Ghana’s northern region may pass off to a visitor as a collection of savanna shrubs with nothing to offer to hunters of industrial raw materials. But a group of women in the region is rapidly changing the image and face of the savanna shrubs.
For centuries, Ghanaians have lived with plenty of nuts in their backyards but, until recently, the silver lining in the variety of nuts available in the vast West African nation remained a hidden treasure for most of its inhabitants.
The Shea butter tree, which until recently was considered part of the wild savanna shrubs that have covered the villages of Sagnarigu and Sanga in Ghana’s drier and dusty town of Tamale, about 550kms north of the capital, Accra, is emerging as a key source of life.
The semi arid northern region, historically popular as West Africa’s trade route, is slowly transforming its traditional land ownership culture and gradually relinquishing the control of land and other key resources to women, thanks to the Shea butter project in Tamale.
Habiba Musa, 45, earned her living from “petty trade” in locally available goods from the villages of Sagnarigu and Sanga, which are miles apart, until her troubles with hitching rides from trucks transporting goods from Accra to Tamale, got the better of her.
She got fed up with the hawking job and quit eight years ago, when word went out of a new project for women in Tamale, an ancient city sandwiched between the common border with Burkina Faso to the far north and Cote d’Ivoire to the north East.
She joined a group of close to 500 women in the region, who derive their livelihoods from the project and have a story to tell from their involvement.
At the time, few women in the greater north knew much about Shea butter, a raw material used in the manufacture of cosmetics, beauty products, pharmaceutical and an array of other products, other than its use as a source of edible fruit.
The northern Ghana poverty plan, mooted by the UN nearly 20 years ago, has offered women in the region some real reasons to celebrate their life.
Ghana is known for its mass production of cocoa, of which it still remains one of the world’s leading producer, but few knew, or even bothered about the existence, of the valuable raw material – Shea butter.
“I am able to support myself and assist my immediate family which I was never able to do before when I was involved in petty trade. I am even able to attend to the community needs and participate in the big ceremonies,” Musa said.
To the Ghanaian woman, the introduction of the Shea butter project is one of the best life-enhancing initiatives ever to occur in their lifetime.
The loss of self-esteem as a result of poverty and being considered a community outcast was too much to bear for most of the women participating in the Shea industry.
As a result of global efforts to combat poverty among the villagers in Africa, women are showing promise from what appeared to be a bleak and often male dominated society.
Habiba Al-Hassan’s long-term dream of owning a pair of teeth finally came true after a tough brush with poverty, loss of self-esteem and being the village laughing stalk.
Habiba, the most popular member of the Pagsung Shea Butter Producers and Pickers Association, which is set to be registered as a national association for the producers, marvels at her achievements with the Shea butter project, which she said had transformed her family.
From her daily participation in the largely community-run Shea butter plantation, Habiba has clawed back her lost self-esteem and has contributed a mechanical engineer for Ghana’s future industrialisation bid and a wood specialist – her sons.
Apart from the fruits of her labour – her children’s education which is her greatest achievement – she was also able to purchase of a pair of teeth, which she did not have, for US$270.
“I could never smile. Whenever I did, I had to do it with my tongue because everyone laughed at me for not having teeth, they called me the toothless one,” she said.
Ghanaian women in the north have made huge strides in their quest to overcome poverty.
In 1989, at the height of global efforts to fight rising poverty in Africa, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) pioneered a ground-breaking project, dubbed “Africa 2000” with the aim of helping Africans earn their living from their habitat.
The UNDP introduced the project, which it named the Sustainable Livelihoods Project, on a pilot basis, aiming to utilise the savanna plantations to the benefit of the community.
Adisa Lansah, the Executive Director of the Africa 2000 Network, which sprang out from the Africa 2000 initiative, says the introduction of new varieties of seeds for plantations in the villages of Sagnarigu and Sanga had revitalised what was a dying culture.
The villagers cleared some of the naturally occurring bushes of the Shea butter tree in the past because, at the time, they did not understand the need for an entire generation of Shea butter trees that yielded nothing better than a few edible seeds.
But little did they know that right at their backyard was a raw material with the potential to make Ghana the middle income industry it desires to become by 2015.
“We saw that Shea butter was the common raw material in this region and we needed to sustain the women livelihoods without interrupting their way of life,” said Adisa.
The Japan International Corporation (JICA) is funding the project through research at the University of Development Studies in Ghana from various aspects, including setting up an optimal international pricing mechanism for the Shea butter.
In the meantime, international buyers are thronging Tamale in search of supplies from the Pugsung Group, whose Executive Secretary, Sofia Al-Hassan, said had the potential to make Ghana a key exporter of the raw material for the world’s pharmaceutical industry.
The Pagsung, which means ideal woman in the local Ashanti language, -has earned US$5,650 for its members from its last order from a Japanese firm, Tree of Life.
There are other buyers from Canada, Germany, Denmark and the United States.
Ghana, known for its cocoa-rich fields, is on course to creating an entirely new industry from the midst of its rural women, a boost to Africa’s dormant economy.
The strength of the Ghanaian women and their determination to succeed offers an inspiration and fresh hope of victory against poverty.