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EDITIONS
 Friday, 17 January, 2003, 15:50 GMT
Africa hopes for anti-wrinkle cash cow

Some of the poorest women in Africa have something that American women want.

It's called shea butter, comes from West Africa and is said to have magic moisturising properties to create excellent anti-wrinkle creams, lip balm, stretch-mark ointments and soothing nappy rash lotions.

The market is expected to boom as demand for natural and organic beauty products gathers pace, and the growth potential is significant enough for Washington DC to host its very own shea butter conference this week.

Representatives from Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin, Ghana and Senegal have all travelled there to find out how to satisfy the demands of America's cash-rich beauty firms.

Just rewards

At present, the shea nuts are gathered from karite trees in African villages and exported to Europe for processing.

The greasy white butter is then packaged and exported from Europe to the United States.

But that means the majority of African women only reap a tiny amount of the full value of their crop.

Just four ounces of pure shea butter is retailing for about $15 on US cosmetics websites.

Boosting trade

"If West Africans produced butter from the nuts locally, the profits would be greater, there would be more jobs created and the economy would be diversified," said Sasha Resnick, programme manager of West Africa International Business Linkage (WAIBL), the conference hosts.

Washington's first ever shea butter conference has, unsurprisingly, not received much attention from economists and the media.

The grand-scale gathering of African and US trade experts in Mauritius - along with the promise of billions of dollars worth of trade - has been this week's focus.

But to the particular sub-Saharan countries where the resilient karite trees grow, the shea nut's economic significance should not be underestimated.

In search of sophistication

In Burkina Faso alone, shea nut exports were worth $7m in 2000, and became the country's third most important export after cotton and livestock.

And the WAIBL programme is trying to ensure much greater returns for the West African shea producers.

"Nobody is maximising the industry's potential," said Ms Resnick, whose programme, funded by USAid, is trying to do just that.

"What is needed is a sophisticated product."

There need to be industry standards, quality control, proper labelling and packaging, she explains.

Shea butter anti-wrinkle cream
The finished product for sale in the US

Next month, more than 100 shea butter producers from across West Africa will be gathering in Bamako, Mali to learn better butter marketing skills.

Shea butter is nature's own miracle-worker, according to one enthusiastic cosmetics retailer.

Africa is about to discover whether its home-made butter can work economic miracles as well.

See also:

24 Jun 02 | Business
29 Aug 02 | Business
15 Jan 03 | Business
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