Shea butter is known to many as a healer and deep-moisturizer—a salve that can ease away dry-skin woes. But the females in Northern Ghana know it as a life-saver and a path to financial freedom. This little nut from a wild tree is empowering women in a country that treats them as second-class citizens.
As Good As Gold
There is a nut in Northern Ghana that falls from a tree. It lies on the ground, among snakes and scorpions until the female members of the village come to gather it in the early morning light. They collect them before their chores and housework, with their babies slung on their backs, bending over repeatedly from the waist to collect these little nuts known locally as ‘Women’s Gold’.
The nut they labor over is from the shea tree.
They come in the rain, their babies often getting sick from the damp. They wear sandals or sometimes no shoes at all, many getting bitten by venomous creatures that lie in wait. After gathering all they can, the women return home to begin the housework and then perhaps head to their husband’s farmland to work the fields for the day. In the dark of night, after dinner has been prepared, they will return to gather again. This arduous, dangerous task is known as ‘women’s work’ by the local men. Due to local customs, the women are forbidden to do it during daylight hours.
The humble shea nut has been harvested since the days of Ancient Egypt. Accounts from Cleopatra’s reign detail caravans bearing clay jars full of shea butter for cosmetic use. Among Africans, it is used for cooking, as a healing salve, for use in confectionaries, and lastly as a cosmetic moisturizer.
In the rest of the world, shea butter has become a global phenomenon. In fact, 35,000 tons of shea butter is exported annually from Africa. The trees themselves grow wild in various regions throughout West Africa, spanning an area known as ‘the shea belt’. Estimates have placed at least three million women working in this region, harvesting and milling the shea nut into profitable butter. With this high output, the possibilities for profit among Ghanaian women is monumental.
Men Above Women Below
For centuries, misogyny has reigned supreme in Ghana, with many small villages even practicing bigamy, the taking of many wives.
There is a saying in the local Twi language that states ‘Whatever a woman may do, she needs a man’. This becomes apparent very quickly when speaking with anyone in Ghana, whether it be tribal leaders or local NGO workers. The Ghanaian woman is looked upon as lesser than the man—someone to be controlled and utilized as the men see fit.
“There is a hard, divided line between men’s work and women’s work. It varies from tribe to tribe, but primarily men do not do household work,”’ says JustShea founder Danielle Grace Warren. Warren has been in Ghana since 2008, providing relief and protection to the women who harvest shea.
Her NGO, JustShea, equips the women with rubber boots and headlamps, helps them form cooperatives where they can share and discuss the trade, and assists them when dealing with male dealers who seek to exploit them.
“While things are becoming more liberal the vast majority of West Africa is quite misogynist. 95 percent of men would never touch shea harvesting because it’s for the women.” Something changes in her voice as she continues. “In theory no one in the household can tell a woman what to do with the money they make from shea, because it’s ‘women’s work’. Only she can choose what to do it with it. What is known as ‘lesser work’ is actually becoming a resourceful source of pride for West African women. One woman’s gross profits provided a 1000 percent return. She took out a loan for 20 dollars and made 220 dollars. Women are slowly becoming able to pay their children’s school fees, help out at home financially, and even to pay health insurance premiums. For the impoverished areas of Ghana and beyond, this slow revolution has become a major poverty alleviator.
Hand Made With Love
Creating shea butter is a lengthy process. The centuries of knowledge that go into the labor-intensive method is needed to uphold the integrity of the salve. From start to finish, shea butter is made by hand in a process that takes seven days to complete. The nuts are collected from the ground, dried for three days, and de-pulped by hand. It is then parboiled for forty-five minutes and dried again. After that, the women will dehusk it with a mallet and dry it one last time. From there it is roasted, cooled, and milled into a paste. In the final steps, the women knead it to extract the butter and then wash and boil it to remove oil and moisture. They then filter and cool it, stirring occasionally to provide consistency throughout the butter. Only then is it ready for packaging. Danielle Warren calls it ‘a nuanced, complicated product’
Bessie McIntosh,Vice-President of Aseda, knows this arduous process all too well. Based in the Mole National Forest, Aseda originally only harvested honey with tribal cooperatives. Now they have added shea butter to their products. They have formed communities of women who run their own co-op, producing shea butter for fair wages.
“Shea is primarily harvested by women, who are paid peanuts and aren’t allowed to own farms due to their social standing,” laments McIntosh. “The government barely supports their efforts so they must fend for themselves.” Bessie and the Aseda founder, Anthony Baron Kirk, have helped these Twi tribal women gain a sense of pride and ownership over their personal incomes.
Purported for it’s healing properties, shea butter can be used daily for renewal, repair, and protection. It is naturally rich in essential vitamins A, E, and F, it promotes collagen production, and offers SPF protection. Studies have also shown it to be anti-inflammatory. The average shea butter bought in markets or pharmacies is often yellow-tinged and grainy. This denotes a lower quality, and quite possibly an impure product. Wild-crafted from old growth shea trees and hand-milled by women who are being empowered by their own selves, Aseda’s shea butter tells a different story. The result is a soft, supple, and off-whtite product made out of the highest grade shea – known as ‘Ivory Grade A’.
On a larger scope, Aseda is investing in equal rights for women in a place where systemic misogyny reigns supreme. It’s one of the few chances these mothers and daughters have to invest in themselves and build a future that protects their rights, and the rights of generations to come.