African business, politics and lifestyle
Can shea nuts help the women of Mali?
By Rainer Schwenzfeier
How can African countries earn more from their raw materials. And how can the women of Mali improve their ability to trade with buyers in the West?
Korotouma Doumbia, a 29-year-old from south-west Mali, has no education or formal skills but she manages to earn the family income. She harvests shea nuts and turns them into shea butter, a popular ingredient in many western cosmetics.
The shea tree grows wild in nearly 20 countries in Africa and Mali has more shea trees than any of its neighbours. They are often cultivated for their oil and Korotouma’s village has some planted trees, but they also harvest the wild trees further from the village.
“The trees belong to all of us, because nobody has planted them. All the women from the village can harvest wherever they like,” she told Reuters Africa Journal.
The women collect as much as they can carry. But about two thirds of Mali’s shea harvest stays on the ground. The trees are spread out and the women have no other means of transporting their harvest than carrying it on their heads.
One organisation that has tried to help Mali’s women earn more from their shea butter is the Development Trust Association or ACOD, a non-governmental group based in Bamako.
They buy Shea butter from farmers at a minimum price and then either resell it internationally or use it to make cosmetic products.
Elisee Sidibe, the group’s Permanent Secretary, says shea butter is an excellent way to fight poverty in rural Mali. “So if the government and its partners support the shea industry and help position it on the international market, then we could dramatically reduce poverty among women in rural areas.”
But the problem is that most women aren’t producing high-grade shea butter that can be sold internationally. They can sell their produce to the local market, but they get much less money for it than they could expect if they had access to better means of processing the butter.
The money they earn in the market is small compared to the profits made by big international cosmetics companies that use African shea butter in their creams and lotions.
Local experts believe that with more investment, the shea butter industry in Mali has huge potential for growth. This would impact not just the lives of women in rural areas, but also the country’s overall economy.