You may remember our recent Q&A with Robert Hornsby, co-founder of Jobomax , who shared with us his insight on West African shea butter production. After visiting Fair Trade producers in Ghana last week, Robert wrote this post about his experience there and the potential for impact Fair Trade certification has for African farming communities.
What does it mean to trade fairly? How does it really affect the lives of the farmers and laborers we want to help? And beyond paying a premium for fairly traded merchandise, what can American consumers do to move toward a world in which we know that the things we spend our time and money on are developed in a sustainable manner?
Reading The Economist on the airplane on the way to Ghana this week for the Global Shea 2011  conference, I came across a piece on the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War . That conflict killed 620,000 soldiers and it pitted an industrial north against an agricultural south. After the war, income per person in the south "dropped to 40 percent of that in the North, and stayed there for the rest of the century." The 11 former Confederate states are now finally catching up, with income levels now at nearly 90 percent of the national average. A shift to more manufacturing and services investment and jobs has carried that income growth along; many of the poorest states such as Mississippi, West Virginia and Idaho "have relatively uneducated populations, and rely heavily on mining and agriculture."
Economies with relatively uneducated populations that rely on mining and agriculture ... sounds a lot like West Africa, doesn't it? The world still has an industrial north beating an agricultural south, and the cost in lives far outpaces that of even the Civil War: UNICEF estimates  in 2006 and 2007 suggest that between 5 and 6 million children die each year in developing countries due to malnutrition and hunger related diseases. Nearly 10 times the casualties of the entire Civil War, every year - and that is just children under 5.
The Global Shea Alliance
I have been in Ghana this week at a fascinating conference sponsored by the USAID-funded West Africa Trade Hub , working with a broad spectrum of people involved in the shea industry, from women's groups that traveled across the continent from the brand new country of South Sudan, to major global agribusinesses, and everyone in between. This year the Global Shea Alliance  was formally launched, with more than 200 member entities from around the world and an Executive Committee representing women-owned shea processors from African countries, international shea oil refiners, and global cosmetics brands. The Alliance faces an ambitious agenda in the coming year, having been challenged by the conference panelists and participants to: ensure the health of the bees that pollinate shea trees; protect shea parklands from the charcoal industry, monoculture plantations, and housing development; increase global awareness of the benefits of traditionally produced shea butter; foster more research on the health-promoting activity of bioactive flavonoids in the shea presscake; tap into carbon finance mechanisms to enable broader tree protection programs; increase investment in local capacity for improved shea nut production and shea butter refining; and much more.
The History of Shea
The shea tree grows across the African Sahel region from Guinea and Senegal in the west to Uganda and Southern Sudan in the east. For millennia it has served as an important food product and natural cosmeceutical for the populations in shea growing regions, and has in the past half century become an increasingly important ingredient in the global food and cosmetics industries. Most American consumers know of shea butter as a skin care ingredient in a variety of soaps, lotions, balms and butters. Few know that the majority of African shea exports end up in chocolate and other confections in Europe and Asia, or that most of the vegetable fat promoted as shea in the majority of cosmetic products on U.S. grocery, pharmacy and beauty shop shelves is simply another variety of highly refined food grade oil pumped out of industrial plants. The layers of traders, intermediaries, transportation and logistics expenses, capital equipment investments and profit takers between the shea nut gatherers (almost always women and children) and the U.S. consumer is so thick that not even one penny of a dollar spent on a typical shea-labeled product on US shelves will go to the primary producer in Africa.
So what can American consumers do to promote Fair Trade in the shea industry? The same things you can do to promote Fair Trade in general: make an effort to learn about the sourcing policies of the brands from which you buy and demand change where you find sourcing that does not create sustainable livelihoods for primary producers and laborers. Understand Fair Trade standards and take part in the ongoing conversation in the U.S. and around the world about how to improve and expand upon those standards for ever-broader categories of products. Before you take your next sip of coffee, nibble your next bite of chocolate, or dip your fingers in another cosmetic product, take a moment to find out where the ingredients come from and what the manufacturer is doing to improve living standards in the developing world. If you are on a budget, as many of us are, you can still always buy a little less and pay a little more. One penny out of every dollar you spend might not sound like much, but one additional penny would more than double the income of the primary shea nut gatherers and shea butter producers in Africa. Fair Trade is one area where a little can really go a long way.
* 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.