For women in Ghana, shea butter isn’t just a powerful multi-use ingredient – it’s a vital source of economic independence. Stylist’s beauty editor Lucy Partington reports from Tamale.
I think it’s fair to say that I’m in the same position as most other people when it comes to Community Trade. I’ve heard of it, yes. I know it’s synonymous with The Body Shop, but I’ve never really realised what it does and how important it is.
The Body Shop launched the pioneering programme in 1987, committing to trading fairly with the suppliers of its ingredients by offering good working practices and independence-building prices. Today there are 31 Community Trade suppliers in 23 countries around the world, benefiting 12,450 people.
To find out the day-to-day impact it has on people’s lives, I travelled with The Body Shop to the Ghanaian town of Tamale, to meet the women who make the Community Trade shea butter in all the products you see on the shop’s shelves – and have done for 25 years.
Ghana is famed for its shea butter. Some 90% is purchased by the food industry, but when The Body Shop’s founder Anita Roddick first visited the country back in 1992, she discovered it was being used a natural moisturiser to help prevent dry skin. It was immediately obvious to her that it could be used in beauty products in the UK. Two years later, The Body Shop placed its first order for five tonnes of shea butter, and it has been part of the Community Trade programme ever since.
The home of shea
Tamale is a small town in northern Ghana, an hour’s flight from the country’s capital of Accra. During our trip, we’re visiting the communities that have benefitted from the Community Trade programme, as well as meeting the women who make all the shea by hand for The Body Shop.
It’s early January when I visit and the weather is scorching. The sun shines down all day and it’s humid – not the sort of humid that makes hair go frizzy, but the kind where it’s easy to get seriously dehydrated.
The community we’re visiting is about an hour’s drive from the hotel along a bumpy dirt track on which our coach struggles. When we eventually arrive, the locals host a welcome ceremony and everybody gathers round to watch.
There are children and toddlers running around, the men are dancing and women are singing. It’s an incredible greeting. Around us are small homes with straw roofs where the families live, along with a school and a medical centre – which serves around 14,000 people from the neighbouring 24 communities. Without the Community Trade programme, that centre wouldn’t be there.
How shea butter is made
Before I saw it with my own eyes, I really had no idea how much work went into making shea.
The days the women spend making it are long and it can be a laborious task, but they muck in together as a team, usually working two days a week while the rest of their time is spent looking after their homes and families. They’re based in a shaded, secluded spot set back from the main community and the time spent together is used to gossip about their husbands and share family problems.
The production of shea is no mean feat and I’m amazed at a) how long it takes to make the butter, and b) how difficult it is. It’s an 11-step process, and making 25kg can take one person up to three days to complete.
Days start at 3am to collect the nuts, which have to be softened before being cracked open to release the seed. This was traditionally done by hand, but there is now machinery to help. The seeds are then roasted before being ground down into dust. Next, water is added to form a paste, which is transferred into a large, steel basin.
It’s at this point that the real hard graft begins. The paste has to be beaten, by hand, until the butter is formed and floats to the surface. It’s anything but an easy job and it requires seriously strong shoulders – I had a go and lasted around 20 seconds before my arm started aching and I gave up. It’s a bit like kneading bread for hours on end, and it ideally needs to be done before the sun gets too hot. Otherwise, the mixture just melts in the heat, making it a virtually impossible task.
Once the butter has come to the surface, the leftover water-based product is left to dry and formed into balls that can be used to fuel fires or smeared onto houses to seal any holes. No part of the shea nut is wasted: they’re worth too much for that to happen.
The butter itself is then transferred into another pot and boiled until it turns into a liquid oil-like formula. Because it might still contain impurities, it’s sieved through a muslin cloth into another basin. It’s then stirred in one direction (ensuring a smooth consistency) using a stick until it solidifies, which can often take a whole day. Once that’s done, it’s ready for use.
Shea butter has been used for centuries in Ghana, so much so that it’s seen as a national treasure. It’s very much a woman’s trade, and it’s used by almost everybody. Not only does it keep skin soft, it is also suitable for cooking, can be used as a base for medicine, and helps to promote faster healing (it can be massaged into babies to nourish their fragile skin). It truly is a multi-purpose ingredient, so it’s little wonder that brands across the globe want to utilise its magical properties.
A catalyst for female empowerment
Community Trade has become a crucial part of The Body Shop suppliers’ everyday lives. Here in Tamale, the shea butter business is run by women. They’re the experts, after all, and The Body Shop makes a massive difference to their lives by helping them share their skills with the world. Being able to witness it with my own eyes is something I’ll never forget.
When the Community Trade partnership first started working in Ghana back in 1994, there were 50 women making shea butter for The Body Shop. Today, there are 640. Thanks to the programme, women have jobs in an area where there are few other employment prospects, providing them with an annual income that they can spend however they wish.
The Body Shop also pay a premium on top of the trade prices which is then invested into the communities. There is a public vote about what that money should be spent on: so far it’s paid for water fountains, schools and the medical centre.
But while the money has made a huge difference, that’s not the only positive impact Community Trade has had. Perhaps most importantly, the programme has empowered hundreds of women, giving them a profession and a voice in what is traditionally a man’s world.
Feminism comes in many guises, but in Tamale it’s about women being respected within their communities, having the confidence to speak their minds, and enjoying financial independence from their husbands. And that in itself is priceless.
Shop The Body Shop’s shea butter range here.
Images: Courtesy of The Body Shop