A common ingredient in cosmetics is helping to lift rural women out of poverty.

This is shea butter. And you may not know it, but it's in a lot of products you use every day.

Left: Photo by gtknj/Flickr. Right: Altered photo by Kazuhiro Keino/Flickr.


Most people first encounter shea butter as a beauty cream, typically used for skin and hair products. But it's also a common ingredient in medicine, cooking oils, and even chocolate bars.

But perhaps one of shea butter's lesser known, but most important, qualities is this: It's helping to provide well-paying, consistent employment for women in West Africa.

While shea is a hot commodity, procuring it isn't easy.

Shea trees are plentiful in Western Africa, but they take decades to mature and produce fruit — anywhere from 15 to 40 years.

A grove of shea trees in Burkina Faso. Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images.

"There's a nut, with a very, very smoothy, shiny surface," Rosanah Fung, General Manager of SeKaf Ghana Limited, a social enterprise connected with the shea butter industry, told Upworthy. "Inside that nut is a very small kernel shaped like an almond. Inside that almond is how people make shea butter and shea oil."

A woman holds shea nuts in her hands. Photo by Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images.

And harvesting and processing shea butter is a skill many mothers in rural West Africa pass down to their daughters.

The women will harvest the fruit from shea trees in their villages and make small batches of shea butter using their own home-taught methods.

A woman processes shea kernels into shea butter. Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images.

But while the demand for shea butter — in and outside of Western Africa — is great, there are two problems: With each family using their own time-honored recipe and method, how do you make each batch consistent? And how do you keep up with global demand?

Enter Senyo Kpelly, a businessman from Southern Ghana who recognized the growing popularity of shea butter worldwide.

In 2003, he founded the commodity trading company SeKaf Ghana with his high school friend; at the time, it was mostly an import/export company. But the pair were having trouble setting themselves apart from the competition.

They realized shea butter was gaining popularity worldwide and decided to focus their energy on this growing commodity.

Because it's traditionally harvested and made by women, some call shea butter "women's gold." Photo by Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images.

To learn all he could about making shea butter, Kpelly traveled to Northern Ghana. He settled in Tamale, smack-dab in the middle of a Sub-Saharan belt that runs from Western Africa to Uganda. It's a poor area with limited resources, but plenty of shea.

What Kpelly saw in Tamale opened his eyes to an opportunity to bring an African-made product to the masses and uplift women and communities in the process.

In 2008, Kpelly created the SeKaf Shea Butter Village to process shea butter on a massive scale using local talent.

The SeKaf Shea Butter Village brings women together in Kasalgu, a small village about 3.75 miles away from Tamale, to harvest and process shea fruit into shea butter.

Women who work at SeKaf can bring their babies and children to work with them and socialize while they process shea butter using a more uniform, consistent method.

The village is now a model for other shea butter villages in Ghana and Nigeria. Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

Not only did SeKaf Shea Butter Village improve the quality of the product, the village is now a model for others like it in other parts of Ghana and Nigeria.

It also provides stable employment for thousands of rural Ghanaian women at the SeKaf Shea Butter Village and beyond.

The best part? The women, representing 22 communities in Western Africa, run the shea butter processing from beginning to end.

There are currently 3,215 women registered as shea collectors, who manage the process from fruit to kernel, and just under 200 shea butter processors, who turn the kernels into shea butter.

SeKaf buys both the seeds and finished butter from the women, meaning they get paid for the harvest AND for their finished product.

SeKaf Shea Butter Village women using fuel efficient stoves for the boiling stage of the shea butter process. "These stoves require less firewood and the chimneys divert the smoke to improve women's health and safety issues," Fung told Upworthy. Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

The women at SeKaf are also trained to be certified organic suppliers. Having an organic, sustainable supply chain is not only good for the environment, it's also good for the women.

"If you have organic premium quality shea butter, you can get even higher prices," Fung told Upworthy. "The higher prices will trickle down to the women. So by going organic, we are paying the women an average of 15% premium of the market price for their shea nuts."

