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Safari Junkie

When Ghana attempted to restructure the women-dominated shea industry in line with foreign imposed structural adjustment programmes, the women protested. Since then, technological assistance and other initiatives  by the government in collaboration with various knowledge institutions have enabled women shea producers to expand their professional knowledge and networks, and introduced them to new markets.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, following the global economic crisis, the Ghanaian government introduced the shea export policy within the framework of structural adjustment reforms. In theory, such changes were expected to foster economic growth, since the assumption was that everyone would benefit from the diminishing trade barriers and favourable foreign investment policies (Laver & Boamah 2016; Kojo & Chichava 2015; O’Brien & Leichenko 2000). The reforms were a way to stimulate rural development, enhance employment and economic opportunities for indigenous people, especially in rural areas.

President Rawlings also urged people to be more active in collecting shea nuts. He encouraged men to assist their women because gender roles and responsibilities in the community were an impediment to producing the required amount of shea nuts (Chalfin 2004). Yet, in cultural terms that was clearly at odds with the prevailing tradition in the Northern territories of Ghana where shea trees grow.

Women, everywhere, face challenges when combining income-generating activities with household chores. What may not be known is that traditionally, people of the Northern parts of Ghana regarded shea trees as a women’s crop and the shea trade a women’s business. Nevertheless, the shea export policy introduced by the Rawlings’s government did encourage the active involvement of men. Although such efforts may be seen as career activism that aims to bring about socio-economic changes, such measures may also have negative repercussions for some groups in society. We could ask whether the Rawlings’s government was working for or with the people. In 1986, a few years after the introduction of shea policy reforms,

“….. representatives of women from the three regions making up Ghana’s northern sector petitioned the government to make the shea economy the exclusive preserve of women” (Chalfin 2004:150).

“The resolution pointed out that the COCOBOD, the main buyer of the commodity, had given huge sums of money to agents who operate in a manner which did not favor women, who are the real producers…. The resolution observed that it is only the women who know the peculiar problems pertaining to the industry” (West Africa 1986)  

“Not only did this encounter give voice to women’s specific grievances but it also signaled the emergence of shea as a legitimate platform for northern political participation and recognition. ……… northern women’s protests may be considered a first step in the actualization of Rawlings’s agenda of constituency-building and political subject-formation, despite the criticisms of state practice they encoded” (Chalfin 2004:151).

Ghana shea industry

Shea, a non-timber forest product, earned its international recognition as a cocoa butter substitute in the 1960s. Since then, a number of African countries are active in the global shea industry. The shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) grows in the savannah belt of Africa covering 21 countries, extending from Senegal in West Africa all the way across Central Africa to Sudan in the East and as far as Ethiopia (Chalfin 2004; Naughton et al., 2015). The northern territories of Ghana are located in the savannah zone, where the shea industry is vibrant.

It is estimated that the industry supports, directly or indirectly, the livelihoods of over 2 million people in Ghana. About 1 million women are active in the shea industry either through wage employment or by picking shea nuts, the core of the shea fruits (Al-hassan 2015). Shea income accrues during the lean season and it is largely earned by women, a third of the household income comes from the sale of shea nuts (WFP 2010; WFP 2009).

Women gather shea nuts from communal parklands and/or privately-owned agricultural lands. They process shea nuts and either sell the kernels or process them further into shea butter which is sold locally and/or to market agents who export abroad. The shea kernels form the raw material for the shea industry. Processed shea nuts are the catalyst for the shea business; there is no shea butter without shea kernels.

For decades, shea butter has played a crucial role in the lives of the people in the semi-arid zones of Sub-Saharan Africa. Mungo Park, in the 1805 journal of his mission to the interior of Africa, reports that he used shea butter to maintain his pistols. Shea butter, a vegetable oil, is a commercial product as well as a household good. Locally, it is consumed as food, used as skin ointment due to its medicinal properties and hair pomade. Commercially, shea butter is sold to export companies for use in the cosmetic, pharmaceutical and confectionery industries. Mohammed & Al-hassan (2013) report that Ghana is among the largest producers of shea nuts, and shea butter export accounts for 25 per cent of the total national exports.

Currently, the main role of the international companies is to market shea commodities, and ensure smooth export of shea-kernels and butter abroad for further industrial processing. The buying companies work with market agents (male and female) who are the intermediaries between the companies and shea nuts and shea butter processors at community level.

