Several years ago, when I bought a one-pound tub of raw unrefined shea butter for the first time, I was excited by the opportunity to shop both smart and green. I had done my homework prior to purchase and knew that shea butter was natural plant fat rich in Vitamins A,E, &F. This edible butter has multiple uses and is well known for its exceptional moisturizing properties. As a sustainable natural resource, shea butter is often used as a substitute for palm oil in West African cooking. In upstate New York however, I found it to be the perfect skin protection against the long, cold, and painfully dry winter weather.
The tub cost seven or eight dollars then, a great find for a graduate student, living on a fixed income. At the time, I did not fully understand the fair trade implications that surrounded the Western import and cheap sale of the shea nut and/or shea butter. The nuts for the butter are gathered and processed by African women living in the Sahel region. The cold pressed butter however is bought and sold by middlemen and traders who bring the product from the “shea belt” to the overseas markets as a cash crop.
I carted home the waxy, off-white block that day, pleased to spend the next hour whipping the raw butter into a silky smooth hair and body cream. I added olive and grapeseed oils to the raw shea, and set forth to mixing it using the same hand mixer I often used to make bread and cookies. During this process, I started to wonder just why raw shea butter, as an African import, was so darn cheap to buy in the West, and why its exporters hadn’t whipped the butter themselves (thus increasing its worth) in order to bring a more valuable product to the international market?
As I began to learn more about the plight of rural women shea producers and their struggle to establish fair market prices, I started to understand how the purchase of fair trade shea butter skincare products made a direct impact on the lives and livelihoods of women living in West and Central African communities. Later, I learned from Rahama Wright, former Peace Corps Volunteer and founder of Shea Yeleen, that raw shea butter’s true market value was kept artificially low because the women who processed it did not receive equitable compensation for their labor. She founded Shea Yeleen, a non-profit organization, to increase the visibility of rural women shea producers and advocate for a supply chain process that directly benefits these women shea producers.
Organizations like Shea Yeleen provide shea producers the opportunity to earn more for their labor, establish fair market prices, and increase female control over the shea butter production process. In addition to organizing women-owned cooperatives, Shea Yeleen purchases raw shea butter from traditional producers at above-market prices. It also educates U.S. consumers on the value of supporting equitable trade. As a result of Shea Yeleen’s consumer education efforts and commitment to local organizations, shea producers are able to earn a living wage for the very first time.
Last year, I had the opportunity to support Shea Yeleen during the 2011 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. There, I met three women who had received technical and business education provided by Shea Yeleen. They were smart, empowered, and strong women who were rising leaders in their communities not only because of their dynamic personalities, but also because of the positive impact that fair trade shea butter had made on their daily lives. Shea Yeleen sells whipped body butters, balms, and soaps at fair trade prices and these finished products help women develop shea butter cooperatives that create a better, more sustainable, shea butter production process.
While processing shea butter at home is still a sometimes-fun weekend crafting activity, I also support Shea Yeleen’s mission and the shea producers who have gained economic independence as a direct result of Shea Yeleen’s work to empower women entrepreneurs. To support fair trade shea butter and African women, shop www.SheaYeleen.com or a comparable fair trade retailer. When shopping for shea butter, always double check the labels to ensure that you are buying raw, unrefined shea butter that is fair trade certified.