The Mali Women – Empowerment through Beauty

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Helping people out of poverty has been among UNIDO’s top priorities since its very establishment. For decades the Organization has been an effective helping hand – especially for the governments of the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), where poverty is an outstanding issue, with insufficient or no possibilities for those in need to make a sustainable living.

One such case is Mali – a land of internal conflicts and poverty, that – many would say – offers very little possibilities for its population. A wrong assumption, says UNIDO, pointing to a solution in Nature. In a tree, to be more specific.

The shea tree grows wild in nearly 20 countries in Africa and Mali has more shea trees than any of its neighbours. For centuries the shea tree and the butter produced from its fruits have been vital for the life of the rural communities in Mali – and mainly for the women, for whom the shea butter has been the centre of their life and survival.

UNIDO started work in Mali in 2008 – on shea butter projects aiming at women’s empowerment and securing a sustainable income for some of the poorest rural communities.

Although Mali has one of the largest areas of trees in the so-called “shea belt”, rudimentary production processes mean production generally hovers around 80,000 tons per year – far behind the estimated potential of 250,000 tons per year. At the same time, the country has tended to export the raw shea nut or butter through markets in Burkina Faso or Ghana rather than capitalizing on any value added for its own producers.

For these rural communities, which lie outside any kind of formal economy, shea butter is an increasingly important but still underdeveloped product. The women continue to harvest the fruit by hand from wild trees which grow in abundance across Mali’s red earth. They collect as much as they can carry, but about two-thirds of Mali’s shea harvest stays on the ground. The trees are spread out and the women have no other means of transporting their harvest than carrying it on their heads. The nuts are extracted, boiled, dried and shelled by groups of women and girls working together. They are then crushed, roasted and ground into a paste to make the butter.

This physically demanding process, however, has changed with UNIDO’s help. In a partnership with the Ministry of Women, the Ministry of Industry and UNDP, and with funding from UNIDO and the Government of Luxembourg, UNIDO has set up three pilot centres in Dioila, Sikasso and Segou regions. The five-year project is set to run until 2013 and costs around 1,000,000 euros. It reaches some 1,000 women across 100 of the poorest villages in the south.

The south of the country is also where UNIDO managed to achieve the best results so far. In 2010, the Organization helped women from the women’s cooperative in Dioila attend the “Beyond Beauty” Exhibition in Paris. The participation was a huge success for the Mali women, because their products attracted a lot of interest from many international companies, among them the French Shea butter giant Chimitex. That interest resulted in a contract for the delivery of shea butter soap – 40 tons per year for 2011 and as of 2012 – 100 tons per year.

The partnership with Chimitex was facilitated by UNIDO through a close cooperation between the Agro-industries Branch and the Investment and Technology Promotion Office in Paris.
If successful, it should improve the living of around 300 women and provide a catalyst for other such ventures.

“Before the start of the project the women in Dioila were producing only shea butter cream of a relatively low quality. We changed this by introducing simple but effective techniques for better filtering of the shea butter, and we also showed them how to produce shea butter soap,” explains Bassel El Khatib, UNIDO’s project manager, adding that the women are still learning, but even in the process they manage to sell the production and make a good price out of it.

UNIDO’s efforts, with the strong support of the Government of Mali, have already helped to attract private sector investment into the women’s cooperative in Dioila, giving them for the first time direct access to the international market.

“The proof is their participation in the international exhibition and the consequent partnership Chimitex signed with the women’s cooperative – now an enterprise known as SIMALI Cosmetics,” adds El Khatib.

Although small in overall terms, the development is a breakthrough for Mali’s shea butter producers who have struggled both to gain access to international markets and to produce higher value products.

For the last ten years, UNIDO has been supporting the Government of Mali in its efforts to help rural communities better exploit the shea value, add potentials and improve the livelihoods of women who depend on this value chain for around 80% of their income.

Through the pilot centres in the south of the country, the Organization has been training on shea nuts processing technology, providing better production equipment for women’s shea butter cooperatives and helping them in organizing themselves and improving their management and marketing skills. It is also working to raise women’s awareness of international quality standards and on increasing direct market access – especially for higher value products made locally from shea butter.

The lessons learnt, particularly the good practices acquired from the pilot centres, have also allowed the Government of Mali to expand its national shea butter programme and establish shea nut processing centres in hundreds of villages. UNIDO experts believe that with more investment, the shea butter industry in Mali has huge potential for growth, which would impact not just the lives of women in rural areas, but also the overall economy of the country.

By Eva Manasieva Posted April 2011

For more information on the project, contact:

Bassel el Khatib UNIDO Project Manager