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Shea Butter Helps Drive Community Development and Ecotourism in Ghana

  • Victoria Okoye
  • 8 August 2011

Mole National Park, located in Northern Ghana, is a remarkable natural landscape. This grand expanse of nature is the country’s largest national park and its largest protected ecosystem. As a wildlife reserve, it is refuge to nearly 100 different mammal species, more than 300 types of birds and in excess of 30 kinds of reptiles. It is understandably also a major tourism destination for travellers to Ghana.

Diverse Natural Features and Communities

In addition to the rich biodiversity within its borders, Mole National Park is surrounded by nearly 30 indigenous rural communities, all of which rely on the land for their livelihood.

Mognori Eco-village, Gonjaland, Ghana

The farming eco-village of Mognori is located in Gonjaland, in Ghana's northern region, 15 kilometres from Mole National Park. M&J Travel and Tours works in the local community to teach and train women about shea-butter production methods, a way to promote sustainable incomes for the women and their families. Photo courtesy of M&J Travel and Tours

The land for the park was initially set aside as a wildlife refuge in 1958, but in 1971, the government relocated the human populations and designated the land as a national park. The government also annexed a sizeable chunk of indigenous land, thereby compromising the welfare of families and communities that earned their income directly from the land. Unfortunately, the line between community lands and park property – between accessible commons and nature preserve – has blurred over time as a result and the actions of the communities have been at odds with efforts to preserve the national park and Ghana’s natural savannah.

Today, the relocated indigenous communities continue to struggle to survive, and their traditional subsistence activities, including hunting and woodcutting for fuel, have over the past decades degraded the parkland and resulted in substantial loss of the park’s biodiversity.

Mognori eco-village women, Gonjaland, Ghana

Marian Thompson (in yellow skirt), the whl.travel local connection in Northern Ghana, is welcomed by the Magazaya (elected leader and spokeswoman) of a woman's group of shea-nut pickers. Marian and her tour agency, M&J Travel and Tours, work to empower these women in fringe communities near Mole National Park. Photo courtesy of M&J Travel and Tours

Identifying an Ecotourism Opportunity

When M&J Travel and Tours, a local Ghanaian tour operator and the whl.travel local partner in Northern Ghana, opened an office in Mole in 2010, addressing the issues raised by the park’s fringe communities fit perfectly with the organisation’s commitment to ecotourism and sustainability. Since its launch 20 years ago, M&J has consistently sought to make a positive impact on local communities through tourism.

In June 2010, M&J Travel and Tours therefore launched a shea-butter income-generating project that targeted women’s groups as they’re the main harvesters of the abundant shea trees’ oily nuts from which they then produce a buttery byproduct that is used as a key ingredient in moisturiser creams and cosmetics, hair conditioners, cooking oil, medicinal ointments and soap. Shea-butter production is already a major economic industry in Ghana and the rest of the West African region, where Ghana is now also the leading producer.

Drying shea nuts, Mognori Ecovillage, Gonjaland, Ghana

Shea-butter production in Ghana is a multi-step process that begins with harvesting the shea in fruit nut form. The shea are washed and rinsed to remove dirt and other impurities. The clean fruit nuts are then sun dried, making it possible to sort out any bad ones. Photo courtesy of M&J Travel and Tours

“The main idea is that when the government took over Mole Park, they took over a huge chunk of [local communities’] land, compromising the women’s ability to pursue their traditional activities, such as hunting and farming,” commented Arnold Asafu-Adjaye, Head of Sales and Marketing at M&J. “What was left were the shea butter trees. So, we saw the need to develop this industry.”

This community issue is now at the heart of the M&J’s corporate social responsibility initiative in Mole.

Women Shea-Butter Producers

Before this project, while local women were already organised to produce shea butter, it was only at a small scale. Now, numbers have grown, and approximately 30 percent of all economic activity for the national park fringe communities results from some aspect of shea-butter production.