Shea export policy

Recent studies of the Ghana shea industry show that the liberalization of the shea sector attracted private enterprises and many international companies. As a result of the integration of the shea crop into global commodity chains, there is increased commercialization and greater specialization among entrepreneurs, as well as intensified trading activities. Such changes could be credited to the removal of price regulations and buying restrictions in 1991. Moreover, the Ghana Export Promotion Council was tasked with promoting shea commodities, and the export of shea products doubled between 1998 and 2002 (Al-hassan, 2015). The state curtailed its role as a development actor and gave room to non-state actors to invest in the shea sector, with the perception that the indigenous shea traders would find ways to improve their lot in the new economic process and changing market conditions (Chalfin 1996). Remarkably, the above modifications moved the shea trade to a completely different economic niche, and positioned the northern regions of Ghana as sites for state and private-sector intervention. The transformations triggered various forms of support, from export companies, development agencies, including government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially in entrepreneurship and innovation.

Entrepreneurship & innovation

Ghana is reported to have high levels of entrepreneurship, especially in the agricultural sector. Also, in the classification of levels of economic development, the country falls under the group of ‘factor-driven economies’ with a large agricultural sector and where the economy mainly relies on the extraction of natural resources (Amorós & Bosma 2014; Herrington & Kelley 2012). In fact, the market shifts in the shea sector, from local to global consumption of shea commodities, led to modifications in the methods of production, as well as enhanced entrepreneurial skills, knowledge and resources to meet the new market demands. There were linkages with foreign investors, and more men participating in the middle-levels of the shea trade. Additionally, there has been growth of groups and associations of shea entrepreneurs. Other changes include new production methods, the presence of foreign certification bodies, cooperatives as well as microcredit organizations that lend money to local groups of shea traders (Chalfin 1996; Al-hassan 2015).

However, it is argued that promoting rural development through policy measures such as liberalizing trade and commercializing local products does not in itself lead to inclusive development (Gupta et al. 2015). There exist fundamental institutional impediments that are external to neoliberal agendas, and that must be addressed for any market reform to succeed (Amponsah 2006). For instance, it is imperative for governments to develop good relationships with the private sector, and forge partnerships, as part of the development plan (Dietz et al. 2013).

Furthermore, the relationship between economic development and entrepreneurship is one that cannot be ignored. To engage in an entrepreneurial activity leads to employment for oneself and others, and in turn contributing to social value and economic development (Herrington & Kelley 2012). There are two types of entrepreneurship behaviour, namely, replicative and innovative entrepreneurship. The former relates to opportunity discovery where the entrepreneur concentrates on producing or selling a good or service already available through other sources; while the latter focuses on entrepreneurs who see an opportunity and engage in the production of new commodities using new methods of production. The developments within the Ghana shea sector offer a good example of both types of entrepreneurship behaviour (Yu & Yan 2014). Shea entrepreneurs in Ghana should create leverages, linkages and develop learning approaches in order to benefit from knowledge and expertise of foreign investors.

Entrepreneurship training

Interventions by local and international development agencies in Northern Ghana have improved shea production and household livelihoods. Some of the enhancements have been in the area of technology and innovation as well as entrepreneurial education and training programs offered to groups of shea producers. The interventions are largely financed by the donor community, either through bilateral agreements or NGOs social protection programs. The training ranges from quality production methods, leadership skills, to basic financial skills. Such trainings, many a times ad-hoc in nature, have been instrumental in enhancing the skills of the women shea producers in the Northern territories (Al-hassan 2015). This, despite certain limiting factors, such as low levels of education, marital status, income levels, that hamper shea processors from benefiting fully from the capacity building interventions. Moreover, the above socio-economic characteristics of women shea producers, as well as the type of technology or innovation being introduced, have a direct influence on their decision, either to adopt changes or not. Mohammed & Al-hassan, (2013) recommend training for shea entrepreneurs, who have no formal education, on how to use technological shea processing methods.

Given that the majority of the women active in the shea sector are illiterate, it remains crucial to implement adult literacy programs, which could enhance their participation in the shea trade. The 2000 GEM report states that for long-term economic prosperity, the participation of women in entrepreneurship should be increased, and in the case of the Ghana shea industry, the involvement of women is in line with that recommendation (Reynolds et al. 2000).

