14 Nov 2016

Empowering women to make sustainable shea butter

Woodchat Shrike © Michele Lamberti
Woodchat Shrike © Michele Lamberti
By Djamila le Pair

A shea butter boom is reshaping Burkina Faso’s landscape. As diverse woodlands make way for shea trees, a pilot project aims to ensure the ecological cost won’t outweigh the profits.

In the only red acacia amongst an army of shea trees scattered on a dusty patch of land, an Olivaceous Warbler throws his choked-giggle song into the hot breeze. Like many Afro-Palearctic birds, it doesn’t care for shea butter.   In fact, these winged nomads have surprisingly little interest in perching in any of the nearly two billion shea trees the savannah belt hosts. In a survey of 2,965 shea trees, conducted by Vogelbescherming Nederland (VBN, BirdLife in The Netherlands) in 2015, only three migratory birds were observed.   Naturally, the declining number of Woodchat Shrike Lanius senator, Tree Pipit Anthus trivialis and European Pied Flycatcher Ficedula hypoleuca didn’t brave the 5,000 kilometres from Europe for a dollop of butter, but rather hoped to find a juicy helping of berries, ants, nectar or wasps.  

The primary oil for 80 million Africans, shea butter was introduced to the Western World as a near-magical moisturiser and has recently become a substitute for cocoa butter, making its way into chocolate bars and other snacks. Between 2000 and 2005, the export value of Burkina Faso’s raw shea nuts tripled, only to increase seven-fold between 2005 and 2012.   Raw shea nuts account for most of West Africa’s shea trade. But shea butter, processed locally by women’s associations (usually for niche cosmetics markets and making up less than 10% of total trade), is an important part of the global shea business. Mostly traded fairly and grown organically, it functions as the industry’s business card, doing wonders for worldwide marketing.   Living in one of the poorest countries in the world (Burkina Faso rated 183 out of 188 countries in the World Food Programme’s Human Development Index), Burkinabes’ life expectancy is just 58 years.

They struggle with chronic malnutrition, diseases, droughts, floods and other major issues. The average citizen in the Pô and Nobéré districts must make do with US$0.41 a day. It is not surprising, therefore, that the rising shea nut price is triggering a trade boom.  

She trade

Women harvest 92% of all shea nuts and carry out the labour intensive task of producing shea butter, though they are not usually farmers or landowners – positions mostly granted to male family members. Burkina Faso ranks 144 of 155 countries on the UNDP’s Gender Inequality index, for Burkinabe women are often denied basic services, education and land.   Today, the majority of shea nuts are traded on local markets, though not all at once. Women hoard their harvest of nuts as a form of savings and sell parts of their stock at opportune times during the year.   Doing business with international traders provides extra and much needed income, but women have difficulty negotiating a reasonable deal. Their social standing is weak and bulk buyers, often local haggle experts, strive to secure the lowest possible price to optimise their own profit.  

Preventing a shea tree desert

Beneath the Olivaceous Warbler, a woman gathers a bundle of twigs. It is a different land from the one she played on as a little girl. Where now a field of cotton sways, the ana tree would have offered shade. Together with the Christ’s thorn jujube and nimtree, these trees are popular perches for both residential and migratory birds.   Although they produce treasures of their own (pods, berries and gum), their offerings are internationally not as well known, or lucrative, as the shea nut. The lady needs eight kilos of firewood to produce one kilo of shea butter, excluding supplies for home cooking. With acacias and jujubes low on the currency ladder, they tend to end up as fuel and are replaced by sorghum, maize, millet, or cotton.

Unfortunately, these grain-producing successors need no pollinators – their seeds are dispersed by the wind.   During the past three to four decades, rapid agricultural intensification, increased use of pesticides, bushfires and the absence of a tree (re) replanting culture have impoverished Pô’s habitat. With a declining range of plants to forage on, clouds of pollinators perish or move on, leaving a hungry flock of Afro-Palearctic travellers in their wake.   Because the shea tree itself is pollinated by bees, its own reproduction is hampered, too, as a 40% decrease of shea nut harvest during the last two decades suggests. This trend could have severe implications for food security and people’s livelihoods in all of Africa’s 19 shea belt countries, covering 3,000 miles from Senegal to Ethiopia. Forty percent of this zone is covered by drylands, of which West African shea parklands are a part.  

Subscribe to Our Newsletter!

Classified as critically threatened ecosystems, these drylands are accelerating towards total desertification. If no conservation initiative takes effect within ten years, chances of rehabilitation are slim. The shea butter pilot, therefore, is both of high importance and great urgency.  

