Photo: Cherie Blair Foundation for Women
The shea nut trade is a major source of income for rural women in West Africa. In fact, shea butter is known as “women’s gold” for precisely this reason. Using techniques which have been handed down over generations, women harvest the shea nut by foraging for fallen fruit from trees and boiling, drying, grinding, and processing it. It is strenuous work which is often poorly paid.
In Ghana, one woman is looking to change that. Comfort Akorfa Adjahoe Jennings runs The Shea Shop, which sells a range of skin care products made from shea butter produced by women in her local community. She says, “My life is all about giving back what was given to me.”
The Shea Shop is just one part of Comfort’s larger business, Ele Agbe, which sells a range of artisanal products including jewellery, musical instruments and handicrafts like masks and traditional Ghanaian stools. Comfort’s driving mission is to enable women and youth in Ghana’s rural areas to gain skills and secure a sustainable livelihood. She explains, “My company has a social mission as well as a business mission.”
After working as an assistant to a bead designer, Comfort raised enough start-up capital to launch a small enterprise of her own, making necklaces to supply the local craft shops in Accra. This experience helped her get a job in one of the largest art galleries in Accra as their bead designer. Comfort used her first salary to formally register her company, Ele Agbe (which means “God is alive”), and after two years at the art gallery, she resigned and rented a shop to focus on her own business full time.
Comfort became more and more passionate about helping rural women promote their products, get a fair price, and secure a sustainable income to support their families. After focusing on beads and handicrafts, she launched a range of shea butter products to support women engaged in this work and ensure that they received fair wages. Her work with shea gatherers led to a relationship with the West African Trade Hub, which provided her with technical support and a market link with fair trade buyers like Ten Thousand Villages. She was also able to expand to other retailers in the US, Ghana, Japan and the UK.
Comfort’s success has not been without challenges. Local banks are not interested in supporting small, growing businesses like hers. She says, “Even if you were to get a loan, you would not be able to work with it because the interest rates are so high.” Comfort has also faced difficulties with finding equipment for quality production and packaging, and promoting her products.
This is why she joined the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women’s Mentoring Women in Business Program in 2012. The program combines mentoring with technology to pioneer a new way of supporting women entrepreneurs in developing and emerging economies. Women like Comfort are matched with men and women mentors from across the world. Together the mentee-mentor pairs use online tools to connect and work on specific goals over the course of a year-long, one-on-one relationship.
Comfort’s primary goal in joining the program was to increase awareness of her brand. She was matched with Sally, a director in a communications business and a PR consultant from the UK. With Sally’s support Comfort was able to re-brand her products to give them greater international appeal, create a new logo and open The Shea Shop. In March 2013 she also completed work on a new factory.
During her time in the Mentoring Women in Business Program, Comfort also engaged in the program’s online forums and webinars. She said, “The online community helped me build my networks and make contacts. One webinar on branding really opened my eyes and inspired me to make sure my new factory was well-branded. I chose outdoor colors, the Ele Agbe logo and the name for the factory and everyone loves it!”
During her time in the program, Comfort expanded her product line, increased her revenue by almost 100% and invested in new equipment and infrastructure. Today, Ele Agbe is working with over 300 producers across the country, including a number of women-led shea processing cooperatives and over 5,000 shea nut pickers. Comfort is also working with nine villages in the Upper East region to sell craft products, including a total of 1,000 women basket weavers. At Ele Agbe, artisans also pass on their skills to younger generations. The company conducts workshops for schools and groups and accepts apprentices from across Ghana. Comfort says, “Seeing this all come together, I was so excited like a mother seeing her child in school the first time.”