How shea products are boosting Ghanaian women’s livelihoods


Sustainable products offer a promising income and a viable alternative to felling trees

An FAO training has been a turning point in Rita’s shea business. Now she is an advocate and employer of other rural women, promoting sustainable livelihoods that can offset deforestation in her region. ©KANBAOCU/Clifford Amoah Adagenera

29/01/2021

"I was about three years old when I lost my mum. I did not even know her,” says Rita Adibamoli Abarjawe, a 29-year-old single mother from the Kasena Nankana district of Ghana. “Growing up, I went through a lot of stress and financial crises. Sometimes even having food was a challenge.”

After her mum died, Rita was raised by her father and stepmother, both small-scale farmers. But as her father and stepmother grew older, they were unable to farm any longer and, at the age of 24, providing for the family became Rita’s responsibility. She also had a three-year-old daughter and her brother and his children to take care of.

To make ends meet, she began supporting her stepmother in producing shea butter. Making shea butter is a skill often passed on from generation to generation, and it is common for female farmers to make products for their own household use and income. For Rita, however, getting involved in this trade gave her the knowledge and impetus to start a new business, which proved an invaluable livelihood for her family.

Small business in soap-making

After learning the basics of the trade, Rita joined her local cooperative where she was selected to attend a training on soap-making organized by the Kasena Nankana Baobab Cooperative Union (KANBAOCU), a local forest products organisation that works in baobab and shea value chains. Funded by FAO’s Forest and Farm Facility (FFF), the training developed young people’s skills in making soap from shea and encouraged young women to go into entrepreneurship.  

FFF helped KANBAOCU members improve the sustainability of the shea business by undertaking a climate risk assessment and implementing climate adaption activities, such as tree planting, tree-crop-livestock agroforestry systems, organic composting to improve soil fertility and moisture retention and diversification of crops to include drought-resistant varieties.

The soap-making training took place in the midst of the pandemic, but when the restrictions on movement began to ease, Rita and the other trainees started their own businesses. Rita began by selling to retail shops, households and in local markets once they reopened.

“The training helped me establish an income stream in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic,’’ Rita says. “I joined the training because I needed to set myself up, support my family and pay for my child’s school fees.”

She had started her business with USD 68 of savings, but less than two months later, the young entrepreneur raked in a hefty profit.

“This demonstrates that there are business opportunities to be harnessed, especially for young women,” Rita says, “Now, my target is to produce quality shea and baobab-based cosmetic products for both the local and international markets.”

Rita organized a soap-making course for her and others in her cooperative to take all of their businesses to the next level. ©KANBAOCU/Clifford Amoah Adagenera

Environmentally friendly

The shea business is not just good for the women’s livelihoods but the environment too. Ghana lost about a quarter of its forest cover between 1990 and 2005, and deforestation continues to accelerate at 1.89 percent per year. FFF and KANBACOU are helping to address this issue by veering local communities away from cutting down baobab and shea trees for charcoal and wood products and providing them with a different, more sustainable way of using these precious resources.

The products that Rita makes are made from the fruits, nuts, pods or seed oils of the shea and baobab trees. The trees need to be healthy and strong to furnish these fruits and nuts, reinforcing the need to protect them and encouraging a more sustainable supply of raw materials.

Now a strong advocate for introducing sustainable livelihoods to rural women and reducing the uncontrolled felling of baobab and shea trees, Rita used the savings from her business to organize a KANBAOCU- facilitated, two-day training on soap-making for herself and other cooperative members. Her aim was to boost her business by learning more about making other shea products, such as shampoo, and she invited other members of the group to participate and allow them to build their capacities as well. 

Rita’s (far right) new goal is to begin selling her products internationally. ©KANBAOCU/Clifford Amoah Adagenera

Expanding the business capacities of local communities

One of the main barriers preventing women and smallholder farmers from starting local businesses or investing in their farms is the lack of capital. With FAO’s funding, KANBAOCU taught its members about the usefulness of having a credit union and raised awareness of village savings and loans associations. The members then went on to set up a cooperative credit union where groups and individuals can access savings accounts. Members can also apply for loans known as credit with education, meaning they are given basic education on saving plans and productive use of funds. By being part of the credit union network, members have improved access to finance for investments in farming and can avoid the high interest rates of some other banks. Their membership to KANBAOCU and their credit union also gives them improved access to the government’s COVID-19 financial packages and low-interest funds to expand their businesses.

Better livelihoods, a better planet 

The extra income from the new shea business has significantly helped her family, but Rita is particularly pleased with the positive feedback from buyers who applaud her soap for helping soothe skin diseases like eczema. Now, she hopes to expand her business and acquire machinery for soap cutting, which she currently does manually. Ultimately, she wants to grow her business so that she can employ more people in her community and eventually sell to international markets.  

The Forest and Farm Facility,a partnership launched in 2012 between FAO, the International Institute for Environment and Development, the International Union for Conservation and AgriCord, aims to boost rural farming and women’s organisations and protect local landscapes. By promoting sustainable livelihoods and increasing the resilience of local communities to climate change, FAO’s FFF is building a richer, greener future.


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