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Purpose Prize Fellow 2015
This former stockbroker, journalist and producer works to increase the safety, income and self-sufficiency of women shea-nut harvesters in Ghana.
I always wanted to use my MBA to develop business solutions for nonprofits, but I ended up working as a stockbroker, and later, a journalist and producer. When I met Danielle, a woman half my age with a charity that targeted women shea-nut harvesters in Ghana, I knew this was it. I’d spent time during my childhood in West Africa, and felt a kinship with the people there.
Just Shea is Danielle’s baby, so much so that she moved to Africa. I have kids and can’t pick up and move to Africa, but I can support the work from here, leveraging my MBA to develop business concepts and engage all sorts of people in our cause.
Our first venture was a cosmetic line using shea butter harvested by women who lacked protective gear. The tagline, “saving your skin and women’s lives,” mirrored the harvesters’ needs: potions for face, feet and hands funded hats (hooded raincoats), boots and gloves. It was an elegant, simple solution.
Because it can’t interfere with other “wifely” duties, harvesting shea (or “women’s gold”) happens at dawn or dusk, when lighting is poor and poisonous snakes and scorpions abound in the tall grasses surrounding the large trees that drop ripe nuts to the ground. (We eventually added solar lanterns to the safety kit.)
- Doubled local harvesters’ incomes in only four years.
- Reduced rate of harvest-related snake bites from 12 percent to zero.
- Grew from 27 women in one village to 375 women in seven villages.
Based on feedback from the women, we built a storage silo that allows them to hold on to the product and sell when prices are high. Most significantly, we amass all the women’s harvest and sell it as a unit, freeing individual women from selling smaller amounts by the roadside and instead pursue other work or be with their children in a safer environment.
By our fourth year, the incomes of the women in our collective had doubled, and the incidence of snakebites had dropped from 12 percent to zero. With the extra income, the women were able to buy seeds for a vegetable garden and pay school fees for their kids, supporting their rise out of poverty.
The shea industry encompasses 16 million women in 20 countries. Our work shows that by starting small, doing excellent work and engaging key players, we can effect lasting change. We are creating replicable models for the sub-Saharan region. Global Shea Alliance, which once scoffed at our safety concerns, has now adopted our safety protocol as the industry standard. As the magazia , the village’s female elder, reminded us, “Small, small makes an elephant.”
I never saw Just Shea as a career. But it saved me. Everyone over 60 should ask, what have I done, where should I go? What is the connective tissue? Inventory your skills and be fearless; that confluence will be your place of power. My encore has been an extraordinarily positive experience, for myself and for women half a world away.