Universally, shea butter has almost become a synonym for body butter. But before you dab on its rich creamy goodness, do you think of the rural Ghanaian landscape it came from, or the poor woman who made it from scratch from the nut of a shea tree for $1 a day?
Rahama Wright is founder and CEO of Shea Yeleen, a company that makes these luscious body products, but she is spending a better part of her entire youth uplifting the rural women who make them in the land of her birth – the dry, sandy region of Tamale, in Northern Ghana.
Although raised in New York in the Unites States (US), Wright literally drew from her African roots to create a product that made women beautiful, and also empowered the women who made them.
From a very young age, Wright knew the world is not equal. Her Ghanaian Muslim-born mother only studied up to the sixth grade, whilst her American father had a Master’s degree. Her parents had met on the border of Burkina Faso while her dad was serving the Peace Corps. A few years later, they moved with four-year-old Wright to the US.
And that presented yet another glaring contrast: of how her life was so different from her mother’s. Geography divided past and present.
“Just seeing how different [my parents’] lives were made me realize that we grow up in a world where there is a lot of inequality, especially around women, hearing my mom tell me stories of how she grew up and seeing how I was growing up in the US, I just felt very strongly from a very young age about women’s rights because even in my household, just seeing how different my parents were, had a huge impact on me,” says Wright.
Determined to make a difference in Africa, but no idea what, Wright graduated, left the US, started an internship at the American Embassy in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, and then followed in her father’s footsteps and served the Peace Corps in Mali for two years as a health educator.
In both West African countries, she was baffled by the extreme poverty – rural women who could not afford even the most basic necessities like vaccinations or schooling for their children.
Twenty-year-old Wright could not understand how, at that time, a place with three gold mines, producing most of the world’s gold, could have over 90% of the population live on less than $2 a day.
She also learned more about the shea tree, whose fruits (from which the fat or butter is extracted) were already used by the women in West Africa to generate income, but because of lack of infrastructural equipment, training and storage facilities, the women were often short-changed in the market.
In Ghana, the shea tree grows in half the country, covering almost the entire area of Northern Ghana, and can bear fruit for about 200 years. There is a lot one could do to cash in on this coveted indigenous product. Shea butter is also popularly known as ‘women’s gold’ for its rich golden color and for the money it generates for local West African communities.
Equipped with more knowledge about shea butter and how it is processed mainly in Asia and Europe and not Africa, Wright returned to America, determined to help these women and eventually launched Shea Yeleen.
Its name means ‘hope’ in the Bambara language spoken in many West African countries. Wright has not done too badly. Her company is going into its eleventh year, although for about seven years, it was a non-profit, sustained by fundraisers and donations from friends and family.
“I realized I was missing a huge part of the problem, the market side – I can train them and organize them as much as I want, but what I have are trained organized women who are still poor,” says Wright, who now works with over 800 women in Northern Ghana improving their lives.
They greatly appreciate her work to sustain them.
Joana Teviu, Secretary for the Tamale Shea Butter Cluster Initiative, who has worked with Wright for about four years now, says: “Other buyers are only interested in making profit from the women… [but Wright] is interested in the well-being of the women.”
Teviu visited the US and saw where the finished product is sold and for how much. Wright felt this was necessary.
“I cannot express how important that is for people who are at the beginning of the supply chain to actually see where products end up, it completely changes the way they view things and also empowers them to know that they have power, that they are part of a very important global economy,” says Wright.
But since the shea fruit is seasonal, Wright is also looking at other organic products to which her business model can be applied, such as Marula, Moringa, Neem and Baobab, as well as possibly entering other countries with a similar need.
“If you ask me what my long-term vision is, it is to bring products that are made with our natural, local ingredients, creating jobs for women and men and doing it in a way that is lifting extreme levels of poverty in our communities; helping people meet their basic needs,” says Wright.
Shea Yeleen has helped the women increase their income by five times the minimum wage, from about 6GHS (Ghana cedi equalling $1.5) per day to 35GHS ($9) per day allowing them to send their children to school, and also save.
It’s small change but big solace that behind every tub of body butter you buy is a West African story, of hope, revival and life.