How shea butter and Fairtrade … help women in Ghana to protect their children from malnutrition
Bolgatanga is the capital of Bolgatanga District in the very north of Ghana not far from the border to Burkina Faso. The town is situated at the southern end of what used to be the Trans-Saharan trade route and – until Portuguese sailors at the beginning of the 17th century discovered a new, cheaper transport route – anything that fit on the back of a camel could be bought or sold in Bolgatanga.
Today people in northern Ghana mostly are engaged in subsistence agriculture: they grow maize, sorghum, millet, ground nuts and some vegetables, most have cattle, a cow, some sheep or goats and a few chickens. The rainy season usually lasts from May to September, though due to climate change its start date is not as reliable as it used to be. From the beginning of October until the following May there is very little to no rain and after the last crops have been harvested in December the fields remain bare. Protein from eggs, milk and meat could supplement the then purely grain based diet, but many families had to sell cattle or chicken to buy essential items like cooking oil, salt or soap. Malnutrition in particular amongst children was therefore very common.
In 2006 our partner, a non-governmental organisation, NGO, founded a cooperative in the region. A year later a processing centre was opened and since then shea nuts have become a important source of additional income that has changed people’s lives for the better.
Shea trees grow everywhere in the forests in this part of Ghana, says Michael who is one of the NGO’s organisers. The cooperative by now has more than 300 members from five different villages – all of the members are women.
Most villagers live in extended families: Three, sometimes four generations share a compound in scattered villages that are surrounded by grass and farmland.
Decisions about how to use the forestland that belongs to the respective villages are taken jointly. The Shea nut season lasts from the end of May to October. Early in the morning or in the evening the cooperative members together with other, female members of their household go into the forests to gather fallen nuts from the ground.
We make sure that the kids stay at home, says Michael. Collecting shea nuts is hard work, the trees can only be reached on foot, often the women have to walk for miles and carry the heavy nuts back, few have a donkey to transport the load. At home the women parboil the nuts which makes it easy to remove the outer shell. Once the kernels have dried they are packed into the sacks supplied by the NGO; each holds between 85 and 90 kg. An agent in the village checks the quality and organises the transport to the processing centre. Our partner organisation pays 140 Ghanaian Cedi, about 28 Euros (£ 25) per sack. ‘We pay cash when we pick up the sacks’, says Michael, ‘the women need the cash, they can’t wait until the end of the season to be paid. 60 to 100 sacks fit onto a lorry, as soon as we know that enough sacks are ready we organise a collection and send a vehicle’.
At the processing centre the nuts are washed once more, sorted, roasted and ground into a pulp. Then water is added and the mixture is cooked until the fat separates and can be skimmed off and filtered. When it cools it solidifies into raw, untreated shea butter. Up to 60 women work at the processing centre, which can turn out eight tons of shea butter a day. At present the NGO manages to sell 100 tons of certified organic shea butter per year, 60-70% of which are also sold under Fairtrade conditions. The cooperative could produce a lot more. ‘We did a study about the prevalence of shea trees in the forests in this part of Ghana’, says Michael, ‘at present the women gather just about 30% of the available nuts’. But so far there is no demand for more shea butter.
The money the women in the cooperative make from the organic shea nuts has improved the families’ financial situation to the point where they no longer have to sell their cattle during the dry period in order to have cash for food. As a result people are much healthier, says Michael. Last year the NGO organised a thorough general health check and found signs of malnutrition to have become rare.
The women have great plans: they would like to use the Fairtrade premium to build a new school, a library – lack of access to books is one reason why many adults are illiterate – and an IT centre. But there isn’t enough money, so far they were only able to realise small projects: the Fairtrade money helps to pay the premiums for the public health insurance scheme which covers basic medical care. And the women paid for school uniforms for the kids: Without a proper school uniform and shoes many of the children felt embarrassed to show up in class. With the more nutritious food the families can now afford, the kids have enough energy to walk to school and to learn.