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Africa’s Shea Industry Delivers Returns and Impact: An Interview with Eu’Genia Shea

Global demand for shea butter is booming and set to exceed $3.5 billion by 2028. The beauty industry is a large driver behind this growth. While shea butter has been a cooking staple in Africa for centuries, it is also increasingly a major ingredient in lotions, moisturizers, and balms. Even in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global beauty industry has remained remarkably resilient.

At the same time, 16 million women across 21 African countries harvest the shea nuts used to produce that butter—and these women rarely share in the global profit. One mother-daughter duo run an enterprise that bridges that gap.

Eugenia Akuete is the founder of Naasakle International, a bulk shea butter distributor. She named her company after her daughter who—inspired by her own mother’s work—launched Eu’Genia Shea and its Target-based sister brand Mother’s Shea. Their enterprise touches on the full shea butter supply chain. In Ghana, they work directly with shea nut pickers—providing training on quality, sustainability, and parkland management to help the pickers grow and harvest high-quality shea nuts.

After purchasing the nuts at a 20% premium over what other buyers pay, they use machinery-based expellers to make shea butter before shipping the butter to the United States. They then channel back 15% of the company profits to the families of the shea nut pickers. For women with school-aged children, this funding goes towards educational costs. For women without school-aged children, the money goes towards their retirement fund.

With Prosper Africa support, Mother’s Shea is now exporting to over 1,000 Target stores across the United States. We recently interviewed Eugenia and Naa-Sakle on running a business that cuts across continents, working in a women-led industry, and getting the right support at the right time.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How did you start working in the shea industry?

Eugenia Akuete: I started my company in 2000. My mother got sick and I knew I needed to go back to Ghana to help her. She’d been my rock over the years, supporting me and my children. I took a leap of faith and with one suitcase and 30 dollars, I went back to Ghana.

To support myself, I started thinking about how I could generate income. I settled on shea butter which all Ghanaians are familiar with. We’ve always thought of it as “gold,” and my mother who was a midwife would use it on newborn babies. I bought three calabashes of shea butter, repackaged it, and began selling. At first, it was going well, but then I began running into quality issues. I realized I needed to start producing it myself to make sure the quality was good enough. I began to research shea butter but the information at the time was very limited. Then, I learned that USAID and the Corporate Council on Africa were organizing a conference on the shea industry.

Going to that conference was the beginning of my love affair with shea butter. What fueled my passion is the fact that it is the only industry dominated by rural women. It is their source of income and a source of pride for them. It’s an economic activity that affords them some measure of independence and pride. It is also a socially safe place for support from their culturally imposed limitations. I was convinced at the end of this conference, after talking to other participants and presenters, that this natural moisturizer with amazing properties can change the economic landscape for women in Africa—including me.

Over the years, I continued to attend conferences and trainings. By 2013, I was selling to the United States, United Kingdom, South Africa, and Israel. My daughter joined me in 2015, and we continued to grow the business.

Naa-Sakle: I was just finishing up my first year at Harvard Business School when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. She came to the U.S. for treatment and seemed like she was getting better; she was in remission. But, in 2015, when I was at JPMorgan, she got bacterial meningitis. I was doing U.S. and European airline research—a completely different field—but I quit my job and joined her.

I hadn’t worked in the shea industry before. Before she got sick, I kind of played around with it. It was a fun idea, but something completely outside of my wheelhouse—I wasn’t familiar with shea, I wasn’t familiar with the beauty industry. My experience was in finance. But when my mom got sick and needed help, I decided life was too short to not spend our days together.

Women hand sorting shea nuts before processing. Photo: Eugenia Akuete.

What role do women play in the shea butter industry and where do you see your business fitting in?

Naa-Sakle: There are about 16 million women across sub-Saharan Africa who support themselves through the shea industry. These are women who are geographically fragmented. So, the town in which my mom set up shop to begin with is a little town called Damongo. It’s about two hours outside the next major city. Many women in that town aren’t literate in their native language and don’t have access to electricity or other basic technology.

