I have just returned to Agou from a 3-day field trip to visit some volunteers working in the northern part of Togo. The most inspiring visit was to a shea butter cooperative just outside of Sokodé. It's an amazingly well-run organization that has ties to Olympia, Washington.
They have two explicit community-benefit goals: to promote and support women's economic success and fight against deforestation.
Making shea butter is a traditional skill handed down over generations of women. Many families will use beurre de karité (shea butter) specifically to massage into the body of newborn babies. It is also used as a cooking butter, mixed with antiseptics to treat minor skin wounds and overall as a thick but not greasy lotion – essential during the months of Harmattan when the winds from the Sahara blow down into Togo and cover every bit of space with inches of dust.
The cooperative is very careful to continue this tradition of butter-making. They go out to small villages surrounding Sokodé to buy the nuts directly from the women and children who gathered them by hand. This not only provides women with income but also encourages villagers to see the benefits of selling the nuts of the tree instead of cutting down the tree to use as fuel for fire.
The nuts are brought to a small compound built with mostly local materials, in traditional architectural styles that ensure the nuts are protected from the elements. There is one storage room built in such a way that it remains cool enough to store finished shea butter even during the hot season. The only machine they have is the grinder. Most of the work is done by hand, allowing the organization to employ about 80 women who sit in groups working on each stage of production, singing and dancing whenever they have the opportunity.
All the butter produced by this cooperative is sent to Olympia, Washington (this also helps not to flood the market and put smaller entrepreneurs out of business) to be processed into all-natural soaps and shampoos that have recently been taken up for distribution through Whole Foods Market. The brand name is Alaffia.
The profits from sales are invested back into the community. The current big project is to help local children be able to access junior high (collège) and high school (lycée). In many small villages, there are no collèges or lycées. Students have to travel several kilomètres to get to school if they want to continue their studies. This is not easy, especially for girls who do the large majority of household chores as well. Being away from home for the extra hour or two for the walk is too long, but the price is too high to take a taxi.
Alaffia arranged a bike donation drive in the States. The donations are currently in transit to Togo where they will be distributed to school children to help overcome the distance of travel. Alaffia is Fair Trade certified http://www.alaffia.com/, but there are always hoops to jump through so they haven't gotten it as yet.
It was really awesome to see such a successful organization. My hopes are rising and I'm getting more and more excited to get to post and start working.!
Pic is of vendors in Atakpame, trying to convince us to buy bread, bananas and bean dumplings (spicy beignets). yum yum