In 2019, the Danish government disbursed N1.6 billion to help women shea butter producers in Nigeria. But the project closed early and reached very few of the women it targeted. Elfredah Kevin-Alerechi and Nelly Kalu travelled to Oyo and Kwara State to investigate the project's impact.
Adebimpe, a shea nut collector, is stooped over a huge cast iron pot that has turned black. She is cleaning these pots with her group of shea butter producers in preparation for another shea oil extraction cycle. They are in Nigeria’s Ilua-Saki, Oyo State, at the Shea Butter Processing Center.
The factory is a three-room bungalow with a spacious main room where the shea nuts, grinding, and milling equipment operate. The manager’s office and a shea butter storage room are behind this room. These women use firewood heat for kneading and boiling the shea paste to produce butter manually. It is a challenging process.
But in 2019, the Danish government designated $3.6 million as part of its Danida Market Development Partnerships (DMDP) to speed up the sustainable development of the shea value chain in Nigeria over a four-year period beginning in August 2020.
It was led by the Kolo Nafaso programme, which was created by AAK (previously AarhusKarlshamn), a Swedish corporation with Danish roots that specialises in employing plant-based oils like premium shea butter for nutrition and personal care products.
The programme only lasted nine months, ended in December 2021, and was centred on Saki, Tede (Atisbo), and Orelope local governments of Oyo State. But even then local shea producers like Adebimpe, who hails from Saki local government area, have never heard of the Kolo Nafaso programme.
Since she started the shea butter business, she says, there has not been any support received from anyone.
“We haven’t gotten any money or training from anywhere, but I use the factory [Shea butter Processing Center] to produce the butter and resell it to the oga [owner of the factory] if I want”.
Although the Danish government on its website revealed that $3.6 million was allocated to the project, however, 236 pages of documents from the FOI request that the Danish Foreign Ministry provided to the reporters, showed a total of 9.6 million DKK ($1.4 million and €1.3 million) has been committed to the project since 2019 to its partner, Mennonite Economic Development Association (MEDA) of Canada.
The project, which was concentrated in Oyo State, aimed to raise more money for the state’s female shea collectors, enhance their income by connecting them with purchasers, give women more employment options with the shea sector, and increase shea-related opportunities.
To make this a reality, AAK adapts its direct sourcing Kolo Nafaso model, a direct sourcing model for a planned supply network of high-quality shea in Nigeria, in collaboration with the Global Shea Alliance, the National Shea Products Association of Nigeria (NASPAN), and MEDA.
The Kolo Nafaso approach rewards women who gather shea kernels by raising their shea-related wages and enhancing their ability to compete in a global market.
Although the Danida project includes training of women shea collectors on the easiest ways to collect shea and produce shea products, several women in Saki, Tede and Atisbo where shea products are majorly produced in Oyo, said they have never heard of any of the Danish projects. However, the problem lies in what this project promised to achieve. According to Danida, the goal was poverty alleviation through direct trade, interest-free micro-credit, guaranteed buying, and training.
Findings, however, showed that many of the women in Saki and Tede are still living in poverty and working in hazardous conditions with little access to direct trade, and sometimes, they are exploited by middlemen.
The traditional shea butter production process involves getting to the forest at 4:00.a.m. in the morning to use their bare hands to gather green shea fruits off the ground before the animals consume them.
The fruits are de-pulped, parboiled, then sun-dried. The nuts are first dried, then rinsed again, sun-dried, ground into a pulp, kneaded, cooked over firewood heat, then manually churned into butter.
Women typically produce shea butter right in their backyards. The shea nuts are ground into a paste at the local mill, then deposited in an unfinished cement building. From there, the ladies shovel the paste into big cast-iron cauldrons and boil it over firewood stoves.
The busiest season, between May and July, requires two to three days and 8.5 to 10 kilograms (kg) of firewood to make 1 kg of butter. Without suitable means of transportation, women balance huge sacks of shea nuts on their heads, sometimes with their babies strapped to their backs.
The shea-producing process is water intensive, finding water and picking shea nuts takes hours-long journeys on eroding, rocky roads. Some women have bad health due to exposure to smoke inhalation and bites from poisonous snakes and scorpions in the wild.
Some women have formed self-sponsored independent cooperatives, or collectives under organisations like the Initiative for Gender Empowerment and Creativity (IGEC), which, in collaboration with the Coca-Cola Foundation, established the Climate-Smart Shea Processing Facility in Tede, to protect themselves from exploitation.
Through these cooperatives, the women in these communities collaborate with the local factory owners to set and manage price caps. The Shea Butter Processing Center in Ilua-Saki is one such autonomous partnership where the women process the butter and the factory owner promotes direct commerce with larger markets in Lagos, Ilorin, and Abuja.
