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The Magazia's Hands
The magazia is the most respected female elder in the rural, northern Ghanaian
township of Gushie [goo-shay]. The only person in a higher position is the chief --
traditionally a male position -- but this hierarchy does not diminish the power that the
magazia's words have within Gushie, where hundreds of women gather shea nuts,
recently fallen from their parent trees.
The tall grasses in this region are home to scorpions and both black and green
mambas -- some of the most venomous snakes in the world. Unfortunately, these
women are often bitten and stung. Because of Gushie's rural location with no access
to a clinic nearby, women would often succumb to the deadly effects of the venom
before getting medical treatment. (The only more common cause of death for
women was difficult childbirth.)
When Danielle Warren witnessed this, she decided something had to change. And
from that moment forward, getting the women of Gushie protective boots, gloves and
coats to wear became a top priority.
Along her journey, Danielle came across other obstacles. She had to find a way to
make the gear affordable -- getting donations would take time and might not cover a
growing need within Gushie. But part of the reason the people of Gushie could not
afford this gear on their own was because they were not receiving fair prices for their
During the picking seasons, harvesters save what they can to provide for their families
in the several months during which shea nuts will not fall. When the off-season
comes, they use these savings for basic living expenses.But by the time the picking
season returns, they are desperate to refill their dwindling savings. At this point,
middlemen come into the town and bid farmers against each other for the lowest
price possible on the newly fallen nuts, preying on whomever has the most need for
money quickly. By the time they come back, the next farmers in line are ready to pay
a lower price, keeping the price for shea nuts extremely low, despite their high value
for export for use in countless beauty products such as lotions, facial creams, lip
balms, and shampoos that all use shea butter.
Building a silo to store the shea nuts was as obvious of a solution as it was simple.
Such a building could allow harvesters to wait to sell until the end of the season,
when the lack of supply drives up demand and, subsequently, drives up prices in
Europe for shea nuts. If the entire town of Gushie could agree to use such a silo, they
would also have an incredible amount of selling power simply because of the
quantity of what would be stored and, presumably, sold together. However, building
a silo meant not only raising funds for the project, but also meant waiting an entire
season without making money.
Getting the magazia to understand the project and its potential for Gushie was
essential to getting the entire village on board. The harvesters wouldn't have the
selling power they needed with only half of them agreeing to use the silo.
Eventually, she and the chief agreed that this was the way to go, as Danielle had
proven herself with an initial delivery of safety gear and convinced them this would
make them more self-sufficient than ever before.
Once Danielle raised funds for the project, she was able to set up a loan program
whereby villagers could borrow the money they needed to get them through the year
until they could sell their cache of shea nuts in the off-season. The additional
income garnered by selling shea nuts at a premium would eventually be enough, in
the coming years, to support the harvesters' families throughout the year and pay off
Danielle still needed to get back to raising funds for protective gear for the women of
Gushie. Eventually, she decided the best way to do this was to build a for-profit sister
arm of this program that would do one thing: sell its own line of skin creams using the
shea nuts from Gushie around the world under the name, Just Shea. Just Shea is
now sold directly through its company website and also indirectly through various
online retailers and stores in New York City.
The magazia - still in Gushie - and other female elders of the town advise their
township on a daily basis. Her hands - stained red from the daily application of an
herbal ointment that is believed by the elders to have health benefits - are riddled
with wrinkles that hint at her age. But no one -- not even the magazia herself -- knows
her exact age. All she knows is that the giant tree that now serves as the town center
was about her height when she was younger.
SPECIAL PHOTO SALE
Each photo comes with a personal narrative written by the
photographer. Choice of size and finish. 40% of net proceeds will
benefit Just Shea. For pricelist and orders: visit Adam Ottke Photography
Just Shea is a social business
created to increase the leverage,
income and safety of the 600,000
women In Ghana who participate in
the global shea trade.
Just Shea is a project of One
Development Initiative, a non-profit
that helps women support their
families through sustainable
For more information and to
purchase Just Shea products, visit
(Photo of Danielle Grace Warren in
Here is our brief interview with Just Shea Founder, Danielle Grace Warren.
PI: How many women did you start with when we visited in 2011 and how many now?
