Shea butter nourishes opportunities for African women

In order to receive fair prices for their products, commodity producers have to maintain certain levels of environmental and labour standards recommended by fair trade certification organisations such as Fairtrade International, World Fair Trade Organization, Faire Trade USA and Fair Trade Federation, to name a few.

The fair trade model appears to offer an improvement on the conventional trade model. Paying market prices for the commodity guarantees a minimum price to the producers. The industries usually associated with fair trade are coffee, cocoa, bananas, flowers, gold and other exotic products. Shea butter was not one of the most sought-after African commodities until recently.

Harriet Lamb of the Fairtrade Foundation says, “Fair trade addresses the injustices of conventional trade, which too often leave the poorest, weakest producers earning less than it costs them to grow their crops. It’s a bit like a national minimum wage for global trade. Not perfect, not a magic wand, not a panacea for all the problems of poverty, but a step in the right direction.”

No clear evidence

Philip Booth from the Institute of Economic Affairs, a British think tank, sees things differently. He argues that “no clear evidence has been produced to suggest that farmers themselves actually receive higher prices under fair trade. Fair trade may do some good in some circumstances, but it does not deserve the unique status it claims for itself.”

Cosmetics retailers often portray fair trade shea butter as an exotic, traditional, authentic and ethical product encouraging female solidarity. The butter is produced by women in Africa and consumed mainly by Europeans and North Americans in search of “ethical” products. Because of the high number of companies and small entrepreneurs claiming to use fair trade shea butter in their products, it can be difficult to separate marketing strategy from real engagement.

L’Occitane en Provence, a French multinational cosmetics firm famous worldwide for its luxury products based on natural ingredients, prides itself on its use of fair trade shea butter in products including hand, body and foot creams. Indeed, for the company’s activities in Burkina Faso, its business model was recognised by UNDP in 2013 as one of the 12 most innovative and inclusive in Africa.

Platform to exchange ideas

A UNDP report titled L’Occitane au Burkina Faso: More than Just Business with Shea Butter Producers, highlights the company’s dedication, its collaboration with 15,000 rural women producers and its use of shea butter in its products. According to the report, L’Occitane estimates that it pays 20% to 30% more for shea butter from Burkina Faso than it would for shea butter from Western industries. Sales of shea butter to L’Occitane represent about $1.23 million in revenues yearly for the supplier cooperatives and their 15,000 rural women members.

In order for more African women in the shea industry to reap the benefits of fair trade, the Global Shea Alliance, an association that promotes quality and sustainability in the shea butter industry’s support for rural African communities and women’s empowerment, organised the New York Shea Butter Trade Industry Conference. With the first New York fair trade event, the Alliance sought to provide a platform for exchanging ideas across the supply chain of collectors, producers, traders, industrial users and consumers of shea butter.

“The Body Shop has used shea for over 19 years and we are firmly committed to using our learning to build a sustainable shea sector,” said Mark Davis, the company’s director of community fair trade. “Being a member of the Global Shea Alliance is critical to achieving that goal.”

Other global commodities, such as coffee, have become associated with fair trade, and many stakeholders in the shea industry aspire to create that association for their product. Salima Makama, the Global Shea Alliance’s president, is convinced that the African women who came to New York to implement better strategies to empower themselves are well on their way to turning the shea butter export into “real gold.”

This article was first published in Africa Renewal