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The work of the Global Shea Alliance is a win-win for everyone, including the many women at the beginning of the supply chain in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shea butter has become a very popular ingredient in cosmetics. And quite rightly so: its ingredients help retain moisture and it makes our skin feel soft and smooth.

Shea butter is made from the nuts of the shea tree. And there is something very special in the way those nuts are harvested:

There are no plantations.

The tree grows in the wilderness across 20 countries of sub-Saharan West, Central and East Africa.

Local women gather the Shea nuts when they fall to the ground. They collect, process and sell them, providing income to many families in one of the poorest zones on the planet.

Today, good quality Shea is not difficult to get. That was not the case only a few a years ago. But the Global Shea Alliance helped to change all that.

The alliance brings together all stakeholders in the supply chain: from the end-customers that use the shea butter in their products to the women who gather the nuts.

Now, this is something we do not hear every day: Corporations and traders take action to improve the livelihoods of those at the bottom of the supply chain.

This is not unusual in the world of Natural Cosmetics - but the Shea alliance is different: it includes conventional cosmetics companies and also big companies in the food industry (Shea is used to produce chocolate for example).

I first heard of the initiative at a conference in Paris last year and it got me thinking: 

Wouldn’t it be amazing if all industries worked that way?

I was curious to know more about the win-win constellation for the participants. I met Peter Lovett of the Shea Alliance again at Biofach this February and asked him.

He told me how difficult it was to come across good quality nuts some years ago. If the nuts aren't boiled after the women pick them, they start to ferment and the quality suffers. Instead, they have to be quickly boiled and sun dried.

The problem was that this information did not reach the women. Traders would buy the nuts in the villages and resell them to other intermediaries without any feedback mechanism.

The Shea Alliance reconnected a fragmented supply chain and bypassed unnecessary intermediaries.

Peter and his colleagues organized trainings for the women in the villages and teamed up with development projects to improve their reach.

It’s been a great success:

The customers get the quality they need and the women more money for better quality nuts.

The alliance also helps the sector grow. They are very active at trade fairs, connecting sellers and buyers, and actively communicating the benefits of Shea.

For Peter, this is just the beginning. He sees a lot of market potential.

He estimates that 60% of all shea nuts in Western Africa are not picked so there is room for higher demand. It would do loads of good - and not just in cosmetics.

In chocolate, for example, Shea can replace hydrogenated oils, and notably palm oil.

Remember, the Shea tree is a wild tree. It’s already there. No native tree has to make way for plantations. It is a truly sustainable system: a natural resource provides a living for more and more people without harm to the ecosystem.

Not to forget the good quality and positive image for the brands and products that use this ingredient.

Isn't it a wonderful story to tell?

You can find more information about the Global Shea Alliance on their website. 

And myany thanks to the West Africa Trade Hub for making the photo available!

de Julie Tyrrell
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