just shea: harvesting a new reality

*published on september 29, 2014 in ABC Home

by Julia Sweeney

Despite possessing a resume that includes experience as an editor, experimental theater producer, and Wall Street stockbroker, Wicki Boyle felt inspired to begin a new career in her late 50s — in Africa, no less. What would be seen as a daunting challenge for many is an exciting opportunity for Boyle, a woman who relishes in adventures in the unknown (her time spent writing for National Geographic is quite literally an example of this).

Boyle is the co-founder of Just Shea, a social business focused on empowering women shea collectors and harvesters in Northern Ghana through the sale of shea-based cosmetics. Just Shea products – lusciously soft salves for feet, hands, face, and lips created from Ghanaian shea butter – are now available both online and in-store in ABC Home. After discussing her life, career, and Just Shea recently, we part ways — but not before she proffers a genuine hug. An appropriate gesture, perhaps: Boyle’s ability to embrace the new with open arms is truly special.

Wickham-BoyleImage of Wicki Boyle, Ozier Muhammad / The New York Times

Boyle met Just Shea’s founder, Danielle Grace Warren, through The Op-Ed Project (a movement to increase the number of women thought leaders in key international commentary forums). They became friends – frankly, we can’t imagine not finding Boyle instantly companionable – and when Warren informed Boyle she was headed to Ghana, a deeper connection was forged.

Warren would eventually establish the One Village Planet-Women’s Development Initiative, a humanitarian organization focused on sustainable development projects for women in Haiti and Ghana (the profits of Just Shea are channeled to their shea-related activities in Ghana). Boyle, knowing very little about what Warren would actually end up doing, nevertheless felt compelled to get involved. She says, “I wrote her basically just saying, ‘I love Ghana. Can I help?’”

danielleDanielle Grace Warren, right

Eventually, Just Shea was born, a company that is capitalizing on a tremendously underutilized industry while enabling women entrepreneurs to establish true, viable businesses. In Africa, shea is known as “womenʼs gold”: Nut collection and processing are designated women’s work. More than 600,000 women collect shea nuts in Ghana, with the industry benefiting more than 2 million individuals (particularly because women tend to reinvest their profits back into their families and communities). Moreover, shea’s rising popularity – it’s seemingly laced in every single cream on the market today – makes it a sector for real growth. Yet over 25% of shea nuts harvested from Ghana’s trees are neither sold nor processed domestically; 60% of the available shea nuts go uncollected.

Just-Shea-1

This is largely due to the challenges the women shea nut collectors face, obstacles Warren witnessed firsthand. Boyle explains, “She was seeing that women collecting shea nuts – because it is a women’s job, men will not pick up anything off of the ground – are being bitten by poisonous snakes and scorpions. They don’t have any gear to protect their exposed hands, feet, or faces.” Moreover, as shea collecting often happens at night – so as to not interfere with their daytime responsibilities – they are forced to do so almost entirely in the dark, thus crippling efficiencies.

Based off of the concept of hands, feet, and faces (articulated in their products) Just Shea provides the simple tools these women need to be successful: Boots for the feet, gloves for their hands, and hats for their heads. Boyle remarks, “I like that our company very clearly tells you what we’re doing, but not in this longwinded way. You can literally see the connection.”

Just-Shea-2

Aside from this gathering gear, the profits for Just Shea help fund other critical logistical elements, such as solar-powered flashlights and silos to store the nuts, allowing collectors to aggregate the crop and sell it year-round (hitherto, many would abandon nuts that they were unable to store). Boyle and Warren have also launched an interest-free loan initiative, which enables women to take out money against a bag of collected shea nuts. This cash advance at the onset of the harvest season means they can hold onto their crop investments and sell during opportune market fluctuations.

While empowering women is rewarding for Boyle, creating a truly outstanding product is equally exciting. She comments, “We know that we have to make it twice as good as the next product, because people will not buy something just because it has a backstory — it has to be great.” Their shea butter formula, developed by a New York-based chemist, feels nothing like the heavy, often-sticky products we’ve encountered in the past. It glides on smooth and light, a refreshing — and new — articulation.

So, much like Boyle and the many women of entrepreneurs Just Shea, shea butter has taken on a new lease in life — one that feels very, very good. Shop Just Shea, below.

Just-Shea-_ just shea hand salve; $40 | just shea lip salve; $20 | just shea face salve; $55 | just shea foot salve; $40

 All images except top via Just Shea 

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