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.

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