Sale of shea butter brings hope to women in Mali

Mali is one of the world's leading producers along with Nigeria and Burkina Faso. 

Niagale Camara places nuts into a basin, working with her colleagues at a cooperative near Bamako, Mali, to transform the fruit into a highly prized vegetable oil: shea butter. 

Shea, a tree indigenous to Africa, and whose fruit is collected almost entirely by women, is becoming an instrument of economic development in some of the poorest countries in the world. 

According to the Global Shea Alliance, 16 million Africans living in the region from Senegal to South Sudan live or survive on its harvest — mainly in rural areas. 

Shea butter in Mali

Mali is one of the world’s leading producers along with Nigeria and Burkina Faso. 

Demand for the product has exploded in recent years, driven by Western consumers who increasingly want to buy products presented as organic and natural. 

But the women in the cooperative of producers of shea butter at the rural community of Siby, despite having set up in 2003, are struggling to profit from this windfall. 

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There are nearly 1,000 women working there. Permanent salaries earn them the equivalent of minimum wage each month, or around 45,000 CFA francs (70 euros). Temporary workers are paid by the task. 

“One of the advantages of the cooperative is that it has allowed women to have jobs” over all seasons, when their activity was previously limited to the rainy season, said Filfing Koumare, the cooperative’s sales manager. 

Step by step, they transform the product. They peel it to extract the kernel. This is then crushed, washed and dried several times before being cooked in a pot to produce a dark liquid. 

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What remains is filtered and cleared of impurities, resulting in the final oil, shea butter, which is used for making soaps and creams and sold in the village, the capital Bamako and to clients around the world, according to Kamissoko Kinimba Niara, accountant for the cooperative.

Financial support

“When women make their sales, they get an income that allows them a bit of financial autonomy,” said Assitan Kone Camara, president of the cooperative. “But one of the difficulties is the lack of support and the lack of means,” she added. 

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For Daouda Keita, mayor of the town, “It is crucial to support this structure in order to modernise it.”

Managers are demanding training and financial support, particularly for sales and marketing. 

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Africa economy Mali