The plant manager, Abdullateef Abdulazeez, claims that he has never interacted with an AAK representative or heard about the Kolo Nafaso initiative from the female producers of shea butter.
Denmark is the 10th largest exporter of shea butter from West Africa, at 155.77 million dollars in export value in 2021 alone. With Nigeria having only a 10% share in total West African export, despite having 23% of the land available for growing shea trees in the region, it is understandable that Denmark would choose to invest in this opportunity with so much potential for growth and development.
The low export percentage of Nigerian shea butter is due to its poor quality, which is a direct result of the production process. Nigerian women have carried down the tradition of making shea butter through the years. Today, it is primarily made by rural women in rural areas using ancient techniques designed for a much smaller, local need that is unsuitable for heavy industrial demands.
Mrs Olasumbo Adeleke, founder of IGEC and the brains behind the Climate-Smart Shea Processing Facility, says the shea butter’s production method leads to low-quality butter, which cannot compete in the international markets.
“Shea butter quality is graded in A, B and C. Grade A is of the highest quality and produced with stainless steel machine and purified water supply making it sediment free and pure enough for producing confectionaries”.
Such an industrialised production process requires an injection of capital beyond the local producers’ capacity.
Out of the 30,000 women targeted for the project, 5,430 shea collectors reportedly benefited, according to documents from the Danish Foreign Ministry.
However, one might wonder who these beneficiaries are in Oyo State, given that the state’s major shea collector and producer associations have yet to meet with any Danish project partners.
Speaking on the record under the condition of anonymity, representatives from the Atisbo and Saki local governments could only direct this reporter to independent women shea producers and the Climate-Smart Factory and were not aware of any Kolo Nafaso projects in the region.
Alhaja Hadijat Isha, is the leader of the Ifelodun cooperative group in Tede village. The cooperative has been supplying shea butter to towns and cities in western Nigeria for 20 years.
She claims that she supplies two truckloads of shea butter delivered each week to Ilorin and Lagos cosmetics manufacturers. Isha admitted to the journalist that she had never heard of the Global Shea Alliance or the Kolo Nafaso project, but she recalls being invited to a meeting with other women.
“They invited us for a meeting in Saki [local government office]. A man came here from Ghana and asked about our process, and he took samples, that’s all,” Isha said.
Although Alhaja Isha could not tell if this man was from any of the Danida partners, it is important to note that Global Shea Alliance is based in Ghana.
In response to questions, Dr. Pierre Diegane Kadet, Senior Regional Director – West Africa, Middle East & North Africa Programs, MEDA, states that 817 women leaders were trained over the course of a six-week training session, and that internal photos and videos taken by participants are available; however, they cannot be shared publicly without the participants’ consent.
When asked about the quality of locally produced butter falling short of international standards, Isha insists it is of the highest quality; “In fact, a man comes from Ibadan to buy our shea butter and exports abroad, he says if anybody asks us to change our processing method we should not agree.” The “man” she refers to is a middleman who buys shea butter from Alhaja’s group at a rate they agree on and resells them to local and international cosmetic producers. Commercial demand for shea butter is based on word-of-mouth reports from these middlemen who take advantage of the local women.
According to USAID, a semi-mechanized process can reduce extraction time and increase output by 30–40%, and a fully automated production rate can increase output by 42–50%. The Kolo Nafaso project aimed to enhance shea butter production conditions and offer an entrepreneurial network to shield producers from middlemen’s exploitation.
Danida and partners’ response
We reached out to all partners on the Danida project, Global Shea Alliance (GSA), Nigeria’s National Association of Shea Butter (NASPAN), Mennonite Economic Development Associates (MEDA), and local NGO, Shea Empowerment Foundation (SEF) all fingers pointed to AAK’s sudden withdrawal from the project as the reason for the abrupt end.
“We were invited by AarhusKarlshamn (AAK) to join a DANIDA-funded program in Nigeria to support women shea farmers. The request was for MEDA to provide training and resources to these women and promote access to a market for processed shea fruit with pulp and oil-producing nuts. MEDA would also be the qualified lead on the project. It was a requirement of DANIDA that a private sector partner participate, and AAK filled this role,’’ says Dr. Pierre DieganeKadet.
Dr. Kadet claims that AAK left the programme without giving any additional information, citing security issues. With the exception of news of the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria at the time, MEDA was unaware of any specific dangers to the project, and MEDA and DANIDA were unable to locate a substitute private sector partner and buyer, forcing them to terminate the project.
“We will continue to pursue these opportunities, however, we will encourage diversifying through multiple private partner participation, when possible. Hence, the program won’t be reliant on single vendors with a risk they may exit the program early.”
