Women in the Shea Butter Business: A Story of Endurance

 The harvesting of shea nuts and the processing of its butter is a growing business with 98% of women in the value chain.

Women in the Shea Butter Business: A Story of Endurance

The shea, a majestic wild tree that can get as high as 15 meters, is common in the forested zones of West Africa, especially in Burkina Faso. When the shea fruits are ripped they fall on the ground, where women pick them to extract their nuts. Inside the nuts are the famous kernels that provide the nourishing shea butter.

Shea butter or “women gold” is integrated in the daily beauty treatment of women worldwide. It is also used as a cooking fat and for natural medicine. Shea butter from Burkina Faso is processed in a variety of products that find their way to international markets, such as shampoos, lotions, lipsticks and day creams.

The harvesting of shea nuts and the processing of its butter is a growing business with 98% of women in this value chain in Burkina Faso.

Shea processing, a demanding activity

Biata is in her sixties, with gentleness and simplicity; she talks about her younger life… During the nut pickup season, between June and September, she was up by 4.30 am, and would go to collect the nuts, walking up to 15 kilometers some days, to get a good amount of shea. Today, she is to old to keep up, but her children and grand children help her gather as many nuts as possible to take to the collection center. 

The nut-gathering season coincides with the rainy season in Burkina Faso, the time when farmers start digging and planting their crops. Women have to start collecting shea nuts very early in the morning, so they can spend the rest of the day working in the family fields where they grow millet, maize, peanut, sesame and other cereals. Late afternoon, they go back home to prepare the evening meal for their families. During that time, the days are on average 16-17 hours.  

In Burkina Faso, the shea value chain is one of the value chains where the role of women is acknowledged. It also represents a promise of financial independence, as women are making money on their own. It is an opportunity for socially connecting with other women in the village, as Biata explains “ This is not a burden, rather an opportunity to have an activity that brings women together and give us a revenue”.

Shea nuts

Collecting and processing shea, is not an easy job, it is exhausting but necessary to produce quality butter. Once the women have collected a good number of fruits, they remove the pulp of the fruits, which is edible, with a taste of mango. The nuts are boiled, before they remove the shell and remain with the kernel. The kernel can be processed into butter or sold to factory for processing.

To get the butter, the kernels have to be sorted, washed and dried. Then, they will be crushed, roasted, ground to a thick paste which, mixed with water, will be vigorously churned. The butter is kneaded and cooked, and then the obtained oil is filtered before being packaged and stored.

A business and social activity for women

“ I remember in my younger years, I would help my mother process the butter at home. Those days, we used it as another commodity at our house, and we would give out shea butter at social events like births or mourning.  We never thought of selling it or making a business out of it.”

However with time, women started selling the product in small markets. But they were disorganized and not making enough money. In the early 2000s, women who were processing and selling shea butter came together to create the “Nununa Federation”.

Nununa’s aim is to improve the living conditions of rural women through the reinforcement of their skills, their production capacity and the development of markets. The federation, which has more than 4,772 members, has a semi-industrial transformation unit and stable markets.

Biata and many women of her village are part of the Nununa Federation; they deliver their production to the federation, which pays them a fixed price. The federation is in charge of processing the shea and finding a market.  With this organized way of working, the women are making more money. “I was able to pay for my children’s school fees, I bought bicycles for my family, and I was able to invest in my son’s trading business” says Biata proudly.

In Burkina Faso, the STARS program works to reach 50,500 producers grouped in farmer organizations such as the Nununa federation and support them developing and strengthening business models.  The program puts them in contact with microfinance institutions (MFIs) for appropriate financing.

STARS works with MFIs to develop financial products for farmers and producers organizations to access a range of financial products that meet their needs.

Authors: Dominique Owekisa and Diane Igirimbabazi

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