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Booming demand for shea helps reduce poverty

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast--The fruit of the shea tree has long been considered sacred by many in Western Africa because of its myriad health benefits.

But now growing demand among Western consumers for the fruit, known as “women's gold” by those who harvest it, is helping improve lives in some of the world's poorest communities.

Sweet-lovers around the globe already consume the nut as shea butter, which is used to make chocolate, as well as in products like margarine and as a cooking oil.

Western companies such as L'Oreal, The Body Shop and L'Occitane are also using more and more of the product as a natural moisturizer and anti-aging ingredient in their cosmetics.

Around 600,000 tons of shea are produced each year in Africa. Of that around two thirds are exported to Europe, more than double the amount shipped 10 years ago, while the rest is consumed locally.

Cosmetics companies, which purchase around a tenth of Africa's shea exports, have been buying more to please increasingly socially conscious consumers.

And now that change is starting to help women at the other end of the supply chain.

Around 16 million people in Africa — particularly women living in rural areas — are supported by the shea industry, according to the Global Shea Alliance (AGK), which held its annual congress in Abidjan last week.

In many of the countries where it grows, from Ethiopia to Senegal and down to the Democratic Republic of Congo, it is a lifeline for some of the world's poorest people.

Shea provides a “substantial source of income” and an important tool for fighting poverty, said Mamadou Coulibaly Sangafowa, Ivory Coast's agriculture minister.

In northern Ghana, it “helps improve the financial independence of women a lot,” observed Stephanie Green, marketing manager for the Ghanaian company SeKaf, which produces shea butter for cosmetics.

With the money generated, local women can “create small businesses” in the villages, which help to “eradicate” poverty their communities, she said.

Shea is central to both economic and social development in rural communities because it can “pull up the rural economy,” said Christophe Godard, who works in Burkina Faso on behalf of the French oilseed group Olvea.

A 'priority' Crop

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Shea nuts are seen on a shea butter production line in Leo, south-central Burkina Faso on Jan. 24. Africa produces around 600,000 tons of shea annually.

(AFP)

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