Commenting on the complaints of women shea butter in Oyo State despite the millions of naira released by the Danish government to support shea collectors in Oyo State, Guillaume Noirot, AAK Countries Manager for sourcing and trading in Togo, Benin, and Nigeria, said in an email: “after noticing a deteriorating security situation, we asked our external security and risk advisor to review the risk in the area. They concluded that there was increased tension among ethnic groups, which has led to conflicts including shooting and burning down of bush villages. Based on this they advised AAK to end our participation in the project, at least until the security situation is at a level where our employees can work in a safe environment.”
Carl Ahlgren, AKK communication officer, in an email, said the project started in August 2020 and ran until May 2021, “when AAK reluctantly sought to end its participation due to the region’s deteriorating security situation”. According to Ahlgren, around 6,500 collectors were registered, of which AAK successfully purchased shea from around 550 women, exceeding 600MT in total.
His words: “Following the decision to end the project in Nigeria, AAK identified new buyers for the shea collectors as well as a new commercial partner. In addition, the collectors were compensated for any lost income.“
The main factors of insecurity in Nigeria are State Actors (state security services), Sectarian Actors (ethnic and religious violence and herdsmen) and the Islamic Terror groups Boko Haram/ISWAP, according to the Nigeria Security Tracker (NST). There was a clash between soldiers and citizens in Saki in 2020, NST recorded 113 deaths in separate incidents in Oyo State at the time of the Danida project in August 2020 and December 2021. In that period, there were 1,475 deaths in Kaduna and 2,840 deaths in Borno states, the epicentre of most of Nigeria’s internal conflicts.
Considering that the Kolo Nafaso project continues in Burkina Faso despite violent internal conflicts in the country, it begs a reason why the project could not continue in Oyo State despite the low record of insecurity in the state.
Same pain for Kwara women shea producers
Adamu Umaru, 53, was in the Burare village processing yard in the Kaiama community (the shea butter production ground) when she learned that one of her coworkers, a female shea butter producer, had been bitten by a snake while picking shea nuts in the jungle.
Kaiama community is a popular community in Kwara State where shea nuts are collected, and butter is produced. The condition of the women is similar to that of Oyo State, where the Danish government sent billions of dollars to aid women shea collectors in the State. Some shea butter vendors in the capital city of Ilorin travel to the Kaiama community to acquire shea butter.
Umaru is the leader of shea butter producers in Burare, a village in Kaiama. For thirteen years, she has been gathering and preparing shea products. In Burare, more than 50 women work together to process the shea in an open area bordered by trees and a little zinc-covered shade to shield them from the sun.
Umaru says a lack of sophisticated gear to harvest shea in the forest has resulted in the deaths of some women.“Deadly snakes have bitten us countless times while picking the shea, and while some survived the snake bite, a few died,” she spoke in her local dialect.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organization, Nigeria produces the most shea butter in the world, generating over 500,000 metric tonnes per year at an estimated trade value of 400,000 dollars. A metric ton of shea butter can cost less than one dollar.
The process of picking shea to prepare for Western markets is notoriously time-consuming—takes a lot of hard work to get the nuts from the forest, according to some shea collectors in Kwara State. The Danish initiative focuses on creating and improving market linkages and incomes of rural women shea collectors in the country using local direct-sourcing cooperative models like the Kolo Nafaso model, to ensure an organised supply network of quality shea in Nigeria.
The Kolo Nafaso model (KNM) is designed to form a supply chain of women’s groups in West Africa, where they collect and sell shea kernels. Danida’s partner, AAK, sources shea through KNM.
Umaru stated: “We use our hands to pick the shea nuts as they fall from the trees and bring them home and start the process to form shea butter”. Umaru said only a company called ‘Amagold’ has once trained some shea butter producers in early this year.
“They trained us how to use cool water to produce shea butter but that pattern is not working for us,” she told the reporter inside their production camp in Burare.
These shea collectors in Kwara state, after picking the shea, will bring it to their production camp, mash them with a local machine, and use firewood to boil the kernel, which they claim is causing eye problems for them due to the constant inhaling of the smoke from the firewood.
Sulama Haliyu Abraham, another shea collector in Burare, confirmed that she and other women in Burare have not received help from anyone nor have there been any training to enhance their skills.
The majority of our shea butter after processing is taken to the market in Ilorin, said Ms Abraham but “sometimes some company workers come to patronise us. The lackof advanced tools and training to facilitate the shea production is a challenge for the women shea collectors in Burare.”
Impact of using firewood
Local shea collectors in Nigeria use firewood to prepare the shea butter, as is the case for Oyo and Kwara. A few women produce the butter consumed by millions across the country. Using firewood for such large-scale production pollutes the environment, causes deforestation, and affects human health.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), in 2013, revealed that 93,300 deaths in Nigeria are caused by inhaling smoke from traditional biomass stoves, stating that smoke is the biggest killer of most women and children after malaria and HIV/AIDS.
