECI – has helped improve the quality of shea butter, lighten the workload through the purchase of semi-automated equipment, and obtain the guaranteed fair-trade certification by the Max Havelaar label.
Gains from Fair trade
Fair-trade certification has increased the minimum guaranteed per-kilo price, and those profits go directly into the pockets of the producers. “The minimum price has risen from 500 CFA francs (US$1.15) for conventional butter to 1,198 CFA francs ($US2.80) for fair-trade butter.
A Northern consumer who purchases fair-trade butter is giving the producers’ children a chance to go to school, eat at least one meal per day, and receive medical care. Furthermore, a 30-cent premium on each kilo sold is paid to the UGPPK for social purposes,” says the Coop’s manager, Abou Tagnan. For example, the 2005-2006 fair-trade premium enabled the purchase of school supplies for orphans of HIV/AIDS and the opening of two literacy centres.
UGPPK also engages itself to find out new clients for the sector in Europe and North America. It hopes to soon reach a 120 tons production, which is the minimum threshold of profitability and, in the medium term, reach 200 tons per year, their maximum capacity, which would allow each producer to earn an annual income of at least US $300. The Union also hopes to strengthen commercial ties with Canada with assistance from CECI. This Coop is one of the pioneers of the shea butter industry in Burkina Faso.
According to Ms. Antoinette Ouédraogo, a shea producers' representative, the women's groups can also conquer new markets closer to home, within Burkina and in neighbouring countries. She notes that Burkina's annual shea nut output may be around 850,000 tons (the highest anywhere in the world), but only some 50,000 tons are currently being harvested.
"Linking women producers to global markets of shea butter is one way to strengthen and build women's economic security," notes Ms. Heyzer. Their economic position is enhanced not only through the additional income they earn, but also through the technical skills and organizational capacities they acquire.
All assistance to the women flows through their own local associations. As of November 2000, there were estimated to be more than 1,300 women shea producers' organizations, covering about half the country's provinces. In some areas, a very sizeable proportion of women belong to such groups Through these producers' groups, women are able to pool their resources to purchase simple presses, greatly reducing the amount of time and labour required to crush the shea nuts. They receive technical training to achieve the standards of quality for shea butter required by foreign buyers, and are able to make marketing contacts through periodic trade fairs.
Apart from the gain in their economic positions, women in the shea sector also get assistance to improve their skills and also attend literacy classes. Illiteracy, as mentioned earlier is very high among women working in the shea sector. In fact in whole of Burkina Faso, literacy levels are as low as below 15 percent! In such circumstances, women benefiting in terms of getteing literate is also a fair gain from working in the production of shea butter. According to Ms. Fati Bougouma, head of the PNK project, women participating in the shea groups attend literacy classes in Mooré and Dioula, two of the most widely spoken indigenous languages. This has made it possible to train some of the women to themselves train other shea producers. "With literacy," she says, "women are able to manage better, they understand more."
Along with practical instruction, the various shea projects also seek to educate the general public about environmental sustainability. The shea tree is a protected species. It is illegal to even pick unripened nuts (mature nuts fall to the ground). But the scarcity of other cheap sources of energy often leads to abusive cutting of the trees for firewood, while farmers sometimes burn them to clear land for farming.
Concerns and Precautions
Although there has been a lot of attention and funds flowing into the shea sector yet a research conducted by GERA in 2002 revealed that productivity in the sector is still very low. Production techniques have hardly changed over the centuries. The extraction of the butter is mainly a women’s activity, involving old traditional and highly labour intensive methods. Even after the intervention of the various NGOs and donor agencies, a lot of women in sector still work outside cooperatives and are left out from benefiting from trade in the process. These women mainly sell their products through retailing, which is very slow and unprofitable.
Moreover, women become less visible as one moves up the value addition chain. Although the industry received a boost in the early ’90s following an approval granted by the European Union to include shea butter in chocolate manufacturing, industrial processing and big volume trade of the butter for export is dominated by men. The women are often limited to their local markets due to the inadequacy of resources at their disposal.
The research also found out that although the financial requirements of both men and women in the shea butter industry are modest and there have been positive intervention from the UN agencies and other donors, yet a lot of them are often unable to access the required funds to improve upon their activities. However on account of their better financial standing, men process larger quantities than women who are restricted to producing small quantities.
The researchers noted that while the shea butter industry is an important livelihood industry for significant number of Burkinabe families; it is still characterised by rudimentary production practices because the State has failed to provide the needed support. The industry is not given adequate importance by the country’s agricultural institutions. The study suggests that the industry could make great progress if sufficient investments are made in preservation facilities, processing equipment and better transport networks alongwith the process of organizing producers into cooperatives.
Also it is important to protect the existing trees, which is now emerging as a challenge before those engaged in the sector. The shea tree flourishes best in the wild and is not easily cultivated as planted seedlings do not grow into trees. Even if they grow into trees, tend not to produce usable nuts. Even though Mali has had some success in replanting certain varieties of shea trees on a wide scale, and an experimental shea plantation has been started in Burkina, near the town of Nongremassom, with some initially encouraging results, yet it is of utmost importance to make the Burkinabé nationals realize that the shea tree is one of the country's greatest riches. It is also equally important for the government, donor agencies and NGOs working in this sector, to further encourage and invest in research and methods of shea cultivation and not just depend on the wilderness to remain a sole provider of shea nuts!
Harsch, Ernest (2001), Making trade work for poor women: Villagers in Burkina Faso discover an opening in the global market, Africa Recovery, Vol.15, No.4, December. Also available at publications in http://www.unifem.org/
Schoenborn, Melina (2007), Burkina Faso: Fair Trade Benefits the Women who Produce Shea Butter, e-publication, CECI, May.
GERA (2004), Survey conducted by GERA research team in 2002, URL: http://www.twnafrica.org/geraresearch.asp