Thursday
January 21
2010

Tayo Akinyemi

Shea Yeleen: Promoting Market Access for African Shea Producers

Toward the end of my job search, I sought advice on my resume from a woman with a lot of recruiting experience. She offered to help me refine my resume messaging. At some point during the exchange I confessed that I didn’t always understand why one resume was chosen over another in the recruiting process. Her reply was brilliant in its clarity. “Essentially, it’s a matter of resonance,” she said. The recruiter will see something in the document that “clicks”—-reminds her of herself and her experiences, meets the requirements of the position, and addresses the needs of the company.

I was reminded of the “theory of resonance” while talking to Rahama Wright, social entrepreneur and founder of Shea Yeleen International, a nonprofit working to help African women secure sustainable livelihoods via shea butter production. As you’ll soon read, Shea Yeleen emerged out of a sense of kinship with the women with whom she’d worked in Burkina Faso as a Peace Corps volunteer. We’ve talked about this dynamic force before; it’s often what gets people to press their “go” buttons, which Rahama has clearly done. So for those of you who’ve made New Year’s resolutions to “press go”, perhaps Rahama’s story will offer some inspiration for 2010. Let’s get to know Shea Yeleen.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
What does Shea Yeleen do? Who does it serve and where do you work?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
Our mission is to support economic development in rural West Africa, and we currently operate in Burkina Faso, Ghana and Mali. More specifically, we work with shea butter producers to gain access to US consumers. We organize producer cooperatives, offer women business skills training, and create retail products that we can sell. Shea Yeleen also works to educate US consumers about the market access issue, especially how to support the communities where we work. With shea butter and other commodities of African origin, local communities often do not benefit from the trade of local goods. Not surprisingly, market access for women producing shea is very limited, so we are trying to help bridge that gap.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
I hear that you’re currently raising funds for a new factory, rather successfully I might add. What’s the story there?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
We’re raising money for 120 women in Dio, Burkina Faso where I served in the Peace Corps. The purpose of the fundraising is to build a central production and training facility for the cooperative we’ve established. The community has donated land and labor and Shea Yeleen is raising four thousand dollars to help pay for the facility’s construction.

Fortunately, we have nearly achieved our fundraising goal, which is very exciting. We’re working with the Peace Corps to offer continued organizational support to the cooperative and channel the funding. Construction is scheduled to start in March.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
Why did you start Shea Yeleen?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
I am of Ghanaian descent—–my mother’s family is from Ghana. Although I grew up in Syracuse, I’ve always been interested in African issues. Eventually I joined the Peace Corps and was placed in Burkina Faso where I volunteered at a women’s health center.

During my time there, I was really overcome by the challenges that the women faced within their communities. Because of my background and family history, I saw my reflection in these women. I could very easily have faced the same difficulties they were facing. As a result, I felt a sense of responsibility to do something. It didn’t make sense to see those challenges and issues and not try to help.

It became clear that the women I was working with could not pay for health services. That’s when we started thinking about income-generating activities for them. Shea butter was a product that they were willing to organize around, so we started there. With my experiences in the US and Africa, I thought I could figure out a way to get the shea butter to market. So I began to work with a group of women to create a cooperative and formalize a business structure. I formally launched Shea Yeleen in 2003 and the cooperative was formed in 2005.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
Why shea butter?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
Shea butter is a unique commodity in Africa because producing it is considered women’s work, equivalent to cooking, taking care of household, etc. As more products are made from shea butter, there’s a unique opportunity for women to benefit if they’re able to sell products. When women are empowered economically it changes their lives, the lives of their children, and their communities.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
Do you have plans to scale your venture?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
Yes. Right now we work with about 300 women through various partnerships in Mali, Ghana, and Burkina Faso. We’ve done a very good job of organizing and training, and we have a small retail product line. We want to expand our line, increase brand awareness, and explore new distribution channels so that we can get more products to market and give consumers greater access to them. Ideally we’d like to grow the cooperative from a few hundred members to a network of cooperatives with a few thousand members in the next five years. It’s also very important for us to share stories of women we work with and demonstrate our impact on their income levels.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
How easy is it to stimulate domestic demand (i.e. within Africa) for your products?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
It’s possible, but we’ve noticed that Africans who can afford to buy these types of goods are buying imports from Italy and the US. People tend to want a more refined, “foreign” product. Shea butter is also considered less mainstream and has been stereotyped as belonging to poor people. Unfortunately, due to lack of facilities, we can’t produce retail products from our shea butter in Africa. Shea Yeleen is forced to import shea from Africa, create the retail products in the US, and sell them to American customers. If we could figure out how to manufacture our products and sell them in Africa, they would sell very well.

Tayo Akinyemi, NextBillion.net:
What are your toughest challenges as an entrepreneur?

Rahama Wright, Shea Yeleen Founder:
As with any start-up or social enterprise, funding is a huge hurdle. Our sector specific challenge is trying to work effectively in communities without running water and electricity; gaining access is difficult. On the business side it’s sorting out market access and distribution-looking at distribution channels is a huge part of our mission.

If you’d like to learn more about Shea Yeleen, check out their website:. Also, Shea Yeleen has been featured in O Magazine and Rahama is a winner of the Women Rule! O-White House Leadership Contest. Finally, to support the current fundraising drive, go here.

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