Boiling shea nuts, Mognori Eco-village, Gonjaland, Ghana

In shea-butter production in Ghana, boiling the fruit nuts softens the outer flesh so that it can be removed, revealing the nut's shell. Photo courtesy of M&J Travel and Tours

Women continue to be the primary producers, while the men serve as hunters and search for other work alternatives. The women, who mostly stay in the home, are located in close proximity to the shea trees. Although the women now work longer hours now than they used to – farming and tending to the shea trees, harvesting and processing the nuts – their work provides vital additional income to support their families.

In total, M&J estimates that some 10,000 women are actively engaged in shea-butter production for commercial trade in northern Ghana, although M&J works directly with only about 350 of them.

Opening shea nuts, Mognori Eco-village, Gonjaland, Ghana

In shea-butter production in Ghana, the shells of the shea nut are cracked open to reveal the inner nut. Photo courtesy of M&J Travel and Tours

Developing a Viable, Local Industry

Of course, introducing shea butter as a sustainable industry is only the one part of what needs to be accomplished; working with the women to strengthen their rate and quality of production is just as key to ensuring that the women and their families improve their output and reap the full benefits of their efforts.

Therefore, in partnership with a nongovernmental organisation called TechnoServe, M&J is working to provide technical training for the women in quality nut picking, quality butter processing and marketing. There is also hope of collaboration with other agencies and nongovernmental organisations, all involving strong partnerships with financial institutions so as to provide credit facilities to help the women launch viable small-scale businesses.

The women must also overcome existing challenges in the production of shea products, including quality controls, finding consistent buyers for their products and producing at a level that meets customers’ demand, thus ensuring a good return on their time and investments.

Building a Customer Base

According to Mr. Asafu-Adjaye, what the women are now predominantly looking for is buyers, especially those that can ensure their product reaches external markets. At present, sales are more locally based and focus on attracting tourists who visit the Mole National Park.

Their shea butter is not yet available even in the capital city of Accra or other major urban centres such as Kumasi and Takoradi, although M&J is in discussion with local companies that support Ghana-made products.

M& J is also looking partnerships with other potential customers, such as tourism and hospitality services.

“Shea for us is very important in the tourism supply, since products such as soap can be supplied to [those in the] hospitality industry and also become attraction sites to tourists who want to participate in alternative tourism,” explained Marian Thompson, Managing Director of M&J.

Promoting Local Sustainability

In parallel with the support of the women in Mole, the experts at M&J Travel & Tours are actively pursuing other areas of socially responsible engagement with the communities in which it works, from supporting reforestation in northern Ghana to alleviating the effects of climate change and providing local employment opportunities.

Another community project with which the company is presently involved will upgrade the quality of stoves used in local homes to reduce smoke, improve the environment and promote family health in the region.

Frying shea nuts, Mognori Eco-village, Gonjaland, Ghana

In shea-butter production in Ghana, the inner nuts are fried in large pans to soften them. The nuts are then converted into a fine paste through a process of kneading, adding water, heating, filtration and then solidification into shea butter as we know it. Photo courtesy of M&J Travel and Tours

For M&J Travel, the shea-butter initiative is targeted at ensuring local communities share in the gains that local tourism brings to the national economy.

“The main thing is that we think about the communities that we work in,” says Mr. Asafu-Adaye. “It’s not just about bringing tourists; it’s about being a part of the community as well. When the tourists do come in to see what they want and are satisfied with everything, how is the local community affected? We need to be a part of the local community, to make sure they are self-sustainable. And in doing that, we’re working with them on shea butter production, making sure they aren’t left out.”

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Victoria Okoye

Victoria is a freelance community-development and communications consultant based in Accra, Ghana, where she works on local cultural promotion, tourism and environment projects. She also writes a blog, where she explores her interest in West African cities and the people that make them work. She has a bachelors degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri and masters degrees in International Affairs and Urban Planning from Columbia University, in New York City.
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Africa, agriculture, ecotours, forests & jungles, Ghana, indigenous culture, local knowledge, national parks, personal experience, poverty, Western Africa, whl.travel, women,

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