Saturday, January 19, 2008

Bettering Lives by Making Butter

One of my primary projects here, commissioned by a local NGO L’Enfant Epanoui Bénin and by project financers, will be delivering assistance to three local women’s groupements in the income-generating production of Shea Butter.

In Bénin and across West Africa, a groupement is a group of women (in this case about 30-40) who form some economic collaborative such as the cultivation, preparation, and selling of vegetables, yams, soybean products, cheese, etc. Our groupements are in the business of Shea Butter.

Shea Butter is more recently known to the States as an ingredient to certain beauty products or as an item in the natural products niche market, given Shea Butter’s veritable uses and its supposed homeopathic qualities. But in West Africa, the only region where the Shea Nut (coming from the Karité tree) naturally grows, Shea Butter has been used for centuries for a plethora of household ends, most notably as a moisturizer, healing product, and for cooking.

Although Shea Butter has been produced across this sub-Saharan strip of Africa for generations, most groupements (being the most common producing agent of Shea Butter) employ the same tools and methods always used. Basically, the women will de-husk the nuts with a mortar and pestle; further remove moisture from the already dried nuts by grilling them over a fire; run this through a mill; enliven and “refine” the butter through a lengthy and technical process of kneading, cooling, then boiling the paste; then leave the refined oil to dry into butter in calabash bowls. The end product, as you will see it in a local marché, is a spherical greenish/crème-colored solid with a earthy/nutty taste and odor.

According to my own observations, transforming a 25kg of dried Shea Nuts takes: about three days, the manual labor of several women (at least), and about 4300 CFA (about $8.70) in direct costs. Yet, in the local market such a transformation will yield only about 5,000 CFA (about $10.00) in sales for the women to divide up or reinvest in the next production cycle.

Our project hopes to cut the direct and indirect costs of the production cycle by purchasing for each groupement a machine that effectively subverts the time spent de-hulling, and the money spent running the nuts through the mill. We also hope to regularize the quality and quantity of production enough such that we are able to export raw Shea Butter to a buyer in the States (where demand for raw Shea Butter is catching on fast) or Europe. According to my preliminary research, in these markets one can generate revenues of more than four times that in the local Béninese marchées. If such a point could be reached (indeed, many groupements across West Africa are already selling directly to buyers), our groupement women and their families could benefit greatly from the sustainable supplemental income that is generated.

Supplementary and complementary activities will include the replantation of Karité trees in the our locality; community sensibilization concerning the problem of desertification; and the technical training of the women’s groupements concerning topics such as accounting, shea butter production techniques, and others directed towards the better well-being of their households.


Top Left: A woman from a local groupement sells Shea in the Nikki Marche.

Bottom Left: A drawing depicting the kind of Machine Production of Shea Butter that is replacing more traditional methods. Acquiring such technology will greatly economize our groupements Shea transformations.