Mali Women Turning Shea Butter into Wealth
By Paul Ndiho
Mali has recently taken steps to its shea trees into wealth that will benefit millions. The fruit from these trees can be used to make soaps and other cosmetic products that are popular in foreign markets
Mamou Coulibaly and Fatumata Tangara know all about the benefits of the shea tree. Like thousands of other women in Mali they’ve been gathering its fruit for years, in order to produce soaps and other products. The Shea tree grows wild throughout this vast country but, here in Kimeni, it remains a source of natural wealth that is not being utilized to the fullest.
Women in Mali face many challenges in transporting the shea fruit to a place where it can be stored and processed.
Mamou is fortunate because she can borrow her husband’s cart, but others aren’t so lucky.
“If we could change anything, it would be the transport. Buying carts would be a great help.”
“One of our biggest constraints is we have nowhere to store the fruit at home.”
The challenges remain even after the Shea tree has been delivered to a processing center. Néné Traoré works in Segou in southern Mali at the “Sibulon Ba” co-operative.
This center uses 800 liters of water per day. And it all has to be pumped from the ground, 10 liters at a time, and carried to where the women work. It’s an energy sapping process and often leaves women too tired for the remaining labor intensive tasks.
“The two problems we are confronted with here are the water situation and the fact we have to mix everything by hand.”
A new project is seeking to help women become more productive, so they will be able to make the business more profitable. It’s run by the governments of Mali and Luxembourg in conjunction with UNIDO, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. The center employs 20 women who process the Shea fruit gathered by more than 2500 women spread across 32 area villages. Just a year ago, the center could only produce 100 kilos of soap per day – now it can produce 600. And the emphasis is on quality as well as quantity: a better product means a better life for the workers.
“The soap has changed greatly. Before we didn’t know what was in it. Now we make soap that is purely vegetable, and we know that it is good for our health so we know what is going into it.”
Higher productivity means higher wages for the workers, allowing the women to spend more of their money where it matters most.
“Since taking this job my life has changed. When I wasn’t earning, my life depended on others. Now I earn my living I can organize and I am in control of my life.”
At this local school in Dioila the classes are full. More children are able to attend class if their parents are able to pay the required fees and don’t need to call on the young to work and assist the family financially.
“They no longer take their children out of school for domestic work. The family income has increased. They use all sorts of means so that they have enough money to live. Girls used to be withdrawn from school to produce the mill by hand. Now, with the mill machines, girls are no longer made to do it. They can study normally in class. In fact, they’re the best performers.”
The support given to the women outside the capital is part of a government policy to combat poverty in rural areas of the country.
“Women work with shea in all forms, from the north to the south and from the east to the west. Nowadays there’s a question of quality with shea that we are trying to improve that with the new techniques. “
The co-operative based in Dioila produces goods that are sold at this shop in Bamako. And it’s not just domestic consumers the project is targeting but they also have new client in France. Analysts are hoping that the more value the women of Mali can add to their product, the more profit they’ll be able to make. And if the improvements here can be duplicated across the country, many other women in Mali may have something in the future.