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.

Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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When we think of what a Tyrannosaurus looked like, we picture a gargantuan dinosaur with a huge mouth, formidable legs and tail, and inexplicably tiny arms. When we picture how it behaved, we might imagine it stomping and roaring onto a peaceful scene, single-handedly wreaking havoc and tearing the limbs off of anything it can find with its steak-knife-like teeth like a giant killing machine.

The image is probably fairly accurate, except for one thing—there's a good chance the T. rex wouldn't have been hunting alone.

New research from a fossil-filled quarry in Utah shows that Tyrannosaurs may have been social creatures who utilized complex group hunting strategies, much like wolves do. The research team who conducted the fossil study and made the discovery include scientists from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Colby College of Maine, and James Cook University in Australia.

The idea of social Tyrannosaurs isn't entirely new—Canadian paleontologist Philip Curie floated the hypothesis 20 years ago upon the discovery of a group of T. rex skeletons who appeared to have died together—but it has been widely debated in the paleontology world. Many scientists have doubted that their relatively small brains would be capable of such complex social behavior, and the idea was ridiculed by some as sensationalized paleontology PR.

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2020 was difficult (to say the least). The year was full of life changes, losses, and lessons as we learned to navigate the "new normal." You may have questions about what the changes and challenges of 2020 mean for your taxes. That's where TurboTax Live comes in, making it easy to connect with real tax experts to help with your taxes – or even do them for you, start to finish.

Not only has TurboTax Live helped millions of people get their taxes done right, but this year they've also celebrated people who uplifted their communities during a difficult time by surprising them with "little lifts" to help out even more.

Here are a few of their stories:


Julz, hairdresser and salon owner

"As a hairdresser and salon owner, 2020 was extremely challenging," says Julz. "Being a hairdresser has historically been a recession-proof industry, but we've never faced global shut down due to health risk, or pandemic, not in my lifetime. And for the first time, hairdressers didn't have job security."

Julz had to shut down her salon and go on unemployment benefits for the first time. She also had to figure out how she was going to support herself, her staff and her business during this difficult time. But many other beauty industry professionals didn't have access to the resources they needed, so Julz decided to help.

"My business partner and I began teaching basic financial literacy to other beauty industry professionals," she says. "Transitioning our business from behind the chair to an online academy was a challenge we tackled head-on so that we could move hairdressers into this new space of education, and create a more accessible curriculum to better serve our industry.

Julz connected with a TurboTax Live expert who helped her understand how unemployment affected her taxes and gave her guidance on filing quarterly estimated taxes for her small business. "I was terrified to sit at a computer and tackle this mess of receipts," Julz says, so "it was great to have some virtual handholding to walk me through each question."

In addition to giving Julz the personalized tax advice she needed, TurboTax Live surprised her with a "little lift" that empowered her to help even more beauty professionals. "When my tax expert Diana surprised me with a little lift, I was moved to tears," says Julz. "With that little lift, I was able to establish a scholarship fund to help get other hairdressers the education they deserve."


Alana, new mom

Alana welcomed her first child in 2020. "I think my biggest challenge was figuring out how to be a mom, with no guidance," she says. "My original plan was to have my mom by my side, teaching me the ropes, but because of COVID, she wasn't able to come out here."

She was also without a job for most of 2020 and struggled to find something new.

So, Alana took it as a sign: she decided to launch her own business so she could support her new baby, and that's exactly what she did. She started a feel-good company that specializes in creating affirmation card decks — and she's currently in the process of starting a second, video-editing business.

TurboTax Live answered Alana's questions about her taxes and gave her some much-needed advice as she prepared to launch her businesses. Thanks to their "little lift," they provided her with a little emotional support too.

"I got my mom a plane ticket to finally [have her] meet [my daughter] for her first birthday," Alana says. "I was also able to get a new computer," which helped her invest in her new business and work on her video editing skills. "It's helped my family and me so much," she says.


Michael, science teacher

When schools shut down across the country last year, Michael had to learn how to adapt to a virtual classroom.

"As a teacher, I had to completely revamp everything," he says, so that he could keep his students engaged while teaching online. "At the beginning, it was a nightmare because I had no idea. I had to go from A-Z within a couple of weeks."

Michael's TurboTax Live expert answered his questions about how working from home affected his taxes and helped him uncover surprising tax deductions. To top it all off, his expert surprised him with brand new science equipment and supplies, which allowed him to create an entire line of classes on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and Facebook. "Now I can truly potentially reach millions of children with my lessons," he says. "I would never have taken that leap if not for the little lift from TurboTax Live."



Ricky, motivational youth speaker

As a motivational speaker, Ricky was used to doing his job in person, but, he says, "when COVID-19 hit, it altered my ability to travel and visit schools in person [because] schools moved to fully virtual or hybrid models."

He knew he had to pivot — so he began offering small virtual group workshops for student leadership groups at middle and high schools.

"This allowed me to work with student leaders to plan how they would continue making a positive impact on their school community," he says. He wasn't sure how being remote would affect his taxes, but TurboTax Live Self-Employed gave him the advice and answers that he needed to keep more money in his pocket at tax time — and the little lift he received from them has helped him serve even more students.

"[It] has been a major blessing," he says "There will be multiple schools and student groups from across the country that I can hold leadership workshops with to empower them with the tools to be inspirational leaders in their school, community, and world."

Plus, he says, it was great knowing he had an expert to help him figure out how being remote affected his taxes. "I felt confident and assured in the process of filing my taxes knowing I had an expert working with me, says Ricky. "There were things my expert knew that I would not have considered when filing on my own."

Filing your taxes doesn't have to be intimidating, especially after a year like 2020. TurboTax Live experts can give you the "little lift" you need to get your taxes done. File with the help of an expert or let an expert file for you! Go to TurboTax Live to get started.