Butter that brought fat profits to the mud huts of Ghana
How did a women's co-operative manage to grab a share of the £2.4bn global cosmetics industry?
After two decades of being mocked as the "toothless one", Habiba Alhassan used her first earnings this week to buy a set of dentures.
Until a year ago, the £130 price of the false teeth would have been only a dream for a woman such as Mrs. Alhassan, who scratched a living as a hawker selling cheap goods in the arid savannah of northern
But a mixture of arduous labour under the blistering sun and insatiable demand in the developed world for plant-based beauty products, has transformed Mrs. Alhassan and 30 other women into a band of steely entrepreneurs with a lucrative toehold in a £2bn global cosmetics industry.
Pounding golf ball-sized shea nuts with her comrades in the "Pagsum" or Ideal Woman Shea Butter Producers and Pickers Association, Mrs. Alhassan said: "Our butter goes from our village to
From their production base in the mud-hut
Their success is largely due to a dramatic rise in demand in the developed world for what they call pikahali, the vitamin E-rich cream with the appearance of clotted cream and the smell of the savannah that is extracted during a back-breaking, 25-stage, three-day process.
For centuries, women across west Africa have picked the green fruit of the shea nut tree – a leafy giant of the bush similar to the walnut tree – and processed it into an unguent with a bewildering multiplicity of traditional uses, from healing the navel of a new-born child to cooking daily stews of yam. In the dark days of the region's civil wars, some guerrilla groups believed a thick application to the skin would deflect bullets.
But as cosmetics companies jostle for position in the lucrative market for natural beauty products and try to source ethically sound products for an ever more eco-aware consumer base, this labour-intensive product sold until recently for pennies in the street markets of countries from Senegal to Burkina Faso to Ghana to Nigeria has become big business.
Soaring cocoa prices, now about £1,500 per tonne, have also increased demand for shea butter, which can be used as a substitute for cocoa in chocolate and patisserie.
In 1994, all of west Africa made 50,000 tonnes of shea butter worth about £5m. This year, the export market will be worth £50m and
In such a context it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the women working in the co-operative, which has united the women of Sagnarigu with 25 surrounding villages to form a powerful marketing group, now refer to the shiny nuts as "brown gold".
Barely two years after they formed their co-operative, the women have gone from making a few hundred kilograms of their premium hand-made butter every month to the present 1.25 tonnes a week. The price the group receives has risen from 30p per kilogram to the £2 per kilogram paid by international buyers. One order from a Japanese cosmetics company last year gave the Sagnarigu women a windfall of £2,500, which allowed Mrs. Alhassan to get her teeth.
The industry has caused a sea change in the economic prospects and lifestyle of the co-operative members, many of them widows on the margins of northern
Rapid deforestation in the Sahel – the strip of bushy savannah that acts as a buffer between the sands of the Sahara and the rainforests of equatorial
Now the all-female work has been particularly vital to women such as Mrs. Alhassan and Adamu Amidu, whose status as widows means they lost the right to live in their former husband's home – normally reclaimed by his male relatives – and faced a life of destitution.
When asked what they dream of spending their profits on, most widows give the same answer. Mrs. Amidu, 51, said: "A house for me and my children. They can go to school. I can feed them. In return, I work for the business as hard as I can."
Pointing to a tub of fresh shea butter, another said: "For years, we have used it for everything. It cures our ills and fills our bellies. Now it is filling our pockets."
By Cahal Milmo in