Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shea Butter: Empowering the People behind the Product

You probably know the product: Shea Butter is an important ingredient in many soaps, lotions, creams cosmetics, and even chocolates produced and sold in the U.S. But did you know that all the world’s Shea Butter comes from the Sub-Sahara African Shea Nut? And for most African families the Shea Nut represents generational tradition, household utility, and an important source of revenue.

Market Opportunities. This is no less true today: by some accounts Shea Butter production is considered to be a more important source of household revenue for certain families of Northern Bénin than even the “cash-crop” of cotton. Yet today the benefits and veritable utility of Shea Butter are now well-known beyond the borders of Bénin and West Africa, such that Shea Butter has become a very profitable commodity, both within Bénin and especially in export markets. ­­­­

Even while such market expansion is taking place, the fundamental activities involved in making Shea Butter in West Africa—that is, the gathering of Shea Nuts (from the Karité or Shea Tree) and the production of the butter itself— are still mostly performed by women across this region, and using traditional manual methods. This combination of market profitability and rural production realities presents a unique opportunity of income generation to women’s groups across West Africa, and by extension a significant opportunity to increase the household revenues for the many families being supported by such women’s Shea Butter-Producing Women’s Groups (Groupements).

Market Barriers. While such Groupement women and families have much to gain from an increasingly profitable Shea industry, this opportunity is not without a formidable challenge: How are traditional women’s groups to successfully access and participate in such modern markets in a way that is profitable and sustainable? This is the grand challenge posed to the Shea Groupements of Nikki, Bénin. Despite their rich and long tradition of Shea Butter production, several factors make it difficult for many women in Nikki to profit from evolving Shea Butter markets.

Market Empowerment. In the last year’s experience of working with local Shea groupements, I and local Béninese NGO L’Enfant Epanoui Bénin have seen these obstacles first-hand. To put this particular experience to constructive use, we have decided to launch a project that will empower 15 Nikki groupements to adopt structures, skills, and strategies for successfully addressing these market barriers.

This project will take the form of a series of conferences, workshops, training events, evaluations, and publicity activities held for these 15 groupements, likely representing at least 300 women and their households. You can link here to read more about the background and five particular project objectives, which include thorough quality control training, the formation and official government registration of an operational Nikki Shea Butter Association, and the identification of a business partner for this association, most likely some type of buyer-lender.

How You Can Help Empower the People Behind the Product…

To initiate and realize this project we must raise $4,500.00 in funding, an amount which complements a sizeable project contribution already offered by the community of Nikki. We would like to see this money raised by the end of the year: this project’s success largely depends on the active participation of many rural women and as such should be launched well before the rainy season begins next year, the arrival of which immediately occupies any free time in Northern Beninese households.

You can very easily make a contribution by following this link to a secure Peace Corps webpage that has been set up for donations to this particular project. All contributions satisfy direct project needs, and none of them are spent on administrative fees, per diem, etc. of those mounting and managing the project.

I will be posting further info and updates on this project, so please check back soon!

Monday, September 8, 2008

What I’ve Been Up To…

It was about this time last year that I swore in as a Peace Corps and made my way up to Nikki. Recently I’ve been realizing that the vast majority of blog entries in the last 12 months have been more about what I’m learning or miscellaneous experiences, rather than what I’ve been doing vis à vis “formal” work.

Truth is, a PCV generally has to work really hard to work, and this is especially true the first year, as you are learning the language and locality, and getting a better idea of the needs, resources, and assets of a community. These being the prerequisites to productivity, one could say that work wise the first year sees a lot of false starts: ideas that seem promising, but eventually fizzle out for one reason or another. Nevertheless, I have been doing my best to put those token tax dollars to palpable good use (consider this my yearly report), and will now attempt to satisfy the common question—most recently recited by my sister— “What do you actually do?”

Business Formations. The biggest priority for Peace Corps Benin’s Small Enterprise Development sector program objectives, developed with the Béninese government, is providing business technical training to artisans, small businessman, and trade groups. In the last year I’ve given classes (Formations) on basic Accounting and Financial Planning, Marketing, and Business Planning, with some individual consulting here and there.

Formations usually are completed in 6 to 12 one-hour sessions. It’s hard to gauge a success rate with these, and the real work always begins after the course ends, as you try to follow-up and ensure proper application. Aside from the couple participants whom you see trying to apply the material, there are at least always a handful of participants who seem especially engaged during classes or who come back again to take another course subject. I personally have enjoyed these interactions a lot, as they have helped me to improve my French and to gain important entry points into the lives and business realities of many Béninese.

Working with Shea Butter Producing Women’s Groups. This, almost verbatim, was what I was told would be my primary project at Nikki, in conjunction with a local NGO. The mandate started out vague, but over the last year the work with 4 Shea Butter-producing groupements (women’s groups) has managed to define itself, if only in several different directions. One front of this has been business technical support in the form of accounting lessons, given to each of the groupement’s leaderships. In June we set up a small quality control training, in which over two days one local groupement (who themselves have taken quality control trainings, and who produces quality butter) shared their methods with the others. Three of the women’s groups and my NGO have been working on Karité Tree (whence comes shea nuts) replantation projects, with which I’ve assisted a bit in the manual labor. Two groups have also built Foyers Ameleriorées, simple but more energy-efficient earthen hearths used for cooking and making butter. And preparations are being made to start a garden for one group during the dry season.

The grand vision in the Shea Butter domain has always been to equip the women’s groupements for and open them up to better market positions, ultimately ones that will earn them better profits for their trade. We’ve been talking for some time to a producer/exporter in the South named Natura (who produces groupement butter into soap, then exports it to an importer/distributor in CA), and may be soon selling a small batch.

In any case, a lot of valuable research and experience has been gained in the last year to this “marketing” cause, and myself my NGO are in the works of planning a district-wide Shea Butter training conference early next year, which we hope will open up significant opportunities for many local groupements. More on this to come soon.