Earlier this year, Lush creative buyer, Steph Newton, travelled to Northern Ghana to meet with the women’s co-operative that supplies Lush markets with Fair Trade and handmade shea butter. As well as learning more about how this rich and nourishing butter is sustainably produced, she saw for herself the positive impact an independent income and supportive working environment is having on the female workers, many of whom had previously lived in the shadows of their husbands.
Shea trees are native to Western Africa, growing wild and (certainly in the case of those harvested by the co-operative we are visiting), without the use of pesticides. These native Savannah plants fruit in July - the rainy season - falling to the floor without any coaxing when they are ripe for eating.
Initially, the women collect the fruits from the ground, removing the fruit flesh for consumption and collecting the nut in its outer shell for processing into butter. Shea butter is a common addition to local cooking and so the women will keep hold of what they need for use in their homes, before selling the balance of the nuts to the women’s co-operative at a price that is always above the Fair Trade minimum.
Arriving at the co-operative centre to the warmest of welcomes, we are surrounded by the sounds of the women singing and dancing. Founded in 2003 by Johan and Tracy and starting with just 40 members, the co-operative is now more than 500 women strong.
We feel highly privileged to be greeted by more than half this number, some of whom have travelled many miles on foot just to be here. We sit to enjoy the dancing and watch as the women come forward for their moment in the centre, moving confidently and expertly to the beat of the hand clapping. Such visible confidence and unity - but perhaps, above all, a sense of empowerment which lies at the heart of this tale.
When the order comes in from the Lush production site, the women will set to work in groups. The facility is not set up for all 517 women to work at the same time and so they work in part-time shifts through the week in groups of 25, an arrangement which works well since shea production is usually just one of the commitments the women have. Most take a lead role in looking after the home, cooking and caring for their children and many have to walk long distances to reach the centre for work.
The process of shea butter production
The butter production begins with the shea nuts being thoroughly washed and then laid out to dry. The women will expertly sift through the drying nuts removing any of questionable quality. Using machines run by electricity, the nuts are first crushed, then roasted and then milled. At the milling stage, a fatty substance - similar in appearance to melted chocolate - is released. Gathering around large bowls of this liquor, the women will sit and knead by hand, adding a little water at a time and working in unison until the fat starts to separate. Continuing in this way for some minutes longer, the shea butter fully separates leaving any excess water at the bottom to be discarded. Patting together large handfuls, the butter is placed in a large melting pot returning it to a molten liquid state.
Nearing the end of the process now, the shea butter cools whilst being occasionally stirred to avoid any crystallisation forming on the surface. It is finally filtered through a muslin cloth to remove any last residual remains and packaged in readiness for shipment.
Here you have Shea butter as it is bought by Lush for our products.
The social and economic impact of being part of the co-operative is evident and the women have built invaluable experience and skill sets over the years. Fully trained in the use of the production machinery, they also have access to literacy classes at the centre twice a week, health insurance for the whole family (covered by their profits of the collective), and an income that funds their children’s school fees. More than half of the women are also trained as fire marshals proving crucial when living in an area prone to forest fires.
In addition, the women are encouraged to pursue their own small enterprises (making skin creams and soaps and growing other crops etc.) and to invest in their own businesses so that they do not solely rely on the shea production income. Over the years, many women have invested their personal profits in bicycles, saving their feet from the long walks and Tracy tells us it is more common now to see the luxury of an occasional hand-made jewellery purchase or a visit to the hairdressers.
During our time at the centre, we witness all stages of the shea butter production but just as importantly spend time speaking with individual women. Suzy and Gifty, senior members of the co-operative, help with the translation and we learn more from the women themselves about the positive impact that being part of this co-operative has had on their personal lives.
We are told, for example, how 15 years ago the women would be quiet and closed; barely speaking to one another at the wells when they were collecting water and living in the shadows of their husbands but today, a different story is told.
Finding strength in their new friendships, solidarity amongst their peers and independence from earning their own income, the women have grown in confidence and found their voice.
A true tale of female empowerment and one to inspire all.
*Steph Newton was accompanied on this trip by Lush videographers Erica Edwards and Jordan MacRae, and Lush Times photojournalist, Reece Pickering. You can see their film and photographs of this project here and here.