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Ojoba Women's Shea Butter Collective: Empowering Women with Ethical Trade
Who knew that a nut so small could create such change?
Twice a year, we buy ten tons of Shea butter directly from the Ojoba Women's Cooperative in Ghana, West Africa, and we use it in everything from massage bars to lip balms for its rich, moisturizing effect on the skin. This past February, we embarked on the adventure of a lifetime and traveled to the Upper East Region of Ghana to meet the women of Ojoba and witness the impact making Shea butter has had on their lives...
"It's always been about the people", said Johan, "We fell in love with them. You will too."
It was 2003; Johan and Tracy Wulfers were traveling through Ghana when they visited a group of forty women processing Shea butter by hand beneath a baobab tree. Curious, they struck up conversation to inquire about the mysterious substance they were furiously kneading in rhythmic, swooping motions. The women quickly derailed their curiosity, however, as they began to talk about their lives. They spoke of their children, their families and the daily struggle they faced to provide even the most basic necessities. The more they shared; the more Johan and Tracy wanted to work with them.
Having previously spent time in Western Africa as volunteer teachers, Johan and Tracy had seen firsthand the challenges faced by communities lacking financial resources.
They brought the Shea butter home to Portland with them and began selling it at local markets- the response was overwhelmingly positive. An opportunity had presented itself; they could help these women earn a fair profit for their work through international trade. They soon headed back to Ghana to set up the cooperative.
A local NGO built a structure for the cooperative, and Tracy and Johan went to work training the women on everything from using machinery, to hygiene, to using heat sealers, and how to produce high-quality Shea butter. But organizing the logistics wasn't the only hurdle they faced; Johan and Tracy also had to navigate the local cultural customs. All the women of Ojoba belong to an ethnic group called the Frafra. The Frafra are a polygamous society; in some cases, multiple wives of the same husband work side by side and live close together. Almost all of them have between three and five children each.
Traditionally subsistence farmers, the Frafra farm small plots of land throughout the wet season to provide food well into the dry season. All too often, the dry season is called "the hungry season" because of low crop yields.
So what was the reaction when Johan and Tracy proposed to the community that the women begin working and earning their own income? "The men were concerned about their wives working. They didn't understand the impact we were going to make- we didn't know the impact at the time! They wanted us to give them a job, but Shea butter producing has always been women's work in this area," said Johan. It took time, but once the husbands began to see the positive impact their wives working had on the community, they became supportive.
The Ojoba cooperative is now 400 strong, and includes women of all ages and backgrounds.
Organized into twenty groups of twenty women each, the women take turns working on different stages of the Shea butter production process. Being a cooperative in the truest sense of the word, the women split the profit equally among them- regardless of who worked on it or for how long. The money they've earned since beginning the cooperative ten years ago has been put to good use; All of the women and their children are now registered under the national health insurance policy, their children are in school and each family has enough income to purchase food from the market to supplement what they grow.
Knowing all of this, we were excited beyond measure to finally meet the women.
Thirty-six hours, four flights, and one scenic drive down the bumpy dirt roads of rural Bolgatanga later, we arrived at the cooperative site, located in a village called Bongo Soe. We heard them before we saw them. The low hum of clapping and singing burst into full song and dance as we entered the building. Over 100 women dressed in local fabric of every imaginable color and pattern greeted us in the traditional Frafra way; through song, dance and with genuine enthusiasm.
It was utterly overwhelming to be surrounded by their bright smiles and soulful voices.
Gifty, one of the two cooperative leaders who served as our translator formally welcomed us on behalf of the women. They're big on speeches at the cooperative- everyone gets their turn to speak and be appreciated. We were each asked to stand up, address the group and introduce ourselves. I managed through my tears to tell them how happy I was to be there, and how honored we were by their welcome.
Afterwards, one representative from each group stood up to speak about how the cooperative has impacted their lives.
One by one, women stood up to speak openly and generously about their past. Most of them said no more than three or four sentences, but they all shared a common thread; they struggled to survive before becoming members of the Ojoba cooperative. Their children went without health care, clothing, food, or education. They often had to leave their children for months at a time during the dry season to work down south. When no work was available, they were forced to beg from relatives for food. Their relationships with their husbands were strained and often resulted in domestic violence.
It was difficult to listen to, and even harder to imagine. But when they spoke about their current lives, something changed. You could feel a tangible shift in their demeanor. They held themselves with confidence, with a pride that comes from taking care of your family. They told us that their children now look to them, before their fathers, as the family provider.