SeKaf is also piloting a financial literacy program to help their employees manage their income, save for the future, and gain autonomy.

Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

The shea season runs about four months out of the year, so making shea butter is a part-time job, but the team at SeKaf wanted to ensure that the women have sustainable income year-round.

"If they need money, they have to ask their husbands, they have to ask their relatives," Fung said. "They don't really have any financial independence. So when you don't really have financial independence. You don't really have any power or agency, because you're always depending on someone else. You're indebted to someone else."

In two communities, the company is piloting Village Savings and Loan Association (VSLA) initiatives through their SeKaf Success to Sustainable Livelihood program.

Women count their earnings at the VSLA share-out event in June. Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

There are no banks or credit unions in many of the rural communities, but through VSLA, the women can pool their money together where it can accrue interest. They also have weekly meetings and training on how to save and why it's important. An assigned record keeper helps them keep track of their funds, and the women can provide loans to each other for starting side businesses or sending their children to school.

"They haven't had opportunities for any literacy, let alone financial literacy," Fung explained. "...just because they don't have formal education, doesn't mean they're not smart. They're amazing."

And the women have been able to save a lot of money already! In the first year of the program, around 60 women were able to save 8,500 Ghanaian cedis (around $2,200). That's an especially impressive figure considering minimum wage in Ghana is seven Ghanaian cedis (around $1.80) a day.

The VSLA share-out event. Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

SeKaf will continue to provide jobs for women in West Africa for many years to come.

Though he's helped revolutionize the shea butter industry in Africa, Senyo Kpelly's work is never done. These days, he's focusing his efforts on the environment and the sustainability of the business, particularly the decades it takes to grow a viable shea tree.

"[SeKaf Ghana and Global Shea Alliance] are working with many research institutes in West Africa, and we are working with the world agroforesty center," he told Upworthy. "So together, we hope to address the issue of the long gestation period."

Recently, Kpelly also launched Tama cosmetics, a high-end line of soaps, lotions, and body oils made with the SeKaf shea butter. The products are available in a few countries in Western Africa, as well as Saudi Arabia, the U.K., and Vietnam — and is currently testing in a small market in the U.S..

Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

But even with the company's success, Kpelly's proudest moments still come from supporting and uplifting the women of his home country.

"I think my happiest moment is last month," he said. "The women said they are no [longer] poor."

Photo by SeKaf Ghana, used with permission.

And to think ... it all started with a kernel.

More
via bfmamatalk / facebook

Where did we go wrong as a society to make women feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public?

No one should feel they have the right to tell a woman when, where, and how she can breastfeed. The stigma should be placed on those who have the nerve to tell a woman feeding her child to "Cover up" or to ask "Where's your modesty?"

Breasts were made to feed babies. Yes, they also have a sexual function but anyone who has the maturity of a sixth grader knows the difference between a sexual act and feeding a child.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Instagram / JLo

The Me Too movement has shed light on just how many actresses have been placed in positions that make them feel uncomfortable. Abuse of power has been all too commonplace. Some actresses have been coerced into doing something that made them uncomfortable because they felt they couldn't say no to the director. And it's not always as flagrant as Louis C.K. masturbating in front of an up-and-coming comedian, or Harvey Weinstein forcing himself on actresses in hotel rooms.

But it's important to remember that you can always firmly put your foot down and say no. While speaking at The Hollywood Reporter's annual Actress Roundtable, Jennifer Lopez opened up about her experiences with a director who behaved inappropriately. Laura Dern, Awkwafina, Scarlett Johansson, Lupita Nyong'o, and Renee Zellweger were also at the roundtable.

Keep Reading Show less
popular

Life for a shelter dog, even if it's a comfortable shelter administered by the ASPCA with as many amenities as can be afforded, is still not the same as having the comfort and safety of a forever home. Professional violinist Martin Agee knows that and that's why he volunteers himself and his instrument to help.

Keep Reading Show less
popular
Courtesy of Macy's

In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

Courtesy of Macy's

Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

Courtesy of Macy's

Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

Believe
True
Macy's