Q&A with Robert Hornsby of Jobomax

Co-Founder of Jobomax Robert Hornsby shares his thoughts why Fair Trade matters to shea butter producers in Africa

03/31/2011 - 5:24 PM

 Fair Trade USA recently had the opportunity to speak with Robert Hornsby, co-founder Jobomax, who is visiting shea butter producers in Ghana this week. We wanted to know why he made Fair Trade a principle component of his business, and how his company continues to support sustainable development in the shea-growing communities of Africa.

Jobomax provides linkages for sustainable trade and investment in Africa, and engages in development and capacity building for local supplier communities. The company specializes in equitable sourcing arrangements with cooperatives and women-owned businesses. 


What does Jobomax do? 

JOBOMAX provides market linkages for sustainable trade and investment in Africa, and engages in development and capacity building for local supplier communities. One of our principal areas of focus has been sourcing natural ingredients to health and beauty industry and natural products manufacturers.  We also recently began piloting a micro-power project in Guinea using locally produced biofuel, and have consulted with firms in the US seeking to improve the sustainability of their sourcing from Africa.


How did you get involved in Fair Trade?  Why is Fair Trade an important part of your business?

I founded JOBOMAX in 2005 with two partners, Jon Halloran and Mamady Doumbouya.  Mamady grew up in Guinea, came to the US to go to the University of Pennsylvania, served in the US Air Force in Japan, and has done a variety of intriguing work, including setting up an organization to promote literacy education in West Africa through the local Manden script, N'Ko.  Jon and I served in the Peace Corps in Cote d'Ivoire from 1993 to 1995, and ever since then we had considered ways to set up sustainable and interesting business ventures related to Africa.  

We had had each discussed these ideas together and with other friends, colleagues, graduate school classmates (INSEAD, SAIS and Wharton) and fellow Peace Corps alumni. In 2005 I traveled to Burkina Faso to visit a friend who was running small business development programs for the Peace Corps, and was introduced to the work that rural women's cooperatives there were doing with shea butter and other local products. Shortly after my return to the US, I got together with Jon and Mamady (with whom I had worked on sourcing funds for development projects in Guinea), and we decided to make the leap from talking about a business focused on sustainable trade and investment in Africa to actually starting one.  

As people who have spent a lot of time studying, living in and working in the global south, my partners at JOBOMAX and I have a deep commitment to engaging in honorable and equitable business relationships with producer communities.  For us, Fair Trade goes beyond being a label or a set of certifying standards; it is a way of doing business and being in the world that is ingrained as part of our core.  We started our business largely because we wanted to create a better way to trade with Africa in agricultural products, and quickly recognized that our core values aligned closely with the Fair Trade movement.  We engaged Fair Trade USA early on regarding expanding the list of labeled items in the US market, and when they made the decision to label shea butter here we knew we wanted to be the first certified supplier in the US. 


What is life like for shea butter producers?

Well, big industrial European shea butter producers have a very comfortable life.   I don't want to sound revolutionary - there's plenty of that spirit around these days - but the primary model of shea butter production for global industry involves an age-old mercantilist model of squeezing the lifeblood out of the primary agricultural workforce and shipping the raw material to industrial/chemical refinery facilities in wealthy countries.  The vast majority of shea butter that you see in cosmetic products on US and European shelves, and the vast majority of shea butter that goes into European chocolates and confections (as a cocoa butter equivalent), has been extracted from rural gatherers at prices and on terms that in no way approximate fair trading, and has been chemically processed in such a way that the end product is hardly distinguishable from any other industrially produced vegetable stearin.

Shea nuts are harvested and processed in some of the most economically disadvantaged regions of the world.  The Sahel in West Africa is the primary region we trade with; countries here consistently rank as "Least Developed Countries" in the UN, and near the bottom of the World Development Indicators.  Most shea nut gatherers and traditional shea butter producers live a subsistence lifestyle, and do their shea work as part of a varying menu of seasonal weather- and market-dependent activities throughout the year.  They do this work despite immense disease burden and, in the case of the women we most often work with, gender discrimination.  It is not a lifestyle for the faint of heart.  That said, time and again we are impressed and inspired by the women's cooperatives and small businesses we work with in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Guinea and elsewhere because of their professionalism and can-do attitude in the face of great hardship.  


What kinds of changes are you seeing in Ghana as a result of Fair Trade?

Ghana has a number of Fair Trade Certified (TM) producers, but there has been more impact to date in the coffee and cocoa sector than with the shea cooperatives we work with.  A number of producers are confused about the proliferation of varying Fair Trade standards, and some are hesitant to invest in monitoring and certification when it is unclear what the associated label will actually translate to in terms of improved livelihood.  I will be speaking on a panel in Ghana next week that deals in part with this question - determining the best way to monitor and communicate transparency, working conditions, product quality, worker empowerment, financing etc... for the producers we work with.   I for one feel that too many standards only serve to confuse both producers and consumers, and would like to see convergence on a set of standards and a labeling system that clarify the issues on all sides and open the door to more informed production and purchasing.  I look forward to giving you more details on the latest impact of Fair Trade for local shea producers in Ghana after my trip next week.


What is the best way for people to support your work?  

Consumers definitely drive the market for sustainable products, and there is room for them to do more.  Consider that Fair Trade products, despite years of double-digit sales growth, still make up less than one percent of retail sales in the United States.   Decision-makers in purchasing departments at major manufacturers must look at that and wonder what the reasons are for making a switch to Fair Trade.  But when consumers start demanding Fair Trade Certified ingredients, and continue demonstrating a willingness to pay the premium that goes along with that, then the big retailers and manufacturers will sit up and take notice.  This is already happening in several sectors, and will expand rapidly as consumers get the information they seek to support their sustainable consumption motivations.  

Technology can help here as well; one of the big problems in spreading the message of Fair Trade is a lack of transparency and traceability at the moment of purchase.  American consumers buy all kinds of products that are bad for the environment, bad for their bodies, and bad for the primary producer, and most of them do it not because they are bad people but simply because they do not have the information at hand to demonstrate the impact of their purchase.  As this kind of information becomes more readily available through mobile applications and other technology advances, point-of-purchase decisions will start to reflect the principles of fairness and equal opportunity that are held by the vast majority of  Americans.  


For more information on Jobomax and Fair Trade Certified shea butter please visit:

03/31/2011 - 5:24 PM
03/31/2011 - 5:24 PM