I spoke with one cooperative member, Abuyama Akadolba, about this: "It makes me smile to see my children in school. Their father couldn't afford it. But I could. So when I remember that I was able to do that, it gives me joy. I think my husband is jealous that I'm making more money than him!"
We returned the next day for what we'd travelled seven thousand miles to see; the Shea butter production process. We arrived to a bustling scene with all stages of production happening at once. Gifty walked us through each step explaining the entire process as we went along. We quickly saw that their beautiful Shea butter is not unlike our products at LUSH- handmade. It's certainly very labor intensive, but the atmosphere was social and relaxed.
We were invited to get our hands in the mix, and let me tell you, it was hard work!
The butter is airy but the angle and speed at which you have to knead it takes some serious arm strength. The final Shea butter is so rich, yet it sinks into your skin amazingly well. I immediately fell in love with the incredibly raw and earthy fragrance. To me, their Shea butter smells like Ghana and will forever remind me its kind people and beautiful countryside.
It didn't take us long to notice that the cooperative is so much more than a Shea butter production site.
Women from all around the community come to Ojoba everyday with their children, regardless of whether or not they're working. It's become a community centre of sorts. Spontaneous singing, bursts of laughter and high-energy chatter are very common, but so are moments of support.
"I always feel happy and strong when I'm with my women. Sometimes I'll have a problem at home that I think is too difficult, but when we're sharing ideas I realize that I can handle it. They encourage me to face anything," said senior cooperative member, Atanpoka Abongo.
Widows make up a large proportion of the cooperative, so I was surprised to learn that before Ojoba formed, many women had little or no contact with each other. One cooperative member, Alema Atule, shared, "I am a widow, so the socialization is very important for me. I was feeling lonely after the death of my husband, but being a member of the group, I get consolation all the time. It helps me move on with life." The women support each other financially with a micro-credit loan system; if one woman needs funds to purchase supplies for the crafts she might sell at the market, the others give her a loan. They've also started attending adult literacy classes together in an outdoor classroom two afternoons a week.
The list of their accomplishments as a community goes on and on, all born of their astonishing commitment to supporting one another.
When I spoke with the women about the cooperative's impact on their lives, the answer always started with their children. Feeding their children, clothing their children, sending their children to school. It was through these conversations that the underlying effect of this cooperative became clear: empowering these women was, in turn, empowering their children. We were fortunate enough to see one example of this at the opening of their new community library. It was proposed amongst the women that they save a certain percentage of their earnings for a community development project. They voted unanimously to build the first-ever rural library in their district of the Upper East Region. They saved over $6000 US to pay for half of the building (LUSH UK and the Ojoba Cooperative donated the other portion and books), and on our third day there we attended an opening ceremony organized by the community.
Meeting the women, visiting their homes, dancing with them, laughing with them; it was humbling. They welcomed us with open arms- not as buyers of their Shea butter, but as new friends. We visit our suppliers to create exactly this kind of direct relationship.
Heather Deeth, head of our North American buying team, said it best: "From a buying perspective, it's really important to visit our suppliers. We always strive for transparency in our supply chain and work towards direct relationships. Especially in Shea butter, where it's not easy to have that direct relationship. But we can have that, and we're here. It's really powerful being able to see the impact of placing an order for 10 tons of Shea butter has and what it does and how appreciate the women are, that they can provide the basics of health care and education for their children. And that's all they want in the world."
On the day we left, the women presented us with bracelets and hand-woven shirts they had made for us, along with packages of the Shea butter we had helped them make just a few days prior.
Soon enough, the waterworks returned! How do you thank someone for a multitude of rich experiences packed into five short days? We learned about the power of direct trade, and how it can transform a struggling community and provide meaningful work for skilled craftspeople. We felt the gravity of their cooperative; the unfaltering support that envelops each member and grows daily. We heard their stories; their lives, so different from ours on the surface, are not without the same basic needs, hopes and fears.
Lastly, but certainly not least, we saw the passion they have for their work and the pride they take in creating a beautiful, handmade product. Visiting the Ojoba cooperative was certainly one of the most impactful experiences of my life, and I feel so incredibly proud to work for a company that wholeheartedly supports the empowerment of women through direct trade.
Special thanks to Karen Wolverton for sharing her incedible photography of the experience.