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In Ivory Coast, Shea Butter Is 'Women's Gold'



Shea butter, which is used in makeup and food, is popular around the world. In Africa, it is called “women’s gold” because so many women there earn money making and selling it.

The ivory-colored butter, or karite, comes from the nut of the shea tree. Millions of women across the Sahel earn money from making it. The Sahel is an area of the African continent south of the Sahara desert. It stretches across Northern Africa like a belt, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea. It is 5,400 kilometers long and between a few hundred and a thousand kilometers wide.

In northern Ivory Coast, some women are working together to create a large business that makes and sells shea butter.

People are selling a lot of shea butter in a local market in Korhogo. Shea butter is popular with people who live in the area, like Awa Ouattara.

She says “it nourishes my skin; it beautifies it and makes it more firm.”

About 50 kilometers from the market, Alice Koné Maridiouma sweeps the grass to pick up the fallen shea nuts in one of the many shea fields in the area. The harvest season has begun. Like she does every year, Koné will process the nuts in the traditional way her grandmother taught her.

She will heat, dry and grind the nuts. She will work hard for hours to make the shea butter, which is then sold at the market.

She says sometimes she can make a lot of money selling shea butter. But she says when the harvest is not good, she must sell other products.

Like Koné, most women in the shea industry in Ivory Coast work independently and sell their product near their homes.

But there is great demand for shea butter worldwide. It is used in makeup or as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolate.

Two neighboring countries -- Burkina Faso and Ghana -- are among the top exporters of shea butter. Burkina Faso earns an estimated $33 million every year exporting it.

Ivory Coast is trying to increase the amount of shea butter it exports.

In Natio-Kobadara, processing shea is a traditional activity that almost all of the families in the village have taken part in for many years. But a few years ago, some of the women created a separate company, called a co-op.

In an open area, they lay strips of shea kernels to dry under the sun. Nearby, many women operate ovens to heat the shea nuts.

A mill grinds the kernels.

Ahoua Coulibaly is the president of the co-op. She says when people work in a group, they create many ideas. And she says such a group may be given money to expand.

She says the women have received some money to build a storage building. She says if women work alone, they cannot build such a warehouse. Coulibaly says the co-op still needs more machines and a fence to guard the open area.

In some fields in the area, a new kind of shea tree is being planted. It produces more nuts than traditional shea trees.

Two years ago, the government began working to help shea butter producers. Ali Keita leads the effort.

He says when there is a strong cooperative organization, Ivory Coast will be able to sell shea butter in China, Europe and the United States.

Keita is also trying to convince countries that produce shea butter to work together.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

Correspondent Emilie Iob reported this story from Korhogo, Ivory Coast. Christopher Jones-Cruise adapted the report for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

makeup – n. substances (such as lipstick or powder) used to make someone's face look more attractive

nut – n. a small dry fruit with a hard shell that grows on trees, bushes, etc.

stretch – v. to continue for a specified distance; to extend over an area

belt – n. figurative a band of material (such as leather) that is worn around a person’s waist

nourish – v. to provide (someone or something) with food and other things that are needed to live, be healthy, etc.

firm – adj. fairly hard or solid; not soft

sweep – v. to remove dust, dirt, etc., from (something) with a broom or brush

grind – v. to crush or break (something) into very small pieces by rubbing it against a rough surface or using a special machine

substitute – n. a person or thing that takes the place of someone or something else

mill – n. a machine for grinding or crushing pepper, coffee, etc.

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