A new technology promises to change shea butter processing

Tamale (N/R): Lamnatu Seidu works six days a week in this shea butter processing centre here in Sagnarigu District. The 52-year-old mother of five is shrouded in smoke as she roasts nuts in a traditional roaster fueled by firewood and shea cake. She coughs and wipes her red eyes every few minutes. The smoke makes it hard for her to see.

Lamnatu is one of nearly a million women who support Ghana’s world-renowned shea butter industry in farms and processing centres in Northern Ghana. It is a huge driver of economic activity in a region with few other job-creating industries. But the women have paid a price.

Lamnatu and other women have been constantly exposed to air pollution in the smoke, causing them a range of health conditions. But the women say they have no choice but to stay in the job.

“My children’s lives depend on this profession, as the first child is in secondary school now,” Lamnatu said, speaking in the Dagbani dialect through a translator. “My eyes are heavy now, and when I return home, I can’t sleep due to body pains and itching in my eyes. Everyday discomfort and the frequent purchase of medicines for body pain are what keep me going daily, for the needs of my children.”

Women work under a cooperative model – twenty-five women for each processing task per day – to ensure work is equally shared. Each woman makes $85 a month for 75 bags of processed shea butter, an amount which puts them well above the poverty line of $2.15 a day in an area plagued by poverty. Most women work in the safe part of the business – picking nuts – but 7,000 work in processing centres.

The Ghanaian shea butter industry has long relied on the labour of women who harvest the nuts and turn it into commodities sent throughout the world. Ghana is the world’s largest shea butter exporter, accounting for more than 60% of total supply. Many of the women are breadwinners in their households.  Daughters of processors often follow mothers and grandmothers into the industry.

Decades of exposure to toxic smoke is now catching up with older workers. In addition to blindness, air pollution is a leading cause of a range of illnesses such as respiratory and lung infections, cancer, infertility, diabetes and heart disease.

“When it comes to the heart, we can think about the effects on blood vessels, which can lead to heart attacks and sometimes high blood pressure as well,” says Dr Dzifa Ahadzi, a heart expert at Tamale Teaching Hospital. She urges women to wear “N95” nose masks to protect themselves from contaminants and to limit their hours over the stoves.

The dangers of wood and charcoal cooking have prompted a range of clean solutions including gas and electricity. But clean options are yet to penetrate widely in the industry. Firewood remains the principal source of fuel.

Dressed in a long African cloth with a veil over her hair Ayisha, a local drug seller, smiles and jokes with her regular clients at the Yamzaa Shea Processing Centre, located along a bi-water road in the Sagnarigu district’s Kukuo village. Ayisha sells drugs without a licence so she asks not to use her last name for fear of being fined. Ayisha sells a range of pharmaceuticals as well as herbal treatments. Her customers are mostly women from the shea butter centres in the area trying to self-medicate their myriad problems.  

Several women approach her complaining of body and chest aches. Though she has no medical training she suggests pain alleviation for each.

Ayisha defends her activities. Her drugs are purchased from legal vendors, she claims. She challenges a reporter to check expiration dates. “My services serve the needs of the women here who reside a distance from drug stores and work late,” she says. “They frequently complain about physical discomfort. I thus have a ton of painkillers to offer them. Some people tell me how they are unable to fall asleep. They have to go cook for the spouse and the kids after leaving here. You only have to imagine.”

The illnesses suffered by women have worried Ghana health officials and shea butter companies alike. Efforts to clean up the business have prompted entrepreneurial efforts designed to clean the air.

Clean cookstoves have been the main approach. The DONAGO smokeless stove is made by Ghanaian entrepreneur Donald Amrago of Appro-Earth Consult in Kumasi. The stove made from earth, clay, and bricks burns wood more efficiently, thereby reducing smoke emissions. Burn Lab Stoves, another Ghanaian start-up business based in Kumasi has developed a stove that uses shea cake, a byproduct of shea butter, to reduce wood use.

Some women who have been given training on these stoves have been impressed. Mamunatu Salifu, team leader of a women’s group at Pagsung Shea Butter Processing Centre, says she is pleased with the centre’s newly installed DONAGO stove. “We were able to use less wood for butter production in a large pot, and the stove remained smokeless throughout.”

But the costs of the new stoves have been a major obstacle. At 45,000 cedis ($US3100) for purchase and installation, they have been out of the reach of women who earn just 40 cedis a day each. The stove and installation at Pagsung were donated by the Savannah Fruits Company, a Ghana-based company focused on sustainable production, with funding from United States AID.

Savannah Fruits has donated more than 150 improved boiling stoves and 60 roasters to 33 organic shea processing facilities in Northern Ghana who supply shea butter to the company. “This project improves working conditions, efficiency, and ultimately the quality of shea butter that the cooperatives produce. The Savannah Fruits Company sees this as an investment in the local community as well as the shea supply chain,” according to Sofia Durrani, head of Sustainability with the company.

The cooperatives own the equipment and Savannah Fruits donates 10 percent of its profits back into these cooperatives so they can pay to maintain the equipment.

Donations are the only way clean stoves are going to make it into the rest of the processing centres says Henry Sarpong, general manager of SEKAF Ghana, the first firm in Northern Ghana to introduce branded shea butter.

“We recognise the negative health effects of smoke pollution on women working in the shea industry. We know better stoves could minimise or lessen the amount of smoke pollution at different processing facilities,” says Sarpong who has 150 female and five male employees. “But the women’s cooperatives have been reluctant to spend the money that would otherwise go into their pockets.”

As more and more women get older and sicker from the impacts of smoke inhalation in the industry pressure is growing on the government, companies and donors to clean up the industry. Until then experts warn the women to wear nose masks as much as possible and step away from the smoke whenever they can.


This article was a collaboration between StarrFm and New Narratives, with funding provided by the Clean Air Fund. The funder had no say in the story’s content.