This article was written by Anthonia Egbe, Tridge’s Engagement Manager for Nigeria and co-founder of Red Bubbles, a local non-profit that educates local women in rural communities on their basic rights to education and to live free from violence and discrimination.
On this year’s International Women’s Day, I take a look at the role and impact of women in agriculture across West Africa with a focus on the shea butter industry. For centuries, women have dominated the picking, production, and processing of shea nuts and butter and it is one of the few industries in which women dominate a large part of the revenue stream. Nevertheless, women are often underpaid and lack access to programs that would allow for more revenue.
The Karite trees, which produce shea nuts, grow in the Sahel regions on a strip of about 5K km that crosses West Africa and incorporates a wide range of countries: from Senegal all the way to Uganda in the east. Nigeria is the largest producer of shea nuts, at 450K metric tons per year. In total, West Africa produces about 600K metric tons of shea nut yearly, of which approximately 7% is turned into the much more valuable shea butter.
Shea butter has been referred to as women’s gold because of its rich golden color and because it provides employment and income for millions of women across Africa. The UNDP estimates that about three million women work directly or indirectly in the shea industry. The three main categories of actors in the industry are the nut collectors, nut processors, and traders. It is predominantly women who ensure fruit collection on private or community land, either individually or as part of women’s associations or unions. Often, local nut processing activities are also assigned to women. They hold the knowledge on how to store, dry, and crush the nuts to remove the kernel. They also sell kernels at markets and on roadsides and engage in local trading.
With a growing demand for this golden product in the western food and cosmetics industry, there have been efforts to regulate and organize the industry, to ensure high efficiency and quality on the farms, but also to create better conditions for the workers. The sector generates between USD 90 million and USD 200 million a year from exports and promotes economic activity in communities, according to USAID.
Yet, communities that produce shea butter in West Africa are some of the poorest communities in the world. Women who walk miles to pick shea nuts and spend days roasting, grinding, and cooking shea butter, are often exploited by agents and associations who stand as middlemen. They are not able to attract a decent or fixed wage for their products. As more of the most popular food and cosmetic brands purchase shea butter from West Africa to please its socially conscious consumers, the lives of the women who pick and process these nuts into shea butter become harder.
As we celebrate women around the world in this month of March, women in sub-Saharan Africa involved in shea butter production are calling for improvements in their industry. They need investments in production technology to enable shea collectors to store the product and reduce the number of distressed sales. Access to loans and programs to support women to acquire technology would enable them to seize the more profitable segments of the value chain, and play a more dominant role in this industry.
There are many great initiatives already. Recently, USAID developed a shea butter processing facility and warehouse for the Tiyumtaba Women’s Shea Cooperative of Sorogu, located in Ghana. More initiatives like these are necessary. The millions of women working in the shea industry deserve to receive a fair wage for their work and recognition for their impact on the global food and beauty industry.