Women farmers hold the key to a sustainable future for shea trees in West Africa

On a remote farm in Oyo State, Nigeria, a group of women work the dusty fields, sowing maize, okra, spinach, tomatoes and other crops ready for the coming dry season. Dressed in brightly coloured clothing and headscarves, the women sing as they work in a scene typical of rural West Africa. 

But the four hectare Oke Odo farm, located in the west not far from the border with Benin, is far from typical. The women here are planting their crops in the shade of shea trees, as part of a pioneering approach to sustainable farming. Together with women at a second farm, 500 km to the east at Tufa in Niger State, they are aiming to transform their lives and the future of the shea industry.

“Nigeria, along with other countries in West Africa, increasingly suffers from climate-related issues such as drought and deforestation which affect food production,” says Cornelius Kakrabah, who heads up business development and programme implementation for the Global Shea Alliance (GSA). “Income levels and earnings from shea are relatively small but serve as a reliable source of income and contribute to family upkeep, health care, education and daily livelihood.”

Shea butter is used in the production of food and cosmetics all over the world. Shea trees, which produce the nuts from which butter is extracted, grow across the dry Sahel region of West Africa, and can produce nuts for up to 200 years. The trees are increasingly cultivated to supply a growing global market estimated by the World Business Council for Sustainable development (WBCSD) to be worth US$2.9 billion by 2025. Demand for shea nuts from West Africa has rocketed by 600 percent in the last 20 years, but the women - and it is almost exclusively women - who collect the shea nuts are at the bottom of the value chain, typically earning around US$75 a year for their labour.

Women shea collectors ©GSA
Women shea collectors ©GSA

Nigeria is the world’s leading supplier of shea nuts, and it’s estimated that around 2.2 million Nigerian women work as shea nut collectors. In an effort both to boost their livelihoods and ensure a more sustainable future for shea farming, a two-year, €245,000 EU GCCA+ funded project Developing A Resilient Shea Agro-forestry Farm Model is already being hailed as a success. Fifty-six women, drawn from local cooperatives, are being trained on the two model farms before passing their knowledge on to around 1500 women in the surrounding communities.

“The project was designed absolutely around women shea nut collectors,” explains Cornelius. “The shea season only lasts from May to August, and after that there is very little work for them. This way they have work all year round, both during and outside of the shea season. They plant mixed crops on the same land where the shea trees grow. That gives them a livelihood all year round, and it’s also better for conservation. The women are also taught beekeeping, which not only provides additional income but helps pollinate the crops.” 

According to one recent study, shea trees benefit from bee keeping because the insects distribute pollen between the shea flowers to produce fruit - but on farms with poor biodiversity, lack of pollination leads to low yields of fruit. By contrast, on sites with greater biodiversity such as the two model farms, more bees mean more pollination and more fruit. In addition, restoring the savannah parkland where shea trees grow helps combat the creeping desertification which threatens the Sahel.

Women shea nut collectors tend to belong to large, polygamous households, and in some states local laws and customs prevent them from owning their own land. Men are not generally involved in shea farming, yet the women are expected both to look after their children and pay for school fees and other expenses from the money they earn from shea nut collecting. “In economic terms, their entire lives revolve around subsistence farming and shea collection, that’s their main economic activity. Some of them also work as small-scale traders, selling their crops in nearby markets,” says Cornelius.

With the project well into its second year, results are looking positive. “I am absolutely encouraged by what we have achieved so far. The women tell us the impact on their lives is huge. There’s a lot of interest, we’re doing presentations to share what we’ve learned, and the sustainable agroforestry approach can be replicated over the whole of West Africa.”

Women shea collectors ©GSA
Women shea collectors ©GSA

Key to the success of the project has been partnerships from across the shea value chain. Private sector companies, government departments and research institutions are all involved in both implementation and monitoring. Economic and environmental impact assessments are underway to measure the benefits for both the women and the land. The two model farms are also designed to fit into GSA’s wider Action for Shea Parklands (ASP) initiative, which aims to replace the seven million trees lost annually across West Africa through climate change and land conversion.

“Shea trees are an endangered species in Nigeria,” according to Ahmed Mohammed Kontagora, President of the National Shea Products Association of Nigeria (NASPAN). “The trees are cut down for construction, for charcoal and for firewood , and much of the land where shea used to grow has been deforested. We want to take back that land and plant shea trees so that communities can manage them and take ownership. 
One of the biggest challenges is that people don’t take ownership of the trees, but if they include them as  part of an agroforestry farm, they will continue to protect them.”

Despite the challenges, the model farm project in Nigeria shows how sustainable shea agroforestry can benefit both people are nature. “Shea farming has a very healthy future in West Africa,” says Cornelius. “The women have been very enthusiastic right from the start. We held community consultations, we met with the community leaders, and the women were so excited that we were coming to their villages to get them involved and to train them. When they look back at what they have learned, it has exceeded all expectations. The future for shea trees is very bright across the whole of West Africa.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Khadijat Hassan, a member of  Asumali cooperative in Tufa who was chosen to take part in the pilot. “We have been really impressed,” she enthuses. “We’ve been able to accomplish many things - how to do mixed cropping so we can harvest more, and how to pass on our knowledge to other women. We will be able to take good care of our families and children, and support our husbands financially.”

Photos © Global Shea Alliance

For updates and more photos from the model farms, visit GSA’s facebook page.