Fair Trade Shea: Engaging The Currents Of The Global Economy

2 Dec

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The harmattan winds have just begun sweeping down over Ghana from the deserts of northern Africa, which means that sales of shea butter will soon begin picking up at the local markets, as people seek to protect and sooth their skin from the dryness.  (In the picture above, two members of a shea butter processing group in Kpandai sell butter in the local market)   

I’ve been learning quite a bit about shea butter lately from the women in a local production group, my coworkers, and from a great book called Shea Butter Republic by Brenda Chalfin.  Here are some of the highlights of what I’ve learned, including some quotes from the book:

  • Outside of Africa, shea is primarily known as a moisturizing cream and an ingredient in soaps and other beauty products, but in Africa it has a multitude of other uses as well including food, leatherworking, illumination, medicine, etc…  
  • Shea butter is commonly used as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolate production.  As a result, the global standards of chocolate production affect demand for shea.
  • “Shea trees are indigenous to Africa and grow wild throughout the vast west African savanna zone stretching from Cameroon to Senegal and encompassing Ghana, Burkina Faso, Cote d’Ivoire, Nigeria, Togo, Benin, Mali, and Niger.”   (see picture above)
  • The trees resist plantation cropping.  As a result, the nuts are mostly collected from the bush by village women working either alone or more often in a group.  This means that, when you buy a product with shea butter, you are helping to support village women in the savannah zone of Africa.  How much of your purchase makes it back to the women, however, can vary dramatically unless your purchase is Fair Trade certified.
  • “A woman has no obligation to give the husband a share of her product or the profit she derives from collecting shea fruit and nuts from trees on her husband’s farms, or to share it with others.”  As a result, shea is one of the few avenues available to village women as a means of economic empowerment.
  • “For most of the 20th century, shea has been traded on the world market…  Yet even with the rise of the export market, shea – in marked contrast to other tropical commodities – remains a staple of the West African economy, widely consumed and central to the lives of the women who collect, process and sell it.”  
  • “…shea export has served as one of the few means for savanna residents to engage the currents of the global economy, not simply as consumers – and at the second or third hand at that – or targets of policy-makers and economic lobbyists, but as suppliers to those at the center of the economic vortex that is global capitalism.”
  • Shea nuts are collected in February, March and April, but the processing goes on over the course of the year.  The big season for selling shea butter locally is during the dry harmattan winds.  Locals apply shea butter to their skin to relieve dryness.

Although it is against tribal law to cut down shea trees, over the years they have been disappearing from the area around Kpandai.  The administrative assistant in my office, Patience, told me that the trees used to be plentiful back when she was a small girl helping her mother to collect nuts.  They have been cut down to clear farm land, because their roots make good sponges for bathing, to make mortars for pounding Fufu, and for a variety of other reasons.

As passionate as I am about Fair Trade, it doesn’t currently make sense for the small shea processing women’s group in Kpandai to seek certification.  The main reason is that there is simply not enough demand for fair trade certified shea.  If there was greater demand from consumers in countries like Canada, shea producers would be able to realize the many benefits of Fair Trade certification, including making sure that they receive fair compensation for their work.

You can help increase demand for Fair Trade certified shea butter by picking some up at Fair Trade Vancouver’s Holiday Showcase and 2010 Wrap Party this coming Saturday (December 4th) on Granville Island.    It promises to be an amazing time and a great opportunity to get a head start on your holiday shopping.

2 Responses to “Fair Trade Shea: Engaging The Currents Of The Global Economy”

  1. Michael December 2, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

    Another great post, Mark. I’ve reposted this one too, and will send it out far and wide.


  1. Tweets that mention Fair Trade Shea: Engaging The Currents Of The Global Economy « Your Man In Africa -- Topsy.com - December 2, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Delina Osmond, Mark Abbott. Mark Abbott said: Fair Trade Shea: Engaging The Currents Of The Global Economy: http://wp.me/pZk9x-93 […]

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