Pilot Partners

Solving this habitat’s problems won’t be easy. That is why several organisations jointly shoulder this pilot project funded by the Darwin Initiative. Naturama (BirdLife in Burkina Faso) leads with a hands-on approach, supporting, stimulating and training local groups. Two site managers will live among selected communities and coordinate day-to-day work.   RSPB (BirdLife in the UK), VBN and BirdLife International contribute their conservation experience and expertise on birds and ecosystems. Research on pollinators is orchestrated by Trinity College Dublin and the University of Ouagadougou, as is the development of biodiversity enhancing solutions. BirdLife is responsible for overall project management and measurement of progress.   Another partner involved in the the project is the non-profit Global Shea Alliance, which offers networking opportunities within the shea industry. Founded in 2011, it now has 400 members from 31 countries, including women’s groups, food and cosmetics retailers, suppliers, NGO’s and small businesses.

It liaises with governments to promote policy changes, builds warehouses for women’s groups and stimulates replanting programmes.   If the pilot proves successful, it is hoped that its lessons and methods will be shared and implemented across the shea butter belt. With around 18.4 million African families involved in shea butter production, the potential is substantial.  

A strategy for trees, bees, birds and people

A problem of this size, a project of this urgency, could easily overwhelm its participants, so defining a vision and strategy is a must. The pilot’s vision – a diverse and sustainable habitat – is supported by the Trees, Bees and Birds management strategy (TBB), formulated by the partners.   It prioritises natural regeneration, replanting, agroforestry education and monitoring, along with pollinator-friendly farming.  

On 16 July, a kick-off workshop brought together conservation experts and local representatives to synchronise ideas, discuss concerns (will the birds eat crops and seeds?) and fine-tune the strategy. The local Mayor’s presence and official opening speech underlined the participants’ enthusiasm and determination to make the pilot a success.   The TBB strategy will first be implemented in a few selected farms in the Pô and Nobéré regions. They will serve as models for sustainable farming, demonstrating the value of the new approach to other farmers. Selective implementation will also allow pilot partners to test things out and tweak techniques.   The education programme starts with teaching 20 charismatic locals about the benefits of pollinators and how to monitor them.

These “pollination ambassadors” will learn how to reduce damaging activities (e.g. reduce pesticides) and promote good practices (e.g. replanting and creating pollinator foraging and nesting sites).   Their crucial task will be to convince their communities of the importance of beneficial insects in the local landscape, transforming audiences into additional advocates.

She power

The aim is to reach 1,800 adults and 900 school children in ten villages around Kaboré Tambi National Park. Women will be empowered to contribute to decisions about management of the family farm and taught how to improve shea butter production with existing tools.   Ten producer groups (in total about 200 women) will learn how to gain better market access and secure a higher trading price.

The extra money will go towards education for the women’s children, a more varied diet and essential health care for the whole family – investments generally made by Burkinabe women.   Through workshops, education materials and open days, BirdLife will stimulate local governments’ awareness of the important role birds and pollinators play in habitats and therefore in shea nut cultivation.  

Pilot partners will actively liaise with members of two district councils, Burkinabe and West African regional governments, 20 NGO’s and 190 members of industry, striving to incorporate outcomes into shea industry guidance, government policy and practice.  

The warbler and the why

If the urgency of immediate action is great, so is the need for additional data. For while our lonely warbler tilts its head, listening for a kindred call, we ask ourselves: why? Why does it perch in the red acacia and avoid a shea branch? Is it to do with diet preference?   The shea tree does not blossom during most of the migrants’ peak season and when it does, its pollinating guests are mainly bees. The Eurasian Wryneck Jynx torquilla, however, almost exclusively feeds on ants, while the Woodchat Shrike – apart from bees – feasts on insects, invertebrates and even warblers.  

The Palearctic birds’ fondness of the mango and the Christ’s thorn trees seems to confirm the diet aspect, for they both attract flies, ants, wasps, beetles and bees. But whatever the attraction, it’s clear that not enough is known about the identity and quantity of Burkinabe shea pollinators, nor about their foraging preferences at different times during the year.  

And so, apart from boosting export and livelihoods for locals, research into this poorly studied area will help catalyse break-through solutions for people, pollinators and birds. In three years time, the combined forces of many will have something to show for – diverse sprouts of a returning, thriving vegetation, tickled by a zoo of pollinators.   Both will be welcomed with open wings by the Eurasian Wryneck, Woodchat Shrike and several warblers. Presumably with wide-open beaks, too.