Fatima Abdulai is a wife, mother and the first link in the shea supply chain. The fruit she gathers in the northern Ghana bush is the source of shea butter — the luxurious ingredient in cosmetics and chocolates. Fatima Abdulai is one of millions of poor rural women who scrape out a living where they find opportunity. In Ghana, the opportunity is the shea nut. In other places, it may be cocoa, cashews, coffee, or hand-made goods. A small loan, efficient technology, and practical advice are the support these women need to help them maximize those opportunities.
Shea trees are also valuable to the global environment. They store carbon and reduce erosion that puts dust in the air. Increasing shea’s worth will ensure that the shea trees are not displaced by other cash crops which use more natural resources and create GHG emissions. Shea has been an important rural food and medicinal for centuries. Gathering and processing shea was always considered “women’s work.” In the last few years, exporters started selling nuts and butter to manufacturers in the U.S., Europe and Asia. But shea pays poorly for women like Mrs. Abdulai because middlemen take advantage of individual producers. Opportunities for women are limited in northern Ghana. For her widowed daughter-in-law, shea is her primary source of income. If Mrs. Abdulai earns enough with shea and her other ventures, she is able to continue her children’s secondary education. The U.N. reports that secondary school enrollment is about half the national average in northern Ghana where Mrs. Abdulai resides. After learning about women like Mrs. Abdulai, SAP — the business software giant — sought to help as part of its corporate social responsibility program. But SAP wanted to make more than a financial contribution. SAP believed that its business management technology “that helps companies run better” could be applied to the shea trade.
Improved agricultural trade could benefit more than a billion people who live in poverty in rural areas. “Agriculture is an engine for growth and poverty reduction…” states a World Bank report [PDF], “Research has shown that every dollar of growth from agricultural products sold outside the local area in poor African countries leads to a second dollar of local rural growth.”
SAP partnered with PlaNet Finance, an international non-profit that specializes in microfinance and technical assistance. PlaNet welcomed SAP’s hands-on approach. “We find that companies that put sweat equity into their social projects”, said Ivana Damjanov, deputy director of operations, PlaNet Finance, “are more engaged and stay with it for the long-term.” Both partners found the basics were in-place in rural Ghana for the project to succeed; political stability, growing mobile communications infrastructure, and a product with demand on the global market. SAP recruited a few of its top employees for 6-month fellowships on the Ghana project. During field visits, they learned from Mrs. Abdulai and other women that providing solutions would require more than technology to succeed. Mrs. Abdulai typically gathers at dawn so she can help her husband on his small farm and manage the household. It is a 15 minute walk to the shea trees where she collects 30 to 35 pounds of fruit before she heaves her basket to her head and trudges back to the village. In the course of the season, she collects almost a ton of fruit.