However, it is questionable if the approach used by the trainers is inclusive enough. One of the requirements before entrepreneurship training can be conducted is to establish a group of about 25 to 45 women shea producers from the same community. Such an approach by the trainers fits well within the domain of grassroots activism, whereby international and local NGOs organize shea producers in groups and thereafter offer training, improving their abilities, but also teaching shea processors how to work in a group instead of independently. The shea export companies are a good example of actors that are enhancing the capabilities of women shea producers, thus, building people power through offering on-the-job-training, especially on quality production methods.

Building people power

During my fieldwork in 2016, the women shea butter producers took great pleasure teaching me the differences between the improved conventional and the organic butter production methods. Not to mention their enthusiasm in disseminating their knowledge about leadership skills and financial management practices; in spite of their limited formal education. The entrepreneurship training offered by the various knowledge institutions, although ad-hoc in nature, has built people’s power, especially in the areas of quality shea production methods and networking skills. The availability and adoption of new technological methods, albeit semi-mechanized, in most cases, has lessened the strenuous work inherent in traditional methods of shea production.

The efforts towards ‘building people power’ is exemplified by the technological assistance and career development initiatives driven by the government in collaboration with various knowledge institutions. Capacity building initiatives have enabled women shea producers to expand their professional knowledge and networks, and introduced them to new markets. Furthermore, capacity building programs, have improved the skill sets of shea entrepreneurs and in turn building their power - the power to remain viable in a globalizing shea industry with new standards of production and certification measures, geared towards the export market.

Given the role played by the donor community in disseminating knowledge and expertise and enhancing market access, one may wonder if the activism is not driven by the NGOs that organize women in groups to train them so that they remain viable in the new shea industry.

Interestingly, although changes took place in the shea industry, today, the Ghana shea industry is still largely dominated by women and has to a large extent remained a ‘women’s business’. At shea butter processing centres, where some mechanized equipment are in use, the women shea butter producers form the majority of the workers in centres. Moreover, the centres adopt organograms that borrow a little from traditional shea butter processing management structures. The new management structure includes a secretary, treasurer and a board of directors, and magazia and vice-magazia (i.e., supervisors of women shea butter producers), the latter positions already existed in the traditional shea trade management system, way before the restructurings of the Ghana shea industry in 1980s.

As advocated by the Rawlings government, today men are active in the shea trade but they serve mostly as managers, secretaries and innovators as well as trainers, positions that require formal education. However, there are also women - a few - who own and manage shea butter processing centres, therefore competing with men in the industry.

Initially, the introduction of the shea export policy was met with individual and group protests against the modifications by the government (Chalfin 2004). However, given the commoditization and the increased international demand for shea products, one may question whether the policy measures were not driven externally, by market forces, rather than the needs of the citizens.


There was pressure springing from market forces inherent in international trade, and President Rawlings had to make that important call to men to assist their women. In so doing, the important role of women in the shea industry was acknowledged, but so were the existing gender divisions in the communities. It could be argued that the protests by the Northern women in the 1980s, gave a clear and sustained political voice to their grievances, and did bear results given their large numbers in the current shea industry.

But suffice it to say that their struggle continues, albeit of a different nature, namely to meet the requirements of international markets which many a times favour those with a formal education to the detriment of the less fortunate. Therefore, policy reforms need to be examined properly before implementation. Moreover, the means to achieving success in such reforms require a holistic approach, taken carefully and as part of longer term efforts to benefit future generations. The question then remains is: did the shea market shift – from local to global level - lead to entrepreneurial developments and ‘building people power’ in the Ghana shea industry? The answer is yes it did, but more needs to be done, especially in the area of adult literacy programs which could enhance the participation of women in the shea industry. Given the significant numbers of women involved in the shea industry, it can be concluded that protests can produce results, politically and socially as well as economically, as exemplified by the women shea entrepreneurs in the northern territories of Ghana.

* Alice Mapenzi Kubo is a PhD candidate at the African Studies Centre of the University of Leiden, The Netherlands. Her research focuses on the developments in the shea industry in Ghana and the implications for livelihoods in the country. Alice holds a MSc. in International Development Studies (cum laude) from the University of Amsterdam, and a B.A. in Business Administration in Tourism Management from NHTV Breda, The Netherlands.


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