Turning shea butter into gold
Guest blog: Stephanie Green on the ethics of your shea butter cosmetics
Shea butter is a popular ingredient in beauty products due to its natural moisturising and healing properties.
It is made by processing the shea nuts from shea trees. They aren’t farmed but grow in the wild across the dry African Sahel region, between Senegal in the West and Uganda in the East.
According to the Global Shea Alliance, more than four million rural women in West Africa make an income from shea, often referred to as ‘women’s gold’.
Stephanie Green, with the women of Kasalagu Women’s Cooperative Tamale, Northern Region, Ghana.
The social context of the rural women producers in the shea supply chain makes them vulnerable. They are generally living in poverty, badly organised, innumerate and illiterate. This means that they are not in a good position to negotiate with buyers.
They see shea as a livelihood but they don’t always benefit as much as they should. Hunger at the end of the barren dry season can force them to accept low prices. Very often they are not able to invest in improving their children’s future and can’t afford the healthcare their families need.
Arishetu, from the shea collecting group in the village of Wayamba, northern Ghana is facing problems which are not uncommon among her colleagues: “We need help with sanitation and water. Malnutrition is a problem for my children”.
Safia Alhassan Andani. Leader of a women’s group making Shea butter at Sagnarigu. Tamale, Northern Region, Ghana.
What does ‘ethical shea’ mean?
Ethical shea therefore seeks to enable the poorest people in the shea supply chain to improve their working conditions, their lives, and the quality of their products: to become better organised and negotiate fair prices.
Ethical shea butter has a positive social impact.
The mission of one company, SeKaf Ghana, producer of TAMA cosmetics in Tamale, Ghana, is to use its shea butter products to help alleviate rural poverty in the country. It pays women a 15% premium above the market price for their nuts and trains them to ensure they produce the best quality, organic nuts. The Kasalgu Shea Butter Cooperative processes the nuts into butter at the factory site. Increased demand has created more work for the women.
This year the company has also helped some of its groups to set up community savings schemes. These women have grown their small businesses and can now afford school fees and medical bills.
When asked about why consumers in the UK should care about where their shea butter came from, Sana Yidana, Leader of the Kasalgu Shea Butter Cooperative said:
“I want customers to look at the packaging and know who made the shea butter in there. We are now able to save some money and pay our daughters’ school fees. My life is improving. It’s making a difference to us”.
So how can you tell if your shea butter is ethical?
An ‘ethical’ shea business will treat its women shea pickers and processors well so you should start by looking at the company’s policies towards rural women.
L’Occitane and Body Shop have strong community development programmes in Burkina Faso and Ghana respectively. Ghana’s TAMA brand is forming partnerships with NGOs to establish more community savings schemes.
Third party accreditation schemes such as Fairtrade or organic are also good indicators but bear in mind that getting these accreditation schemes can be prohibitively expensive for small African businesses.
You can also check whether the company is a member of the Global Shea Alliance. GSA members are encouraged to meet certain criteria, agree on a sustainability programme and commit to ensuring that all shea stakeholders benefit from the business. However, it’s always good to check a company’s actual policies.
So far TAMA shea butter soaps, lotions and oils are only currently available at one location in London (the Afroworld shop, 7 Kingsland High Street E8 2JS, Tel: 020-7275-8848). There are plans to export to the UK in larger numbers very soon so watch this space!
Stephanie Green is a VSO Volunteer with SeKaf Ghana in Tamale, Ghana. You can read about Stephanie’s experiences of living and volunteering in Ghana on her blog at www.stephinghana.wordpress.com.
For more on ethical shea butter see www.facebook.com/TAMAcosmetics and www.tamacosmetics.com.