On Oct. 11, 2010, the first private sector alliance to build a better shea industry was born: 54 representatives of every level of the industry – from the women’s groups that collect shea nuts to the buyers from the world’s leading specialty fats companies to the retail outlets that sell products signed an interim agreement to set up the alliance.
“Signing the document itself took about 60 seconds,” said Dr. Peter Lovett, the shea sector advisor at the USAID West Africa Trade Hub. “But getting to that point took years. It’s truly a historic moment for shea.”
Participants agreed – and they were already focused on writing a new chapter in the industry’s history, which ultimately affects the livelihoods of more than four million women across West Africa. Combining their experience, expertise and knowledge, connections and resources opens up new opportunities to develop the industry – and increase incomes of women who collect shea nuts and make shea butter, who are among the poorest in the world.
“The alliance will effectively promote shea internationally,” said Kadijatou Lah, a major exporter of shea in Mali. “It will help women learn about and understand the international market for shea.”
The alliance’s membership is perhaps its most important aspect. The world’s leading buyers –five multinational companies – are founding members as are the industry’s most important and most active stakeholders – from traders to exporters to service providers to NGOs.
“The industry is confronted with a variety of issues that are of great concern to all stakeholders,” said Santosh Pillai of Wilmar, a major processor of shea nuts based in Tema, Ghana. “We realized that a collective effort is necessary to ensure the sustainability of the industry. This is in everyone’s interest.”
Stakeholders elected an interim executive committee.
Founders of the new alliance said they would focus on the primary issues that affect every stakeholder:
• The market for shea – promoting shea globally will increase trade and revenue.
• The quality of shea nuts and butter – establishing quality standards for nuts and butter would mean higher prices paid to women for their work.
• Solutions for sustainability – developing sustainable sourcing standards that firms in the alliance support and adopt in order to undertake business in a socially and environmentally responsible manner.
• The policy framework – advocating national and regional governments in key policy areas.
The immediate practical importance and usefulness of building an alliance were evident in October. International makers of natural cosmetics meeting at the Sustainable Cosmetics Summit in Paris were keenly interested in the alliance’s potential of ensuring a sustainable and socially and environmentally positive shea industry. Additionally, the USAID Trade Hub helped facilitate an exchange visit to Ghana by representatives of over 20,000 shea producers from across Mali.
“We came up with the idea of an exchange visit at the Global Shea 2010 conference in Bamako in March,” said Issa Coulibaly, technical director of a shea butter producing cooperative in Mali that participated in the exchange with 14 other people, including nine women. “We saw that the quality and price of Ghana’s products on display at Global Shea 2010 were better than Mali’s and we wanted to see how they were doing it.”
“It was very interesting to see how the women process the nuts – their process is much shorter than ours,” said Djabaté Mariam of the Local Union of Shea Producers in the Koulikouro area of Mali on the visit. “The Ghanaian women also appear to be more organized than we are and the prices that traders offer them for their nuts are set by the market. We are offered prices that do not seem driven by the market.”
The exchange visit, was co-sponsored by the Dutch aid organization, SNV, and Mali’s Ministry for Women’s Promotion, with technical support from the Royal Tropical Institute. The USAID Trade Hub shea team guided the group, taking participants to shea industry sites across Ghana. In Tamale, the group visited the world’s largest buyers of shea nuts and women’s groups that make shea butter; they ended their visit in Tema, home to an internationally accredited laboratory that and one of the region’s largest container ports, and to companies that transform tens of thousands of tons of shea nuts into shea butter, stearin and olein annually.
Malian women learned how the Ghanaian shea industry works on an exchange visit.
“The alliance immediately connects stakeholders to these kinds of opportunities,” said Lovett. “At the sustainable cosmetics summit in Paris links to buyers in the end market were made, which helps stay abreast of important trends. The technical exchange visit linked stakeholders to learn best practices that ultimately move the industry forward.”
The African Cashew Alliance and the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) both offered their insights on alliance forming. Both organizations have matured to become powerful voices, representing regional and international stakeholders. Staff of USAID West Africa Trade Hub were invited to a recent WCF meeting in Abuja, Nigeria, where they were briefed on best alliance practices and given further offers of collaboration.
“When the African Cashew Alliance started it was really a dream moment,” Christian Dahm, the organization’s managing director, told shea stakeholders at the alliance founders’ meeting. “It brought people together and they addressed the industry issues.”
The ACA began in 2006 with just 24 members. Today, it has more than 100 members across the industry and around the world. The cashew alliance has mobilized stakeholders toward achieving key objectives: increasing local processing of cashew nuts, and in the process creating thousands of jobs and generating increased incomes in West Africa.
“Together, stakeholders in any industry can do much more,” Dahm said later. “Each has a unique and invaluable perspective of the industry and its challenges. A single company acting alone cannot take advantage of opportunities or address the same issues.”
The World Cocoa Foundation also presented to stakeholders at the meeting. The foundation’s participation was not coincidence: most shea, in fact, is used to make specialty fats that are used to make chocolate confectionary and other foods.
“The cocoa and shea industries are not competing,” Lovett said. “Using shea to make ‘cocoa butter equivalents’ increases demand for chocolate.”
Stakeholders agreed to set up an interim executive committee and mandated USAID West Africa Trade Hub to house the alliance’s secretariat. The website provides further information to anyone wishing to join the alliance. The next meetings will be held in the first quarter of 2011.