KORHOGO, IVORY COAST - From cosmetics to cooking, shea butter is popular around the world. It is made from the nut of the shea tree, known as "women's gold” in Africa for it provides income to millions of women across the Sahel. In northern Ivory Coast, women are trying to transform shea butter from a cottage industry into big business.
It’s harvest season for karité, or shea, in northern Ivory Coast, and just like every year, Alice Koné picks up the fallen fruit. She processes the kernels in the traditional way her grandmother taught her.
It will take her hours of hard work to make the shea butter that will then be sold at the local market.
“Sometimes, shea butter pays well and we don’t need anything else. But when the harvest isn’t good, we have to get by with other products,” said Koné.
Like Koné, most women in the shea industry in Ivory Coast work independently and sell locally.
But shea butter is in high demand internationally for use in cosmetics or as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolate.
Neighboring Burkina Faso and Ghana are among the world’s leading exporters. Burkina Faso earns an estimated $33 million annually exporting shea.
Ivory Coast is trying to catch up.
In one village, women have teamed up in a shea co-op.
“When you work in group, there are a lot of ideas, and also financial backers can come help us. We have received some assistance, a funding capital, they built us a warehouse. If you work alone, people can’t help you. They can’t build a warehouse for every woman,” said Ahoua Coulibaly, a shea butter producer.
In some fields in the area a new kind of shea tree is also being planted. This kind is more productive than the traditional wild type. And the country now has two mechanical processing units. Two years ago, the government began working to structure the shea sector, an effort spearheaded by Ali Keita.
“As soon as we have a strong cooperative structure, we will have clients in China, Europe and the United States. If we manage to create an inter-professional organization, it will allow the country to export shea butter internationally,” said Keita.
Keita is also pushing for more regional cooperation among shea butter-producing countries.