Covid resilience project brings life to the informal shea sector in Ghana

Hand Moulding of African Black Soap. Photo: Puretrust Foundation LBG

‘’Our centre was empty then. No orders, no money’’, reflects Mariam, a 17 year old girl from the Ntereso community in Northern Ghana, on how miserable life had been when the COVID emerged. An early school dropout, Mariam is one among the million rural women in Ghana who makes a living out of shea picking and shea butter processing.

Largely a women’s crop, everything from the collection to processing of shea nuts is done mainly by women. Though all beauty freaks might have come across the name ‘shea butter’ on labels during their skincare routine, not many know the plights of the poor African women who process the butter. With the pandemic curbing exports, the market demand for handcrafted shea butter declined. The impact of the pandemic was more evident in the shea processing units run by women’s cooperatives in Ghana. With too many cancellations in orders and some buyers trying to exploit the situation, these centres turned empty, throwing many poor women like Mariam into poverty. 

As the youngest member of the Intereso cooperative, Mariam’s wage was lower than the elder members. ‘From a young age, I used to accompany my aunt to the centre, and therefore, they consider me as her helper’, says Mariam. This difference in pay and the inability of the people like Mariam to reap any formal relief or benefits make the rural women engaged in shea processing more vulnerable during unprecedented emergencies.

According to the 2018 Mastercard Index of Women’s Entrepreneurship report, 46.4% of the businesses in Ghana are owned by women. Micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSME) have low entry requirements in Ghana, encouraging women folks to start up their businesses. The Participatory Development Associates’ 2021 report on the experience of female-led MSMEs in Ghana during the COVID 19 reveals how fragile are these businesses. Findings of the Ghana Statistical Service on the COVID impacts on MSMEs also pinpoints the same.

The highly informal nature of some of the sectors like shea, for instance, makes them vulnerable to unexpected setbacks. The apparent repercussions of the COVID imposed lockdowns and restrictions on the shea sector were the partial or permanent closure of the many women cooperatives that processed shea butter. With a decline in sales and the inability of the poor women to access credits or advisory services, they had no option other than to cease their operations.

Coping with the pandemic through alternative products

Thanks to the COVID resilience project of the Puretrust Foundation LBG in Ghana, Mariam and many other cooperative members have now found a way to cope with the pandemic induced market crunch for shea butter. Developed as a project in response to a call by Plan International Ghana to address the immediate COVID-induced livelihood issues of the vulnerable sections of the Ghanaian populace, Puretrust was prudent in pitching their thought for value-added shea-butter products.

Unlike other ladies, Mariam was keen on operating the machines, and therefore, took the lead in learning and training fellow members during the project. Women were trained in producing alternative shea-based value-added products like soaps and creams, which are of local demand round the year.

‘Now we can earn more than what we got from selling butter’, says Mariam. The returns from selling shea butter fluctuated depending on the demand and the time of the shea season. Now, with the value addition of shea butter, women can earn more or less a fixed price for their products. ‘If it was butter, we couldn’t have sold it. Now, we are making use of the same butter to make soaps, and it gets sold easily’, says Mariam, who now runs her own business.

By thinking out-of-the-box, organizations like Puretrust are in a way thrusting the country’s efforts to thwart the virus and revive its economy.

From butter to shea-based cosmetics and soaps

As  I talk to Habib Haruna, the CEO of PureTrust Foundation in Tamale over Zoom, he gives me a glimpse of some of the women-run shea processing centres in Ghana, which were abandoned following the COVID. PureTrust has been in the limelight for some years now, since its establishment in 2014. As a non-profit organization, PureTrust Foundation works on livelihoods, social services, community education, health, water and sanitation in Ghana. In recent years, they have also ventured into community foundation projects, giving momentum to their philanthropic activities in the country.

Before COVID, Puretrust had established three shea butter processing centres in the Bole district of Ghana for women folks belonging to three communities in the region. Established with the help of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and other donors, these centres provided income-generating and employment opportunities to more than 500 rural women. However, PureTrust deems these centres to have the potential to serve over 1350 women in the region.

‘The majority of the women working in the shea sector are poor, with earnings just enough to meet their daily household needs. So, any disruption in the system would throw them into poverty’, says Habib.

Responding to my question about why shea butter is not widely used for cooking, Habib replies, ‘Now you can see people using more shea butter for home consumption, but this would change once their incomes improve’. Despite the many health benefits that shea butter has over refined oils, people chose to buy the latter as it is a sign of improvement in the households’ economic condition. With the pandemic limiting women’s income, one of the noticeable dietary changes in rural Ghana is the increased use of shea butter for cooking which is otherwise less.

Primarily produced to meet the cosmetic and confectionery industries’ demand, hand-crafted shea butter has become an export commodity. It is this bitter fact that made PureTrust think about other value-added products having year-round local demand. With handwashing and personal hygiene being the need of the day, soap was the best option one could think about then.

‘This project was a lifesaver for us’, says Mariam. It was indeed a lifesaver, perhaps, an eye-opener for the many rural women shea butter processors who have been subject to exploitation in the past. Intended to equip rural women with skills in producing value-added shea butter products, the project has successfully trained 90 individuals (80 women and 10 men).

With well-defined performance indicators, the overall evaluation of the project has shown that 130% of the target population has seen an increase in their income from selling shea-based value-added products. ‘We are glad that the project served its purpose’, says Habib as he reckons the time spent with the villagers.

Twenty women beneficiaries who produced and sold the products thrice since the training have reported achieving a 40% increase in their incomes. More women are now coming forward to emulate the already successful women. ‘Some ladies have already taken this to the next level, making it into a family business’, says Habib.

The training was conducted in two stages. At first, thirty women, ten each from the three communities aged between 17 and 40 were selected and trained as ToTs (trainees and trainers). In the second stage of the project, the ToTs trained at the first stage passed down the skills to their fellow members at their respective cooperatives. Only women below 50 years of age got hands-on training in soap production, whilst those above supported the trainees with butter production.

Funded by Plan International Ghana through the support of the Global Affairs Canada under its Flexible Response Fund Mechanism for COVID 19, the project lasted six months, starting November 2020 to April 2021.  The beneficiaries also acquired some advocacy and marketing skills to promote their products.

‘Not all women had access to capital. Such people continued to work in groups as part of the cooperative’, says Habib.

Out of the many beneficiaries, only Mariam was provided with some capital, 900 Ghana Cedis and some production materials to start a business herself. With this project, PureTrust has become an inspiration for the many rural women still struggling to revive from the COVID shock. 

‘We want to see more Mariams in the future’, says Habib. Besides helping the informal shea sector to recoup from the pandemic driven distress, the project also comes with a vision to empower rural women in Ghana.

Krishnanunni Mavinkal Ravindran has a MSc in Sustainable Tropical Forestry, University of Copenhagen

Also read: “My story is embarrassing but I am giving myself another chance, after I messed up” and Vulnerable Women Became even more Vulnerable During the Pandemic and Sex-workers in Ecuador badly affected by the economic aftermath of COVID-19 and The lost teenagers – Mary Mutesi

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