Burkinabe Shea: An Experiment in Feminist Agricultural Investment


The production process of any kind of exotic-sounding oil, ingredient or extract, goes right over the Western consumer’s head, and yet we jump towards these mysterious products when faced with the option. The shea nut is one such ingredient, cultivated in Burkina Faso amongst other African countries. Whilst half of us probably would not have known that shea occurs naturally in the form of a nut, the other half would not have guessed that the process of extracting butter from nut includes a rigorous dance of crushing, melting, diluting and purifying - an exercise that can take days without electricity. One of the two halves likely do not know where and what Burkina Faso is.

In the summer of 2017, I volunteered through the UK Government’s International Citizen Service programme at a non-profit called The Kabeela Association in the town of Ziniare, in Burkina Faso, a landlocked, French-speaking West African nation. The Kabeela Association is a community collective based on a simple business model which trains women to produce and sell products, as well as reimburses women for sales and reinvests remaining profit in further training.  The association is one of the hundreds around the country that is using locally grown ingredients to give rural women the opportunity to leave a stamp on the country’s economy. Part of my summer involved seeing the women of Kabeela meticulously carry out this process of extracting and creating shea butter to then sell in the local markets of Ziniare.

Named karité (life) in French, shea’s diversity and versatility enable its use in cosmetics and edible, oil-based, or even wood products. The shea tree is considered a ‘feminine’ crop because it supposedly does not provide the same level of subsistence of maize and cotton, known as ‘masculine’ crops. This figurative parallel entails the gendered narrative of man’s responsibility to provide for his family. However, according to tradition, only women can touch the shea tree; seeing as its primary uses can be linked to home economics, the cultivation of the shea tree became a female-only playground (Ndoko, 2014).  

The 1997 UNIFEM review recognised this tradition, declaring the production and marketing of shea butter a female-only activity through the establishment of the National Shea Project; an instructional poster promoting the Project. The poster proudly hangs in the Kabeela offices as the women wait for the shea season to begin. The project is complete with social marketing campaigns, outlining a nine-step easy guide to extracting shea, the ninth step being a somewhat foreign concept of quality assurance to ensure that the butter is viable for sale on the international market.

The relative success of shea products on the African market does not, however, guarantee the success of shea outside the continent. I believe that the absence of shea in the Western marketplace is due to the perishability and high-fat content in consumable shea products, making it an undesirable export to health-conscious Western countries. Additionally, shea wood - which can be used to make light furniture and ornaments - poses a quarantine threat, thus making the export process difficult. Shea-based cosmetics, however, seem to pose no such economic or quarantine problem, and conversely is an ever-growing global market for both genders. Shea not only has wondrous qualities for skin and hair, but is also a rare ingredient, which in itself is an incentive for Western consumers. The Kabeela women have expertly weaved their shea butter into mint-based hair creams, coconut-oil infused soaps and skin lotions with added olive oil.

... [E]mpowering women includes empowerment in contexts that are familiar to them rather than attempting to turn their entire way of living upside down.

It seems, therefore, that the women of Burkina Faso have mastered the art of production of shea, the first part of UNIFEM’s ambitious declaration. It is the second aspect, the marketing, that poses a problem. Production without sales leaves too much room for a financial downfall. Burkina Faso does not have a strong enough national brand, nor enough soft power, to be exploited on the international market.

This would be the moment to exploit international relations and diplomatic trade agreements as a means of marketing. Burkina Faso still has many untapped natural resources, such as gold and zinc, which have caught the eye of mineral-guzzling economies. Japan, Qatar and Denmark all have existing or proposed programmes to provide agricultural support to Burkina, whilst Sweden has a programme of amitié that promotes cultural exchange through arts, film and literature. Burkina Faso is North Korea’s seventh largest trading partner, with bilateral trade equalling USD$34 million.

Whilst the details on the agricultural support from Japan, Qatar and Denmark, and the amitié with Sweden, are vague, some focused attention and investment in shea cultivation and care would suffice as a feminist stance from all of these partner economies. It would not only provide support to an industry run entirely by women but would also benefit their own economies, all of which have thriving cosmetics industries. Companies such as L’Occitane, L’Oreal and the Body Shop are leading the cultural shift towards ethically sourced cosmetics by supporting grassroots shea butter production (Ndoko, 2014), and could easily be joined by the likes of Oriflame in Sweden, Inglot in Denmark and Shiseido in Japan, all of which are brands from countries that provide agricultural support to Burkina Faso.

Recognising the business gain in shea butter investment is also crucial for these larger economies. The Western demand for ethical products coupled with their trade commitments to Burkina Faso could lead to substantial infrastructure development for the Burkinabe shea industry. The hundreds of small, dispersed Kabeela-esque collectives, all producing shea on small scales, could band together to produce en masse, sharing resources and skills to become a national force to be reckoned with. Shea trees grow in nineteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa (Ndoko, 2014), with shea butter likely being produced in more well-known, ‘well-branded’ countries such as Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and the Ivory Coast; if Burkina is to compete, it will have to be with strength in numbers.

The lesson to learn from Burkinabe Shea is twofold. Firstly, international investment from developed Western economies must take marginalised groups into consideration, such as rural women; investment should be directed in such a way that allows for the emancipation of these groups through sustainable, income-generating means. Secondly, empowering women includes empowerment in contexts that are familiar to them rather than attempting to turn their entire way of living upside down. In Burkina, that is turning the tree that only the woman can touch into a revenue generator.

The irony here is perhaps that organisations such as The Kabeela Association rely on the West not only for ethical feminist investment in their agricultural industry but also for human capital in the form of volunteers. The UK Government’s International Citizen Service programme encourages an equal number of volunteers from the UK and the host country to participate, but still, without 50% of these volunteers, there is a good chance that the shea butter may not be produced in the first place. Burkina Faso and surrounding countries have the human and knowledge capital to be able to stand on their own two feet already. It is down to all of the aforementioned international investors to ensure that the country can also be self-sufficient, rather than purely fulfilling the demands of other national economies.

Sharlene Gandhi is a Marketing and French student at Lancaster University who believes strongly in the power of education, entrepreneurship and happiness.

Marissa Conway