Shea Yeleen Connects African Women to Global Markets

Note: I wrote this post for MakeSense, an international organization that promotes social entrepreneurship and connects volunteers worldwide with social businesses. I’m proud to be a MakeSense gangster.

Rahama Wright is a bundle of energy and kindness. She’s an entrepreneur, traveler and the founder of Shea Yeleen, a nonprofit social enterprise that imports shea butter from women’s cooperatives in West Africa to the United States.

West African women have created shea butter for centuries by harvesting shea nuts, cracking them by hand, grinding them and clarifying the resulting butter, which is traditionally used as a calorie-rich cooking oil in Africa. In Mali, doughnuts fried in shea butter are a cheap and popular snack, usually served with a little hot sauce. In the U.S., we use the rich oil (solid at room temperature) for soaps, lotions and lip balms.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, Wright saw the traditional producers of shea butter – women – losing control of their product as global companies increasingly purchased raw shea nuts. “The women were just harvesters,” says Wright. “Without connections to global markets, they were missing the opportunity to supply a value-added product, develop local economies and become successful businesswomen.”

Why Social Enterprise?

So Wright created Shea Yeleen, which buys shea butter from women’s cooperatives comprising almost a thousand women in Northern Ghana and Mali and brings it to the United States, where Shea Yeleen manufactures and distributes shea-based skin products for sale around the country. “Traditional aid leaves much to be desired,” Wright said. “There needs to be a better model, and I started looking for market-based solutions.”

Wright is the only full-time Shea Yeleen employee, but she’s ramped up production and capacity in the 7 years she’s been working on the project. When asked how she has come so far so quickly, Wright answered, “Trial and error, partnerships and committed volunteers.”

Wright brought her first shipment from Mali to the U.S. via air freight, and quickly learned that wasn’t economical. She’s continually improved her processes, finding local partners in Africa to expedite shipping, switching to sea freight and finding a processor in the United States that manufactures the finished products.

Shea Yeleen and Wright herself are attracting international attention for the way they’ve applied a different approach to social change. Wright and Shea Yeleen products have been featured in Oprah Magazine, Real Simple and in countless nonprofit blogs. “It’s been great to see the explosion of interest in social entrepreneurship and a new way of looking at development,” Wright said. “In particular, initiatives from the diaspora are bringing an infusion of new energy to the development sector.”

And now she’s passing her knowledge along. Wright forwarded me one of the handful of emails she gets every week from social entrepreneurs seeking her advice getting started, forming an organization, importing goods and finding customers. Here’s a summary list of the successful practices that have enabled her to scale up:

  • Use the power of partnerships to expand the footprint of your enterprise. If you’re creating an international enterprise, make sure you have local partners on the ground who know their way around.
  • Take advantage of business advisory programs and mentors to ask questions, network and stay up-to-date.
  • Remember that you’re not the only one with good ideas. Create an advisory board that will meet with you regularly to talk about challenges and brainstorm solutions.
  • One size does not fit all. Adapt and evolve.

Take Up Challenges with Shea Yeleen

Rahama is looking for graphic designers, web developers, board members, a social media volunteer and for Washington, DC based volunteers to assist her with the Shea Yeleen booth at the Smithsonian’s annual Folk Life Festival, where a group of Ghanaian women will demonstrate how to make shea butter. You can reach Rahama at rwright [at] sheayeleen [dot] org or info [at] sheayeleen [dot] org if you want to take up her challenges.

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