Abuja, Nigeria: When I decided to write this article on shea butter at the urging of my editor, it was with some curiosity. I have known about shea butter my entire life, I have used it quite a bit. But the truth is, I didn’t know much about shea butter; how it’s made, where it comes from and all that.
I did some quick research on the internet and read some of the available content. That was when I realized that what I regarded as an everyday product was actually huge on the world stage. I also realized that the online content on shea butter was typically around the production and processing, it’s uses and market value. Shea butter is produced from the nuts of the shea tree, and for many women in poor rural communities in West Africa, it may provide a pathway out of poverty. This was when I decide to take the other angle and talk to the women at the base of the industry pyramid; those who actually are at the source of the shea butter value chain.
Shea Butter Trade Industry held its first-ever conference in North America in May 2013. The conference was to bring together all stakeholders in the trade to set best practices. It was attended by representatives of the West African and South Sahel countries, which are the biggest producers of Shea butter in the world. The Conference was held in New York City.
Now 5000 miles away in Kubwa, a suburb of Abuja in Nigeria I met Bilikis. Bilikis, a small scale producer and trader in shea butter had never heard of the conference , neither has she heard of the United Nations or anything it has to say about her shea butter. She is not alone in this; her friends in the same village do no not know and frankly do not care to know. They live in the Northern region of Nigeria. Nigeria is the largest producer of shea butter. Along with 19 other countries across the African continent (Zaire, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan, Guinea, Central African Republic Bissau, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ethiopia, Benin, Togo, Caebaymeroon, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Uganda) they produce all the shea butter consumed in the world. In 2017, the shea butter market is currently valued at $3.8 billion.
Bilikis like other women in her village trade in shea butter for one reason only; it puts food on the table. To her and many others like her, shea butter is not exotic, it is not an “organic skincare product”, no. They do not sell shea butter “to present an alternative to chemical skincare products” neither do they sell it because “it’s good for the planet”. Rather, they sell it because it is a meal ticket. It is the difference between being able to fend for her three children or having them go hungry. This is not to say that they do not know or care for their products or that they are in it only for the money. To the contrary, they are fiercely proud of their golden product and are well aware of its powers. But they have known this for ages like their parents before them, so it is nothing new. Now they face the more immediate reality of survival.
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Bilikis has been selling shea butter for over 12 years. Having grown up with minimal western education (she did not finish basic school and only speaks halting pidgin) shea butter presented itself as a business she could start with meagre funds and no need for training or apprenticeship.
Presently, her mother along with her younger siblings still handle the processing in their native village in Nasarawa state, a neighboring state to the national capital, Abuja.
When they finish the processing, Bilikis sells the finished product in various open air markets in the capital city. She had to make the decision to move to the Capital as it was difficult to make sales in her state, where almost every family could make shea butter for themselves. This decision was not without its challenges. It has meant looking and paying for alternative living arrangements, all in the hopes that these would be offset by sales.
In the last few years, the demand for her products has grown. When I asked why this has happened, she shrugs and tells me she doesn’t know just that prominent women are now using it. This is actually correct. With the rise in the demand for more natural skin care products, more and more women have reverted to the use of local products like shea butter. In times past, products like the palm kernel oil and shea butter, despite their recognized healing qualities were often shunned by the elite. It was often regarded as “local” and often associated with people who could not afford the more expensive skincare products. But this has changed. Shea butter and shea butter skincare products have entered the mainstream skincare world. The products are now found in upscale beauty shops and malls.
With this rise in demand egged on by the multi-billion natural beauty industry, comes a new challenge for Bilikis. The challenge of increased competition in the market. The processing and sale of shea butter has always been regarded as the exclusive reserve of women in rural areas with little or no education; in other words, the ‘Bilikises’ of this world. This has changed. Greater demand means greater profit and profit is attractive to all and sundry, especially in a country with a high number of university graduates and a devastating unemployment rate.
Entrepreneurs with better education, sophistication and better funding are gradually nudging the ‘Bilikises’ of shea butter aside. This new wave of entrepreneurs are responsible for the wave of “scented”, “perfumed”, “refined” and “organic” shea butter products on shelves across the world. Most of these entrepreneurs often restrict themselves to refining shea butter and rely on producers in rural areas such as Bilikis’s village for the supply of the raw processed shea butter. However, this presents no hopes for her. This is because Bilikis, like most of the other women in her village only produce a few pounds of shea butter annually and thus are not the choice suppliers to meet the supply quantities these entrepreneurs and companies require.
One way to approach this issue so Bilikises receive the social and financial benefits of rising global demand for shea butter, would be the formation of co-operatives by the women in her village to consolidate their production. When I asked her if they had thought of this, she said yes they had. The problem, she explains, is that nobody is willing to allow somebody else take charge of their produce as it will take away their means of livelihood. There was no need to explain to her that the opposite might be the case. Organising such cooperatives require a certain level of enterprise education and sophistication that these women simply do not have.
Another factor is that to build and sustain such co-operatives, the members or at least their appointed leaders, generally need to have a vision of growing a sustainable business, developing efficient processing methods and learning the best ways to sell their end product. In this case, these women just want to survive. Most of them have dreams of going into other businesses and trades and see their present business as only a means of survival.
Until then, Bilikis and her family will continue their subsistence production. She sells about five dollars worth of shea butter daily. This may not be the best outcome, it may not be very viable, but it puts food on her table.
When I asked her if the move to the Capital has yielded the expected results, she smiled and shrugged again. “Small small,” she said.
Bilikis and many like her are not strictly victims of any labour injustices. They sell their produce at prices determined by the demand in their immediate environment. However, there is something to be said where players in a billion dollar market can barely afford to feed their families. I am not exactly sure what to make of it. I am not sure of any solutions to the problem, but I am sure that it can be made better.
Title image courtesy of Ollivier Girard for CIFOR.