“In addition to this health problem, traditional biomass stoves burn 90 per cent more wood than is necessary. This has cost poor families and institutions money that could be put to better use on education, health, and nutrition,” WHO said, as stated by Premium Times.
The global health body 2022 said household air pollution such as use of wood, kerosene in open fires, and inefficient stoves, has caused worldwide annual deaths with an estimated 3.2 million people, including deaths of over 237 000 children under the age of 5 in 2020.
According to WHO, “household air pollution accounted for the loss of an estimated 86 million healthy life years in 2019, with the largest burden falling on women living in low- and middle-income countries.”
Research carried out by Godson Ana and three others in Ibadan the capital city of Oyo State showed women in rural communities are exposed to emissions from firewood cooking stoves and are “more vulnerable to respiratory dysfunction even though in- depth longitudinal studies are required to establish causality.’
Several researches have shown that some deforestation results from gathering firewood for cooking, as 60 percent of Nigerians use firewood to cook, according to research focused in Ibadan by researchers, Olanrewaju, Tilakasir in Ilorin, the capital city of Kwara State.
The WHO Report claimed that all deaths of children under the age 5 are caused by lower respiratory infection due to inhaling particulate matter (soot) from household air pollution. The children in Oyo and Kwara living with parents, helping pick shea nuts, and processing the shea butter could also be at risk.
Similarly, in Burkina Faso, the Danish government within 8 years has injected 45.273 billion CFA francs into its national economic growth and poverty reduction by supporting several sectors, including shea. This aid was materialized by the company AAK, which is committed to guaranteeing a fair market for all organizations that have complied with production standards, a sort of guarantor of production quality.
Many women in the Burkina Faso shea sector do not feel that AAK has lived up to its promise of fair trade for all organisations despite complying with the required production standards and some members of the Shea Sector Table in Burkina Faso are not happy with AKK.
Adja Maïmouna Velegda is one of those who feel betrayed by the AKK company. “I used to work with this company. At first I was their focal point. With this work, I paid employees and I supported the economy around Shea.
“Then one day, they decided to go back to the villages to organise cooperatives that would deliver the kernels directly to them. We have seen how it ended,” Velegda said.
Velegda noted that AAK distributed basins to the women, “a few pots, but that didn’t go any further.”
She expresses concern about the projects and programs involved in the shea sector in Burkina Faso. “If they(AKK) really supported women, now we wouldn’t be talking about hand churning, for example, the kind of gesture I learned from my mother.
” We should talk about mechanised units and export of shea butter. Alas, they say they support women, but business leaders like me do not interest them. They prefer to spend little and earn more with those who are not organised enough,” She said.
Burkina Faso is the world’s third largest producer of shea nuts, after Mali (second) and Nigeria (first). Denmark is the main destination for shea kernels from Burkina, according to the country’s trade balance in 2019 and 2020. The exported share represented 47.2% of national production in 2019 and increased in 2020 to 60%. In terms of volume, this sale brought in more than 15 billion CFA francs ($25M,
€23M) in 2020.
Importance of Shea nuts and butter
Shea butter is increasingly in high demand, globally, with the top six producing counties in West Africa alone. However, promises of aid and injections of investments to provide better working conditions for West Africa’s shea producing women are yet to prove satisfactory.
The advantages of a well-managed shea ecosystem are endless. It offers long-term benefits for the environment and local communities. A successful shea value chain can establish environmental protection for shea trees, food security for local communities, and ensure good practices and protection for women from exploitative middlemen. Finally, it will improve the working conditions of the women ensuring their safety, health and welfare.
A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and Global Shea Alliance (GSA) says shea trees are effective carbon sinks, “a key pro-poor carbon fixing engine in Africa”. The trees absorb 1.5 million tonnes of CO2 in West Africa every year.
The global market demand for shea is valued at three billion dollars, with Europe as themajorimporter of shea, supplying the cosmetic, confectionary and pharmaceutical industries. But this comes at a cost for the predominantly women producers who work under terrible road networks, poor water supply systems, poor power supply systems, lack of modern processing equipment, and uncoordinated market systems.
A possible solution is to design adaptive technologies that combine indigenous knowledge with shea butter traditions and modern knowledge, which modernises the shea processing in Nigeria and preserves its cultural value to local women.
Additional reporting by Sandrine Sawadogo (for Burkina Faso) and Lasse Sorenson (Denmark).
This report is fully supported by Journalismfund.eu, and the idea was developed during the Civil Forum for Asset Recovery (CiFAR) programme.