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TFO Canada working with Shea Butter producers in Burkina Faso


Generations of African women have used shea butter for cooking and medicinal purposes.  Now, a new generation is using the extract from the nuts of the Karité tree to create products for export to open up new, and undreamed of, opportunities for village communities in Burkina Faso.

Traditionally, the Burkinabé women who gathered, boiled, pounded and kneaded the shea nuts into raw shea butter were paid only a pittance for their back-breaking work.  Now, by also creating soap and other beauty items for export, these same women are earning sufficient income to send their children to school.  And the Karité tree – once cut down for fuel - is now preserved as a valuable resource.

 “That’s where my satisfaction comes from,” says Amidou Ouattara who, with the 600 members of the cooperative Gnogondémé of Yona, work hard to keep the village’s new shea butter Production Centre humming with activity. 

It all started when SEMAFO, a Canadian mining company with gold production facilities in West Africa, asked Chantal Guérin to help it establish ties with local communities and generally improve the quality of life around the mines.  To achieve its goals, the company donates a percentage of mining profits to the SEMAFO Foundation, an arm’s length not-for-profit organization.  As its Director General, Chantal now runs a host of programs in West Africa.

Initially, SEMAFO was just buying raw soap from villagers, a small gesture that sparked the idea to make soap on a more commercial basis.  When it became clear the women would need plant and machinery, the SEMAFO Foundation stepped in to finance technical know-how and construction. 

The Foundation then asked TFO Canada for help in finding market niches where the raw shea butter could be transformed into products with sales potential overseas, and together they escorted a group of eight shea butter producers to trade fairs in Toronto, Montreal and New York.  The face-to-face meetings were invaluable, says Amidou, as it gave the delegation first-hand experience of what Western markets wanted, and competing products. 

While introducing the Burkinabé women to potential buyers, TFO Canada also helped to develop packaging and promotional materials. 

Before long, the Yona cooperative had struck a deal with Karitex, a Montreal-based start-up.  “Karitex,” recalls Chantal, “took the approach that both were new to this market, so they could grow together.”   And so they have.  The first order for 8,000 bars of soap and six tons of shea butter went so well that the Gnogondémé of Yona organization now has a two-year contract for three tons of soap and 15 tons of shea butter.

But the transformation of nuts - nine kilograms of which make just one kilogram of organic shea butter suitable for export - requires a lot of hard manual labour.  Now, with financing from the SEMAFO Foundation, most of the back-breaking work is handled by machinery installed in the Yona Production Centre. 

While Amidou Ouattara works for the SEMAFO Foundation in Yona, the Production Centre is essentially run for and by Berkinabé women.  Some office work is contracted out, but it’s expected the children now in school will eventually take over operational, administrative and sales duties at a soon to be expanded facility.  Aside from its economic success and the stable income it provides, by valuing the indigenous knowledge of these Berkinabé women the project is helping to reduce gender inequality — giving them a measure of human dignity.

With new international orders on the horizon, and possible expansion into other health and beauty products, the goal now is to unite all cooperatives producing shea butter in the region under a single marketing entity, and expand sales both within the African continent and internationally





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