By Mariachiara Ficarelli, Princeton Intern at Bioversity International
Shea butter is perhaps best known by consumers in the West in the form of an ultra-nourishing cream sold by cosmetics retailers like The Body Shop and L’Occitane. Yet, for women in rural villages across West Africa it is much more than a simple beauty product.
For centuries, the shea nut has been the main source of income for women from agricultural groups living in the ‘shea belt’ of Africa, south of the Sahara. These women work hard to transform shea nuts into a multi-functional butter, which crosses oceans to reach the international agro-food and cosmetics industries that use this butter as a prized ingredient in their products.
In their recently published article 'Negotiating Across Difference: Gendered Exclusions and Cooperation in the Shea Value Chain', Marlène Elias and Seema Arora-Jonsson describe the shea value chain—the process through which shea nuts are collected and transformed into butter in Burkina Faso before being transported, traded and consumed by distant, mainly European consumers. The authors highlight that although there is interest in improving prospects for producers in international value chains, little attention is being focused on how differences among producers can enable some, but not others, to benefit from value chain opportunities.
The authors differentiate between two ‘strands’, or marketing channels, of the shea value chain. In the first, ‘conventional’ strand, individual women collect and sell shea nuts for low prices to vendors who resell them to many intermediaries until they reach the global agro-food industry. In contrast, in the second, ‘alternative’ strand, women, supported by NGOs, come together in village groups and in a larger, inter-village associations (for example, the shea producers’ union) to process and sell high quality shea butter for higher returns directly to global companies on the international fair trade and certified organic cosmetics markets.
The authors show how this new marketing channel has brought about processes of social inclusion and exclusion that create distinct social and economic opportunities for different groups of women. Some women producers are experiencing benefits such as a higher income, strengthened social ties and a sense of community, and the exchange of knowledge between local ethnic groups as they sometimes collaborate in the shea value chain. At the same time, however, the economic prospects arising within the value chain are not readily accessible to all women. Rural women often do not earn as much in the ‘alternative’ strand of the value chain as town-based producers, who have access to technologies that allow them to produce larger amounts of shea butter for the union. Some of the union’s internal policies also tend to benefit town-based rather than rural producers. Exclusions in the value chain occur in line with ethnicity as well, as social norms allow members of the indigenous ethnic group (rather than migrants or ‘latecomers’) to have privileged access to the union and to shea nuts in woodlands and fields.
Differences are also evident with age. Older women are disadvantaged by the physically intensive nature of producing shea butter and by high competition for shea nuts that requires women to arrive at their fields very early in the morning; something which older women, who move at a slower pace and require rest, have difficulty doing. Furthermore, depending on their relationship with their husbands, women may be able - or not - to participate in the alternative shea value chain as some husbands forbid their wives from joining the union whereas others encourage them to do so.
In light of these findings, the authors call for more attention to social dynamics and power relations and to how many aspects of social difference, such as ethnicity, age, and rural or urban residence, come together to create different opportunities or barriers for women in the shea value chain. Only when these aspects are carefully considered can those seeking pathways for women’s empowerment succeed in reducing inequalities and creating equitable opportunities for socially differentiated producers.
Photo: Woman mixes shea powder by hand to create butter. Credit: Bioversity International/B. Vinceti