When I was a little girl, I helped my mother collect shea nuts while on my walk to school. I watched her and other industrious women in my village earn very little for their hard work picking, processing and selling shea, the main industry for women in the area. Their struggle and tenacity inspired my mission to bring women in shea together in groups, and help them to increase their bargaining power and access buyers who pay them fairly.
I grew up in a large family with my parents and nine siblings in a rural area of Northern Ghana. I had fun growing up in my community and enjoyed playing outside with my friends. Shea trees grew wild around our village so I would help my mother gather shea nuts for her to turn into shea butter and sell to provide an income. We would pick the nuts in the early morning, and often I would be late for school.
When I left primary school, the only secondary was far from our home, so I would walk the long distance every day with my siblings for company. The money needed for school fees was very challenging on the small income my parents made through farming and shea butter, but with their support I went on and graduated from secondary school.
Here I am back in 2015 with some of the women who worked with me, outside my small shop. (CAMFED/Patrick Hayes)
My first venture into entrepreneurship
In pursuit of my vision to provide hard working women with a stable income, and after struggling to find paid work after graduating school, I launched my shea business Asheba Company in 2012. I also joined the CAMFED Association of young women leaders educated with CAMFED’s support. The network has opened many opportunities for me, including financial literacy training and the chance to become a peer educator.
With my newfound knowledge, I could set in motion my goal to transform the local shea industry for women in my community. I started by producing hair cream, body cream, baby cream and soap, and used my profits to study for a Diploma in Business at Tamale Polytechnic. CAMFED supported me through the registration process, branding and certifying my products, and connecting me with business mentors.
My commitment to running a social enterprise that benefits my community meant I was soon selected to take part in the “Innovation Bursary Program”, offered by CAMFED in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. The program really helped me and changed everything. I received training, a small grant, and crucial mentoring support from the female CEO of a shea processing business in Accra.
And it’s not just me who benefited – using the knowledge I gained during the program, I organized and trained 70 women to gather and process shea nuts into butter. This created a steady supply of high quality shea butter for my business, while providing a ready market for the women’s work. Within three years, I had 10 employees and had set up four shea nut processing groups totalling 210 women – who were able to learn skills from each other and able to provide for their families by producing more quality shea butter in less time.
Me in the center with two of my employees, Safura (right) and Sanatu (left). Their daughters are the first in the family to receive an education. (Credit: CAMFED/Patrick Hayes)
The power of collective action
Shea is a rare industry in Ghana where the picking, production and processing is traditionally dominated by women who pass Indigenous knowledge down through generations. Rural communities like mine have few formal job prospects and shea provides a vital source of income, alongside subsistence farming, and allows women to have more control over their own lives.
In spite of these benefits, I’ve witnessed first hand the challenges women face to securing a decent living in the shea industry. Picking, grinding, and kneading the nuts by hand is labor intensive and tiring, especially in our hot climate. Women often walk long distances with heavy containers, selling their product door-to-door. At markets I saw women being cheated by unscrupulous buyers who did not provide weighing scales, and therefore sellers couldn’t calculate if they had received a fair price. I observed many women, including my mother making a loss selling shea butter, despite all their hard work. This motivated me to do something about it.
In my processing center we have weighing scales and mechanical grinding equipment to reduce manual labor. The machinery has increased the quality of the product and I am able to pay a premium price. We have a storage warehouse, so when the butter is ready we can buy it and pay for it instantly. By organizing and training the women, I’ve created a steady supply of high quality raw shea butter for my processing business, and at the same time I am saving the women time, effort and providing them with better financial stability. My mother and I went through the same hardships as these women but my business has brought change. It makes me so happy to see the difference I’m making in advancing women.
One of my employees uses a ladle to separate the oil during the extraction process. (Credit: CAMFED/Mark Read) My family’s dedication to support my education spurred me on to succeed and improve our lives. Through my shea business, I am proud to be able to support them and others in my community.
In recognition of my work, in 2015 I was invited by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) to speak in front of senior government officials and CEOs, and became one of only 16 women selected by the government of Ghana to receive Youth Enterprise Support (YES) funding, which I used to expand my business.
Less than three years later, in January 2018, I accepted two awards at the Invest in Africa Awards (IIA): Female Entrepreneur of the Year and Business Innovation of the Year. In November that year, I was invited to share my expertise at the EVE Program Africa summit in Senegal.
Asheba Company quickly expanded and I was able to build my own warehouse. I received support from CAMFED to attend trade fairs, bringing on big buyers with larger orders and increasing my profit. Following the expansion, I became CEO of Asheba Enterprises. I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the business, conducting meetings with potential buyers and partners to open new opportunities and take it to the next level.
