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DEVELOPMENT-GHANA: Women Ideal Shea Butter Producers

Sam Olukoya

SAGNARIGU, Jun 11 2008 (IPS) - "Wherever I went, they laughed at me and called me 'Habiba the empty mouth.' I was always embarrassed," says 45-year-old Habiba Alhassan. "I could not afford to smile; I could not open my mouth in public, when I took photographs I had to close my mouth so that I wouldn't look ugly."

Collectives have increased women's profits from shea butter production by up to five times.  Credit: Kenneth S Yussif

Collectives have increased women's profits from shea butter production by up to five times. Credit: Kenneth S Yussif

With all her front teeth missing, Alhassan was an object of mockery in her village, Sagnarigu, in the northern region of Ghana. Too poor to afford artificial teeth, she seemed destined to live with the embarrassment for life. "My petty trade in cocoa drinks was hardly enough to feed me let alone replace my lost teeth," she said.

But all that changed early last year, when she joined a rural women's cooperative producing soap from shea butter. In less than six months, she was able to save more than $300 from her earnings to replace the missing teeth. "Nobody believed me when I said I was determined to replace the missing teeth, now I have done it," Habiba said proudly.

The cooperative, known as the Ideal Woman Shea Butter Producers and Pickers Association is the product of a poverty eradication initiative for rural women in Northern Ghana. The initiative is backed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Japanese government under the Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD). TICAD is a global framework for collaboration between Asia and Africa to promote economic development in Africa.

"The amazing turn around in Habiba's life is the kind of results the UNDP-TICAD initiative aims to produce in the lives of rural women in northern Ghana under the poverty alleviation program," says Mrs. Adisa Lansah Yakubu, Executive Director of the Africa 2000 Network. Yakubu, whose organisation is the implementing partner of the UNDP-TICAD poverty eradication initiative, observes that rural women in northern Ghana are some of the poorest and most deprived in the country.

Most people in the region depend on farming for their livelihood. But over the years, agriculture has been on the decline in the region due to long dry spells and decreasing soil fertility caused by poor farming practices. In a 1998 evaluation of its Land Conservation and Smallholder Rehabilitation Project – an initiative designed to increase production while enhancing environmental protection – the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) found that women contribute as much as 80 percent of the agricultural labour force and work twice as many hours as men in the region, but they are largely barred from owning land.

As a result, women have little influence over how to spend household income, and are less likely than men to get an education or access to health care. Women's access to credit to establish income-generating activities is also limited as they have few assets to use as collateral.

But Yakubu says it is unthinkable that women in Northern Ghana should remain poor when the potential to make a decent living grows in abundance in their backyard in the form of the shea tree. Shea butter, a yellowish natural fat extracted from the fruit of the shea tree, is a potential money spinner; it is in great demand as an ingredient in hair conditioners and other cosmetics as well as in the chocolate industry where it is used as a substitute for cocoa butter.

The shea tree only grows in Africa; and it does particularly well in Ghana’s semi-arid northern region. About 600,000 women in the region are engaged in shea butter-related ventures, but the trade was not profitable because of the crude methods they use to produce the shea butter. The UNDP-TICAD initiative has helped rural women form cooperatives and set up training centres where they can be trained to produce high quality shea butter and other related products. There are six such centres in northern Ghana, run with assistance from the Japan International Cooperation Agency.

"The shea butter we now produce smells better and it is free of residues and particles. It is very pure," said Fulera Yakubu, one of 200 rural women who has learned improved production techniques at the centres. She added that because the higher quality, their product can now be sold on the international market. The women export raw shea butter and soap to a number of countries including Japan, the United States, Germany, Denmark and Switzerland.

Fulera says working as a cooperative is also paying off. "Now working together, we can produce more shea butter. We can sell more and we can solicit assistance as a group." She explains that in the past they made about $2 profit per hundred kilogrammes of shea butter, but now the profit has grown to $10 per hundred kilos.

Like Alhassan, the other women involved in the project say they have been able to put the proceeds of the trade to good use. "Before I joined the shea butter trade I was so poor that I was unable to buy even clothes," Azaru Imoru told IPS. "Now things have changed, my children who dropped out of school after the death of my husband are now back in school. I was even able to buy them a bicycle," she says.

Yakubu says the most significant result of the initiative is for widows whose in-laws took away their husbands' possessions. "Some widows who were homeless after being ejected from their husband's homes now have the money to build their own houses," she says. She adds that the family menu has also improved tremendously because women in the region are by tradition required to provide the ingredients for the family menu.

"The women's income determines the health of the family. The better the ingredients the women can afford, the healthier the family," she says. The consequence, she adds, is that "with more money, the women are able to cook nutritious foods, a situation that will reduce ill health and mortality caused by poor feeding."

But Yakubu says in spite of the success so far recorded, there is still a long way to go. She feels the Ghanaian government has not given the shea products the required attention. "We are advocating for a Shea Board just like the Cocoa Board. If a Shea Board is in place, it will be able to conduct necessary research on ways of boosting the shea industry."

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