Monday, March 22, 2010

Global Shea 2010

Here I am at the Global Shea conference 

West Africa Trade Hub works with people to improve transport, access to finance, business environment and ICT to make West African businesses more competitive*.  They recently sponsored a 4 day conference to improve communication and quality at all levels of the shea value chain at Hotel de l'Amitié in Bamako, Mali which touched on topics ranging from maximizing quality to business planning and improved management to research, development and production to bulk trade in shea and expanding opportunities.

a shea tree and shea products from a shea store in San

Actors from all levels of the shea value chain attended including producers, buyers and exporters, from over 22 countries.  Peace Corps Volunteers from 4 countries in West Africa (Mali, Ghana, Benin & Togo) who work with shea in their respective villages - from forming women on improved practices to working on exporting large quantities of butter - also made the journey to the conference.  All forms of transport were exploited from buses on their last leg to first class airplanes and accommodations ranged the gamut from bunk beds at the Mali Peace Corps transit house to 5 star rooms at Hotel de l'Amitié.  

Here a man demonstrates how to make a shea butter pomade with aloe vera - all materials found in Mali/West Africa

The first day of the conference was dedicated to registration, sorting out the kinks of rooms, name tags and orientation as well as informal meetings between participants about their work in the shea field.  Day two is when things really got juicy as conference participants attended sessions ranging from improving the quality of their shea products (soaps, pomades, raw butter) to getting their shea butter laboratory tested, to bulk exporting of nuts and butter.  Participants benefitted from translations in both French and English depending on the nationality of the speaker (or their second language as the case was for those from Japan, Germany and Holland) as well as local language translations by Peace Corps Volunteers into Bambara.  Walking into the conference center on Day 2 booths lined the  second floor where women and men had carefully arranged bars of soap, tubs of shea butter and pamphlets advertising their products.  The back row was filled with women's associations from Mali and bright pagnes of Malian shea fabric were tacked onto the wall displaying the number of women's groups in Mali working with shea.  Other booths were occupied by women and men from Ghana, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Nigeria and England and their respective organizations.  
 Funlayo Alabi is a Nigerian woman living in Maryland who has incredible shea products - check out her products here (she went to Regent University in Virginia Beach, too!)

Leaving the conference, the scent of various body butters and creams lingering on my skin, I thought about what this conference meant for me.  I have never been closer to the source of shea butter than living here in Mali - women in my village collect shea nuts in the fields surrounding our village and sell them to traveling salesmen or whip the ground nuts into butter - and I have never been closer to the raw business side of shea butter than at this conference - buyers coming to the source for a base ingredient included in many products, from cosmetics to chocolate.  At the end of the conference we (PCVs) sat down and talked about problems facing the shea industry.  We concluded that the nut market is unorganized, there is a lack of good business partners, a lack of product diversification and development, and also the number of NGOs with their fingers in the various shea pots is overwhelming.  Also, it is unfortunate that food insecurity forces women to sell their nuts at sub-market prices.  One of the most interesting things I learned at the conference was from The Body Shop representative for Africa who said that 90% of the shea market is for nuts and 10% for shea butter yet 90% of the information exchanged in the industry is about shea butter and only 10% for nuts.  An incredible imbalance!

With buyers for L'Oréal, The Body Shop, Ghana Specialty Fats, export facilitators from Ghana, Senegal and Mali and producers from Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Nigeria (among many others) I saw how much shea really can do for women in West Africa.  That when women can sell their quality nuts and butter at fair trade prices, business and trade really can be key to sustainable development. 
 Mark, Chrissy and Sam in the hotel lobby

Michael is ready to give you a flash drive!

Drinks after a great week of work

Listening to the translated speeches

See more pictures from the conference here 


Sambieni said...

Hi Jennifer, what a great report! The conference could not have succeeded with the great efforts of the PCVs like you. Shea is an amazing tree, nut and product. The conference allowed everyone to see how the incomes of millions of the poorest women in the world could be improved through shea. Thanks for being a part of it.

Funlayo said...

Hi Jennifer,

Very informative report on the conference. It was a pleasure meeting you. You totally rocked all your West African outfits.

Tata Funlayo

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