Every day, women farmers in Burkina Faso gather nuts from the many shea trees that abound in this part of Africa. They pound the nuts into a butter used in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical creams. For decades they have sold this butter for a pittance: 25 cents per kilogram. But thanks to an economic development initiative sponsored by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), these women are getting better prices. Through workshops on bargaining and with the clout of a new collective—dubbed the Shea Butter Women Producers Coordination Group (COFEM)—they have landed a contract with L’Occitane, a French cosmetics concern with branches in 32 countries. The company has ordered an unprecedented 100 tons of butter from COFEM producers, which is sure to double the women’s income.
“We were producing shea butter on a small scale and selling it in the city markets for very little,” says Flicit Yamogo, a pioneer in shea butter farming. “COFEM has enabled us to increase our shea butter production and earn a steady income. Now we can meet our daily household needs, pay for our children’s education, and buy the tools we need to make our butter.”
While most shea butter was consumed locally, in recent years international cosmetics companies have discovered its potential as a skin care product.
Shea butter is reputed to be a natural sunscreen as well as a moisturizer with anti-inflammatory properties, and has a growing market in Europe, the United States, and Japan. A popular ingredient in natural cosmetics and high-end soaps, shea butter is also used by U.S. companies in skin-care products marketed to African Americans.
Two years ago, UNIFEM and the Canadian Center for Studies and International Cooperation stepped in to assist the women in Burkina Faso, 90 percent of whom work in subsistence agriculture. The project set up a series of workshops to teach more than 2,000 women techniques for high-quality production that conforms to international standards. The women went on to organize local production associations and to set up three regional markets.
UNIFEM then helped to arrange an international trade fair in Ouagadougou, the capital. More than 3,000 visitors showed up to view the products of 84 women producers. Dozens of other rural women attended workshops on marketing and bargaining skills, as well as quality control and export strategies. Since the quality of the women’s products was high, they agreed not to lower their prices below 92 cents a kilogram. At the end of the fair, they bargained collectively with an exporter instead of hauling unsold butter back to their villages.
Aster Zaoude, who oversaw the UNIFEM project until recently, recalls that in the past, the big companies would wait until the fair ended to whittle women’s prices down. “This year the women got together and said no way, this is our price,” says Zaoude.
The trade fair also inaugurated the new Shea Butter Trade Center in Ouagadougou. Run by COFEM, it is intended to link the regional enters and other women producers to new markets, with services ranging from researching new markets to negotiating contracts to setting up a Web site. As a collective undertaking, the trade center is an important step toward bringing small-scale women manufacturers closer to a wide range of new buyers.
Zaoude believes the women can be optimistic about the future of their business. Recognizing the potential of their work, the government of Burkina Faso has agreed to support the trade fair as an annual event, and the European Union recently approved shea butter as a substitute for cocoa butter, which is used in many products. Demand for the butter is now expected to soar. The trade center is already
talking to a German firm and exploring ways to leverage credit in order to expand its business. Whether they are gathering shea nuts or launching cyber marketing strategies, th