What was happening was market traders would drive their truck to a given village, and these women were pretty much price takers because they didn’t have the ability to get themselves to the broader market. My mom’s business really started trying to build cooperatives where they did not exist, strengthen cooperatives where they did exist, and bridge that gap between these rural shea nut pickers and global shea butter demand.

On average, we found that each woman in our picker base has about five dependents. We work with about 10,000 pickers, so that 10,000 number of direct beneficiaries grows exponentially when you consider their dependents as well.

When did U.S. demand for shea butter start to grow? And now that you’re exporting to 1,000 Target stores, can you tell us a bit about what your company looks like today and how you operate to that scale?

Naa-Sakle: From our perspective, we’re a small company. There’s always going to be more demand than you are capable of supplying. When I took over the company around 2015, I was lucky enough to have some savings and inject a little bit of working capital into the business. That allowed us to grow and take on orders that we hadn’t previously been willing to accept. So, the growth that we saw was less demand fueled and more supply fueled.

Five years ago, we had about 150 pickers, and probably around 20 employees. We currently have about 10,000 pickers and about 55 employees. We increased our shea butter production from 60 metric tons a year to currently over 100 metric tons a year. Just for perspective, the Target deal, depending on demand, would take one to five tons, so there’s still plenty of room to sell through other channels.

 

Mother’s Shea is available at 1000+ Target stores across the United States. Photo: Mother’s Shea.

Where do you think U.S. Government support has been most helpful to your business and what other kinds of support would you like to see from the U.S. Government?

Eugenia: In the early years, the biggest obstacles I faced were lack of knowledge in planning, running a business, marketing, and so on. I think most businesses start as a one-woman or one-man business. And you have to be able to do practically everything. I participated in every training program I could through USAID’s West Africa Trade Hub. Every workshop and conference they organized was another chance for me to learn more about the product, quality standards, export readiness, and more.

Naa-Sakle: I think the most useful support I’ve gotten since taking over the business is financial support. That’s exactly the type of support that I wanted the most when I took over the business and that’s what has been most useful for me at this stage of growth. We received a follow on USADF grant when we were in talks with Target, which really helped us scale up production to meet that incoming demand.

If another business based in Africa asked you for advice about doing business with the United States, what would you tell them?

Eugenia: A business in Ghana just recently called me asking for advice. They said they are in contact with a company in the U.S. and they’ve been asked to send a quote and they wanted my advice. I started asking questions to get to know their backstory to help me advise them. I realized they didn’t know anything about their product.

My advice to them was: you go back and really learn about your product so that when you’re talking to people, they understand that you know what you’re talking about. That is the way to start your marketing. Go learn what your product is and be able to talk about it. And that’s what I would advise most African entrepreneurs who want to sell a product in the U.S. market.

What about investors thinking about backing a company in Africa? What would you tell them?

Naa-Sakle: Investing and partnering with companies in Africa doesn’t have to be scary. It’s just about finding the right matches for you. It doesn’t have to be this crazy daunting process and products from Africa aren’t of lesser value than elsewhere. Just take the step towards finding that right partner and see how it goes.

Eugenia: No one should worry that a product made in Ghana doesn’t have as much quality as a product made in the U.S., because they have stringent regulations around those too. One thing that’s made me very excited about working with Target and other retailers is that we’re a company that is working and helping women in Ghana, but we’re also helping companies in the United States too. It’s not just a one-way situation where one country is supporting another country. They’re also benefiting in terms of what is coming back to the U.S.; that’s exciting.

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Prosper Africa is a U.S. Government initiative to increase two-way trade and investment between the United States and Africa. The Prosper Africa toolkit includes more than 60 trade and investment support services across the U.S. Government. To support Prosper Africa’s goals, 17 participating U.S. Government agencies are adapting existing tools and creating new ones to help U.S. and African firms adjust their strategies, protect their investments, and find new opportunities in the wake of COVID-19.