Sunday, March 31 2013
More than 500 representatives of all points in the shea value chain participated in the Global Shea Alliance’s “Global Perspectives” conference, held in Abuja, Nigeria, in March, and set the course for the future of an industry whose global significance grows with every year. Alliance members set up working groups on sustainability on the critical issues of quality and sustainability, and elected a new president.
The shea industry is among the most important employers in West Africa, sourcing raw material for export from approximately four million rural women collectors, with a total of approximately 16 million collectors active across the entire shea zone – a massive area stretching from Senegal to South Sudan. Hundreds of thousands of people benefit from work along the entire international supply chain.
Shea is a critical ingredient in the making of specialty fats for the food industry and an ever-growing popular ingredient in natural cosmetics. The tree’s fruit is tasty and nutritious and the tree’s bark has medicinal qualities, among its many uses.
In just two years, the Global Shea Alliance has facilitated the industry’s development, growing from just 50 members at its inception to more than 300 today. The international association brings together women’s associations, suppliers, processors, financiers, brands, development partners, non-profits and research institutions, all of whom share the goal of moving the shea industry forward into an increasingly profitable and sustainable future.
At the conference, stakeholders discussed a wide range of challenges facing the industry: the inconsistent quality of shea, and its effect on prices; demand instability, caused by a lack of diversification into other markets; and fragmented advocacy. All of these issues also impact on the single biggest problem facing shea-producing regions: poverty.
Throughout the four-day conference, workshops and seminars shared crucial information with stakeholders at all levels of the supply chain, including business and finance seminars for entrepreneurs, marketing strategy discussion groups for exporters, presentations on the latest innovations in sustainable agriculture for farmers, and workshops on the theory and practice of organic soap-making for artisans.
Outgoing President Eugenia Akuete, at the end of her two-year term, reminded participants that the shea industry held its first ever conference seven years ago in Abuja in 2006, and noted with pride how far the Alliance has come.
“You are seeing the results of our important and historic decision to launch the Global Shea Alliance – a decision that above all else was remarkable because it involved every major stakeholder in the industry,” Akuete said. “That says a great deal – mainly that we all agree that we cannot resolve the issues working alone. There is no question about it: we must collaborate.”
President-elect Hajia Salima Makama paid tribute to Akuete’s work over the past two years in strengthening the Alliance, and assured members that she herself was ready to build on the achievements.
“I was asked earlier today, ‘How will you measure the success of the Global Shea Alliance over the next two years?’” Makama said. “We will see it in improved livelihoods of women in our rural communities. We will see it in the payment of children’s school fees. We will see it in the use of shea in more products across Africa and in the rest of the world.
“We will see it in the growth of our businesses. And we will see it in new products and new uses for shea.”
Many speakers at the conference described how they entered the shea market. Roland Riboux, CEO of Fludor Benin, an international fats company, described how the 2011 Global Shea Alliance conference in Accra, Ghana, persuaded him that shea was the next sector in which to invest. Following that conference, Fludor Benin opened a facility processing 500 metric tons of shea. The firm now processes 15,000 metric tons of shea annually.
Mr Riboux noted that while the public generally perceives shea as a cosmetics ingredient, in fact the majority of shea is used in the food industry.
“We may be manufacturing different products for different uses,” said Mr. Riboux, “but we all face similar challenges – whether we are buying sheanuts, processing sheanuts or making products for sale to food companies or high-end cosmetic boutiques.”
At the conference the Alliance held its Annual General Meeting to establish the next steps to be taken to secure the continued growth of the industry. Market expansion is imperative if the industry is to thrive.
“As well as moving into new local and international markets where shea is not commonly sold, market diversification is crucial,” said the Alliance’s Managing Director Joseph Funt. “There are many markets where shea products can penetrate far more deeply, like cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and other edible industries where shea can act as a key sustainable ingredient or substitute.”
Also of pressing importance is the need to become more competitive through increased consistency of quality. Dr Peter Lovett, the USAID West Africa Trade Hub’s shea advisor, observed that while a harvest of low quality sheanuts generates a mere 25% of highly-sought-after shea oil, a harvest of high-quality nuts can yield 50% oil by weight.
“What if traders in West Africa could assure international buyers that their material had highest oil yields?” he asked participants at the conference. The clear answer, he said, is increased demand and the incentive for buyers to pay higher prices for guaranteed higher-quality sheanuts. At the General Meeting, working groups of volunteers formed to research and advocate for regional shea quality grades or norms across West Africa.
For the long-term growth of the industry, sustainability is key. The conference heard expert analyses of the environmental and human threats facing shea trees across the region, and outlines of successful initiatives to combat these threats. Issahaku Zakaria of SNV Ghana described the growth of a sustainability protocol for communities in northern Ghana.
“The current trees are old and under threat, for example from bush fires, harvesting for charcoal, and mining,” Zakaria said. “In order to conserve the shea tree as a local natural resource, the economic utility of shea must 'compete' with the short-term alternative cash value of the tree.”
To this end, community bio-cultural protocols have been adopted, as well as the introduction of beekeeping as an alternative form of income. The General Meeting formed a Sustainability Working Group, with a view to developing a base code for sustainability, and lobbying national organizations to support it.
Academic specialists such as Dr. Georgia Durst-Lahti of Beloit College in the U.S. described how internationally-recognized, scientifically-demonstrable quality standards can make international sales much easier to achieve.
“U.S. and EU buyers want ‘paper’ even before they want a sample,” said Durst-Lahti. She went on to note the importance of authentic stories of shea’s social benefit as a marketing tool, but emphasized that this factor only comes into play once the quality of the product has been guaranteed.
“The future of shea has never been brighter,” said Funt, the Alliance’s director. “Shea has been an economic and social force across Africa for millennia, and now the continent’s stakeholders are in a position to begin reaping the full benefits.”
On the final day of the conference, participants travelled to Niger state - the largest state in Nigeria and the location of most of the country’s shea trees – to see Kodo Village, a shea-producing center run by a women’s cooperative. An initiative supported by Niger State government, Kodo Village is an example of how rural women can take control of the manufacture of shea butter, with harvesting centered on a processing facility within the village itself, ensuring that as much as possible of the value-addition process remains in the local community.
The conference was co-hosted by Niger State Government and partnered by Better Life Program for the African Rural Woman and USAID West Africa Trade Hub. The USAID Business Environments for Agile Markets (BEAM) also provided support.