You’re probably already familiar with shea butter- you can find it in everything from lotions to creams and lip balms- but you probably aren’t as familiar with where it comes from and how it’s made. Shea trees only grow in the Sahel region of Africa, a geographic zone that stretches the entire width of the continent from Gambia to Eritrea.
Shea trees do more than just provide the key ingredient for skincare products- they are also a central part of food security in the region. Women traditionally collect the fruit to eat and extract oil from the seeds of the nut for cooking. Because shea production is tied to home life, it is considered to be women’s work and is one of the few economic activities designated exclusively for women.
Rahama Wright (pictured here at left) started Shea Yeleen, a social enterprise that sells high-quality, unrefined shea butter products, to give these women an opportunity to provide for themselves and their families.
As a first generation Ghanaian American, Rahama has a special connection to the continent. She first came across shea butter production while interning at the American Embassy in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Soon after, she joined the Peace Corps in Mali where she helped a group of women create their own shea butter cooperative in a small rural village. She quickly realized that they, like many others, needed help accessing a customer base and building a strong business model.
Rahama decided then and there to work with women to form cooperatives that would help them use their existing skills and knowledge to earn an income. 10 years later, she’s still working in shea butter production and helping women achieve economic independence.
Shea Yeleen has definitely been a labor of love for Rahama and her team. It took nearly 8 years before Shea Yeleen products got on store shelves but now they’re easy to find online or in select Whole Foods Markets. As a fair trade certified social enterprise, customers know that their purchase is making a direct impact on the lives of women in Africa. Employees at Shea Yeleen cooperatives are paid fare wages, which means that their monthly income increases anywhere from $45/month to $80-$100/month- the difference between living below the poverty line and earning a living wage. With a higher income, the women can pay health care costs for their family, school fees for their children and even start their own shea cooperative if they want.
With Shea Yeleen’s success, Rahama hopes to expand their line of natural, organic products and broaden their distribution networks to include more retailers in the US and around the world.
Wondering how Shea Yeleen got its name? Yeleen means light or hope in Bambara, a local West African dialect that’s spoken in Mali, the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and parts of Senegal. It’s the perfect name to reflect the energy and optimism of its founder and the women who work there.
Want to support Shea Yeleen by making an online purchase? Packed with high levels of vitamins, unrefined shea products make the perfect gift- for yourself or others!