“Any time you talk about shea, there’s always a woman behind it! The value chain has more than 18 million women participants in West Africa,” says entrepreneur Funlayo Alabi.
Used in countless beauty products, shea butter is made from—what else?—the shea nut. It’s found in 23 countries in the West African savannah.
Shea’s effectiveness for her sons’ eczema gave Funlayo Alabi and her husband the idea to invest in a shea business of their own. In addition to providing awesome beauty products, Shea Radiance allows Funlayo to impact the lives of the African women at the heart of the shea value chain!
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Funlayo about Shea Radiance’s success and the women who make it possible.
How are women central to the shea value chain?
Any time you talk about shea, there’s always a woman behind it! The value chain has more than 18 million women participants in West Africa. The women and their children pick the shea fruit as it drops to the ground at the start of the season in April and May.
Women often sell only the nuts to large companies who process them in Asia and Europe. But women can gain three times the price when they add value by processing the nut themselves into butter!
The reality is that even though women are the key producers of shea, they still make the least money, are least educated, and are likely to remain in poverty while others make money.
It sounds like women are the major catalysts of the value chain, but, as you say, the least to benefit. Are there other challenges they face?
First, lack of access to capital: Many of the women negotiate with middlemen who buy the nuts at a bargain price. Women’s lack of access to capital prevents them from being able to buy nuts in a decent volume and sell it on their own terms when prices are increasing.
Second, infrastructure: The women need a storage area to store the nuts and to work in union as a cooperative.
Third, safety: When they go out to gather nuts, many women complain about snake and scorpion bites in the field as they are picking. Burns are also a safety issue for the women because of exposure to open flames when shea nuts are roasted.
Finally, physical security: Although we don’t touch on this in our business model yet, the poverty ecosystem makes women and girls physically vulnerable as well.
Given the challenges women face, what is the impact on the shea product? Are there any actions private sector actors like yourself can do to address this?
Women are central to shea’s sustainability, because women will cut down the trees to sell as firewood when they have no money to feed their families. If this becomes the norm throughout the West African savannah, then there will be no shea. I think all the various stakeholders realize that, if we don’t make the business profitable for the women and improve their lives, the shea industry will decline.
What recommendations do you have for private sector and the government to empower women in the shea value chain?
In West Africa, and Nigeria in particular, the shea sector is seeing more private enterprises entering shea and agriculture. This is a good thing! The private sector must provide a market for women producers to sell their products. The government can support women with infrastructure, health, good water supply, grants, and access to capital.
Can you give an example of some of the impact Shea Radiance has had on women’s lives?
We’ve noticed an impact in the lives of the women with whom we work. Their self-image is transformed. Now the women hold their heads up saying, “What I do has value. A business like Shea Radiance is buying from us, and we can bring more business to our community.” They also told us that the fact that what they produce has value internationally makes them less likely to cut down the trees.
For example, Ramatu used to cut down wood to sell by the roadside. She used to tell me, “That is such back-breaking work; I hated it.” But now she makes more money selling shea and works with women in the community, which she really enjoys.
We believe in economic empowerment. What motivates us to be successful and stay successful is the fact that our success will impact these women. We haven’t scratched the surface of what is possible. But we have a dream that it will happen.