In February 2012, we took Lily Cole, our new brand advocate, to rural northern Ghana. We wanted Lily to see Community Fair Trade in action, and we couldn't think of a better place to do so.
At that time the shea-making ladies formed The Tungteiya Women's Shea Association, a co-operative with 500 female members living and working in 11 villages. We buy 450 tonnes of shea butter from them every year. As well as paying a fair price, we pay a premium on each kilo. This money goes into a fund and Tungteiya decides how to spend the money through its own NGO, called the Northern Ghana Community Action Fund. The fund benefits around 46,000 people, and its community projects really have transformed lives.
Shea, at the heart of the village
Lily's trip starts at Mbanayili. Like the other villages in Tungteiya, shea is at the heart of the community. Each village is built around a processing centre. Shea trees grow wild, and the women's daily lives revolve around making butter.
She'll learn more later, but first Lily must meet the chief. She's ushered into the chief's hut and offered a kola nut as a symbol of friendship. The village women serenade her in all-singing, all-dancing style, show her how to balance a calabash bowl of nuts on her head, and escort her, sashaying in single file, to the processing centre.
A labour of love
Making shea butter by hand is a labour-intensive process. The fruits are boiled, dried in the sun and their kernels extracted. These are broken into nibs and roasted, then cooled and ground into a paste that looks and smells just like chocolate. Water is added and the mixture is beaten by hand until the butter floats to the top. This then needs to be clarified, which involves heating it, filtering it, cooling it and beating it with sticks to soften it.
This last stage is tough, so the women sing through it. Finally the butter is weighed, packed and transported to the coast where it's sent to Holland for a final filtration process.
For Lily, this is an eye-opening experience. But so too are the stories that the women are eager to tell her. Like Madame Afishetu, who couldn't read or write before she joined the co-op, but now does both, is fluent in English and has taken on the role of village secretary. Most importantly, thanks to trade, she can now pay her five children's school fees, buy good clothes and proper food.
Or the grandmothers of Dimabi, where Lily comes to open a new teachers' quarters. Funded by NOGCAF, the accommodation has been built for government-appointed teachers. Getting teachers to stay in the remote village has long been a problem – quite often they arrive and leave as soon as they see the very basic conditions in which they'll have to live. So it's hoped that these new quarters – with a bedroom, living room, kitchen, bathroom and veranda – will change all that.
"Today I've met some of the grandmothers," said Lily. "None of them had been educated or could write. But their grandchildren are now being educated because of the schools the premium fund has paid for, so it empowers the whole community."
A healthier future
There are more stories. At Bunlung village, Lily meets Madame Fati Paul, who was ill with guinea worm infection for 10 whole years. This was because she drank water infected with guinea worm eggs: these hatched in her body, travelled down to her feet and broke through the skin. Now that Bunlung has a water pump (another premium fund project), the village isn't risking its collective health by using its waterhole for washing and drinking, just for crop irrigation.
Back at Mbanayili, Madame Abiba shows Lily where women traditionally give birth – in a round hole in their hut. But now there is a clinic, and a real maternity ward, that too might change. The clinic treats 2,200 people, saving them the long journey up to Tamale, and saving lives in the process too.
What Lily learnt
"Today I've met some of the grandmothers. None of them had been educated or could write. But their grandchildren are now being educated because of the schools the premium fund has paid for, it empowers the whole community. You can empower communities through trade, rather than making them dependent on aid. And on the other side of the equation, we, in the more developed countries, are lucky to get the global products we want and enjoy things from all over the world."
Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, first visited the women and villages in the late 1980's and in 1994 The Body Shop placed its first order of 5 tons of shea butter, an order that has grown to 450 tons in 2011.