Defying gender barriers
It’s not been an easy ride to success in the shea industry. When I first started, people did not believe that a woman could set up a successful shea business. I wasn’t able to get a loan from the bank because I didn’t have the right property ownership papers due to my gender. When I rented my first shop, even my landlord was discouraging. However I remained focused and resilient, and now those same people are saying congratulations to me!
My business continues to go from strength to strength. Today, we have over 600 cooperative members, who are mostly women, working together to process high quality shea butter that reaches international standards – making it possible to supply organic shea butter products to customers in Ghana and all over the world including the USA, Canada and Egypt. We work with 70 in-house shea nut processors, and source shea nuts from over 400 shea nut pickers and processors, providing income opportunities for rural residents in the Northern Region in Ghana.
Raw shea nuts (left) before processing, and a selection of my shea cosmetics (right), manufactured here in Ghana. (Credit: CAMFED/Mark Read)
I continue to receive personalized support from CAMFED and partners like the Fairtrade Foundation to reach more international buyers. A business development consultant hired by CAMFED helped me to refine my business plan, focus on growth, and set business goals. I pass this knowledge on to women’s groups, for example advising them on the benefits of registering their business, pooling resources and forming cooperatives.
Learn how shea butter is made
Berla Mundi, Ghanaian TV Personality and Radio Host joined me at my processing facility in Sagnarigu to learn how shea butter is produced from start to finish.
Through my business, I have supported over 1,000 women with technical and vocational skills in shea. Over 99% of the women engaged in my business have been able to save more and access micro-loans. This helps them improve the lives of their families and keep their children in school.
Sustainable jobs and mitigating against climate shocks
There is so much potential in shea for women in Ghana as demand for naturally derived beauty products rises across the globe. Supporting more women to tap into this demand and receive a fair price for their work is helping alleviate poverty in disadvantaged communities like mine. There’s also a benefit to the climate if shea trees — which grow wild and thrive in the dry savanna of Northern Ghana — are left to grow, rather than being chopped down for timber or firewood. I have experienced the impact of climate change, with increased floods and droughts, but the conservation of shea trees can help preserve habitats and protect communities against soil erosion and flooding.
Paying forward the benefits of my education
Running a business requires good financial skills, record keeping and organization which would be much more challenging without an education, yet there are still many girls in Ghana who do not have access to education due to poverty. I launched Asheba Foundation to support marginalized girls with learning materials and menstrual products to keep them in school. With my business profits, I’m personally supporting girls in my community to attend school, by paying their school fees, and supplying school materials and meals.
Scaling up my business to support more children through school
Through the scheme I have obtained internationally recognized Fairtrade certification for my shea butter — which assures customers of high quality and robust ethical standards. I’ve also accessed training, advice and equipment grants to expand my shea nut processing facility. By scaling up my business, I will be able to access new opportunities, create more jobs, and support hundreds more children through school.
I am a role model in my community and beyond, showing what is possible for women in business. I encourage youth and especially women, to take on the challenge of starting their own business, telling them that to be successful you have to take a risk. You have to be committed, to respect your partners and employees. Running a business can be stressful so resilience and good relations with your customers is essential.
Through my business and mentoring efforts I’ve become well known and respected. I am often invited to demonstrate my business model and share sustainable business advice with other communities in Northern Ghana. My business success has given me recognition and people trust my judgment. I am invited to community meetings to contribute to decision-making on things like education and development.
I count myself as a successful entrepreneur – financial stability has completely changed my life. I also see success as my ability to spend quality time with my family, and that I make other people happy through my business. I am excited to see what the future holds for young female entrepreneurs in rural Ghana. Together with my sisters in the CAMFED Association, we are supporting even more women and girls into secure livelihoods, independence and leadership.
Ayisha and Esther scoop national business awards in Ghana
Two CAMFED Association members have won top awards for their successful businesses. Ayisha Fuseini of Asheba Enterprise, a shea butter processor accepted two awards including Female Entrepreneur of the Year at the Invest in Africa Awards (IIA). Esther Naanbir, of Agape Moringa Processing, won Woman of the Year at the Vodafone Small and Medium Enterprises Ghana Awards (SMEGA).
Ayisha Fuseini at the UN: The Secret to Shea Success
CAMFED Association member, shea butter entrepreneur, and peer educator Ayisha Fuseini from the Northern Region of Ghana recently joined young entrepreneurs from across the world for a conference at the historic Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. She had been invited by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) to speak in front of senior government officials and CEOs, and pitch her latest business plans to an audience of investors.
Through its youth enterprise programs, CAMFED is dedicated to improving the futures of young women beyond the classroom. Generating an income not only supports young women's economic independence, their life choices, and the prospects for their families; it also enables them to expand their reach as activists and philanthropists.