DW: In 2008 when we first visited there was a loose knit group of women in the
community, but they weren’t galvanized around anything in particular. In the 2011,
when you came to visit - after extensive research and planning - we did intake and
social data surveys with 37 women, selected by Magazia and other women elders, to
participate in the pilot. We just signed on an additional 11 women, bring our total to
48 - 2 joined mid year - and we plan to add another 25 before the end of the season
PI: I remember. That was a long day, but rewarding. Tell me a little about the shea
DW: In Ghana alone, more than 900,000 women collect over 130,000 tonnes of dry
sheanuts annually and the industry benefits close to two million poor people in the
country, 95% of who are from rural households. The shea trade earns at least $30
million of foreign exchange for the national economy annually, and has the
capacity to triple that amount.
The women harvesters must traverse chest-high bush grass—often barefooted or in
thin sandals—to harvest the sheanuts that have fallen to the ground around shea
trees on communal land. They work at dawn and dusk,so it won't interfere with their
subsistence farming and household obligations. These are also particularly high-risk
times for snake and scorpion bites, which range in severity from a minimum of four
days of incapacitation—during which they are unable to care for their children, work
on their family's subsistence farm— and of course the most horrible outcome, death.
PI: How prevalent are snake and scorpion bites when women collect shea nuts?
DW: In 2002 it was determined (by a USAID survey) that 5% of women shea harvesters
had been bitten. We [One Village Planet- Womenʼs Development Initiative]
undertook a series of surveys in the area surrounding Tamale (capitol of Ghanaʼs
Northern Region), and, in our initial findings, 14% (or one in seven women) were
bitten, some more than once, and only one was treated at a medical facility. The
Ghana Trades and Livelihoods Coalition estimates that 60% of the available shea is
left uncollected in the bush because of difficulties faced by the women sheanut
PI: Is this the biggest stumbling block to women being able to make more money
DW: Another big stumbling block is selling their harvest. One quarter of the sheanuts
that are harvested from Ghana's shea trees are neither sold nor processed
domestically. A major reason for this is because women harvesters struggle to get
their sheanuts to market.
Most depend on waiting at the roadside for sheanut dealers to come to them
because they cannot afford the time and cost of traveling to the market themselves. If
the dealers cannot get to them, the sheanuts and the womenʼs labor are wasted.
Even if they do make a sale, because the women are working individually, selling
relatively small quantities of the same thing at the same time, early in the harvest
season, they earn just a fraction of what they could if they aggregated or stored their
PI: Can you give me some numbers?
DW: In 2011, the women in Gushie sold their shea at an average of 17 USD per 85
kilo bag. The price of shea ranges dramatically over the course of a season. For
example, in 2011 it ranged from 15 USD per bag to over 50 USD. The rural women
we target are currently selling less than 75% of what they harvest (about 2.4 bags per
woman) at an average of 17.25 USD per bag. Each woman earning 41.40 USD
annually from her primary—if not her only—source of income.
PI: What have been the results in Gushie to date?
DW: This March, I distributed the first payment to the women harvesters. Our entire
crop was purchased by a socially responsible, multinational buyer and as a result we
were able to distribute double the usual amount of payments to the women. This is
an incredible augmentation to the village collective and a resounding gong of
success that will echo across the village, encouraging others to join in. We envision
that this will encourage and exhort expansion elsewhere in the region.
PI: That's fantastic. How have their families' lives changed now that they have an
organized way of harvesting and storing shea nuts? How do you assess that?
DW: We increased their income 100% which allows them to have higher food
security and increase ability to send their kids to school. We track this both
anecdotally and through pre- and post- pilot intake interviews and surveys.
PI: I could tell that you and your local team are really involved in the process and
that the women in Gushie trusted you as partners. But better yet, the women are
learning to run this on their own. By the way, I love your creams. Who carries your
DW: Nine vendors. Three online. [Just Shea vendors] Most of the stores are located in
downtown Manhattan, New York. Our newest in-store location is Table of Content.
PI: What do you project your growth to be in the next 2 years?
DW: We plan to reach 300 women total and start in one new village, as well as to
have Gushie self-sustaining.
PI: Self-sustaining, I really really like that goal. I think more and more, donors want to
feel like an organization will not require support forever. What does the Magazia think
of all of this?
DW: She’s always been our biggest supporter and is proud to be a part of this.
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