Snake bites won't stop Ghana's brave women chasing shea nut riches as world prices skyrocket

Attitudes in the north are changing, but patriarchy is still dominant, and they still say there that “all a woman needs is a kitchen”.

DORIS Acharibia says her new trainees are eager to learn how to make butter from shea nuts in Ghana’s northern savannah.

Growing global demand for the product used in food and as a skin moisturiser is attracting companies like Singapore’s Wilmar International Ltd., the world’s biggest trader of edible oils. Retail prices increased 67% in 2014 for butter produced by independent sellers in Acharibia’s group. That’s convinced women in northern Ghana, who already grow rice, soybeans and peanuts, brew a millet drink called pito and make jewelry, to risk snake bites to harvest nuts from trees in the wild.

“The price has attracted more women to the shea-butter business,” the 42-year-old leader of the 875-member Talensi Area Women’s Development Project said in an interview last week.

The cultivation of shea is dominated by women because the nut is used as a cooking oil, she said, and in northern households, women prepare most meals. Making shea a commercial product helps women earn more.

“This is what they do to look after their families,” she said.

Northern women are worse off than men in the region and women of the south. About 63% of women in the north are illiterate, compared with 40% of men in the region and the national average for both genders of 24%, 2013 data from the Ghana Statistical Service show. In 2010, five mothers out of every 1,000 died in the north, compared with two in Accra, the capital.

Third biggest

“In the north men are deemed head of the home and women are not allowed to contribute to decision making,” Seidu Imoro, a programmes officer at Foundation for Security and Development in Africa, said by phone from Tamale, the largest city in the north. The non-governmental organisation works on improving gender equality and while attitudes are changing as more women become educated, patriarchy is dominant, he said. “They say all she needs is a kitchen.”

Shea trees, which can reach a height of 15 meters (49 feet), grow in west and central Africa’s arid Sahel region bordering the Sahara desert. Ghana is the world’s third-biggest shea producer after Nigeria and Mali, with output of 73,500 metric tons in 2012 worth $10 million, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.

Companies including The Body Shop, a unit of L’Oreal SA, and L’Occitane International SA are selling shea beauty products to wealthy Europeans, North Americans and Asians. During dry seasons, Ghanaians buy the butter to moisturise their skin. It’s also used in chocolate-flavoured food as a substitute for pricier cocoa, of which Ghana is the world’s second-biggest producer.

Body lotion

Wilmar has invested almost $90 million in its unit, Ghana Specialty Fats Industries Ltd., since 2006 to meet growing demand in Asia and Europe, Wilmar Africa Ltd. Chief Executive Officer Ramachandra Kodey Rao said on February 20.

The factory, near the port at Tema 32 kilometers (20 miles) east of the capital, Accra, processes between 30,000 and 40,000 tons of nuts each year, said Fatima Alimohamed, a general manager at the plant, which extracts stearin for chocolate makers and olein, an oil used in cosmetics. Wilmar increased the price it pays middle men who buy nuts from farmers by about 35 percent in 2014.

Local companies have also become involved in the industry. Sekaf Ghana Ltd. makes its Tama brand of cosmetics for buyers in Africa, Europe and the U.S. from its factory at Kasalgu in the Northern region, said CEO Senyo Kpelly. Their products include body lotion, hand cream and soap.

Tedious work

Tama body lotion with 15% shea butter costs 16 cedis ($4.48) for 200 milliliters (6.8 ounces). At a Max Mart Ltd. grocery store on Liberation Road in Accra, the same size of Colgate-Palmolive Co. brand Naturals lotion without shea sells for 10.30 cedis.

With 500,000 to 600,000 women involved in shea harvesting, the crop is key in northern homes, said Vincent Anchirinah, manager of the government’s Ghana Cocoa Board’s shea unit.

“Shea butter is very important for the food value of the people,” he said in an interview in Accra. “In the north that’s their main source of oil for everything. Traditionally it’s a woman who cooks in the house, so she always goes to pick to make food ready for the home.”

Kpelly’s Sekaf increased its shea-butter price for wholesale and export by 10% last year after Ghana’s output fell 40% as cold weather hindered nut growth and boosted demand among Ghanaians as a moisturiser.

Big buyers

Women could earn a greater benefit from the industry if it was structured like cocoa, Ghana’s main cash crop, enabling them to deal directly with larger buyers rather than passing off their product to middle men, said Wilmar’s Rao.

“It’s a woman who collects and dries the nuts,” he said. “By the time the big buyers get in touch with them, it is already transferred from a woman to a man.”

Social and economic gender roles are closely ordained in patriarchal northern Ghana, according to Imoro. Still, perceptions of women are changing and more now have access to land and education, said Acharibia.

The Ghana Cocoa Board, which licenses cocoa buyers and controls exports, is trying to bring a similar level of state oversight to shea, and wants buyers, processers and exporters to register with it, said the board’s Anchirinah. They’re developing higher yielding trees to boost output, he said.

Before dawn

Harvesting and refining shea is a laborious process that can take three weeks, while Acharibia said snake bites in the bush have killed 15 women in her collective since 2003.

The risks aren’t deterring the members joining her group, who set off before dawn on walks as far as 9 miles (15 kilometers) to collect nuts and be at their farms in time to tend to their other crops.

While companies like Wilmar have mechanised refining, the rural women still process the nuts by hand, parboiling them and then leaving them out to dry for several days. The outer shell is cracked to expose the kernel, which is dried, roasted and ground into powder. Water is added to make it into the valuable butter.

“Shea is our cocoa in the north,” Acharibia said. “If you don’t have patience you can’t be in the business of making the butter.”

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