Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Negotiating across Difference: Gendered Exclusions and Cooperation in the Shea Value Chain

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Negotiating across Difference: Gendered Exclusions and Cooperation in the Shea Value Chain

Article excerpt


Shea butter, derived from the African shea tree, has acquired a pivotal position in global agro-food and cosmetics industries. In Burkina Faso, public and private actors as well as civil society are converging upon the product to boost the incomes of rural female producers. As a result of these trends, the shea value chain is increasingly segmented; shea nuts are sold in a low-return, conventional market and simultaneously enter an alternative, high-value niche market. In the latter strand of the value chain, some producers are improving their prospects by forming an association. Tracing relationships across the two strands, we demonstrate how 'horizontal' relations based on gender, ethnicity, age and geography contribute to shaping participation and benefit capture in the shea value chain. We argue that processes of social inclusion and exclusion operate in parallel, as differentiated actors both cooperate and compete to secure their place within the chain. While collective organizing brings positive social and economic benefits, we show that producers' associations need not be empowering for all women. The significance of collective enterprises, but also their drawbacks must be considered when valorising pathways to women's empowerment. Our study reinforces calls for greater integration of horizontal elements in value chain analyses.


Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa), value chains, gender, Burkina Faso, social inclusion/exclusion, collectives


Shea nuts are obtained from the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa), which grows across a 5000 kilometre-wide expanse of semi-arid savanna, south of the Sahara. Women living in the 'shea belt' transform shea nuts into a multi-purpose butter that represents the primary source of dietary fat for many agriculturalists living in the species' range. For centuries, the shea value chain--that is, the sequence of processes in which shea nuts are collected, transformed into butter, transported, traded and consumed has provided a primary source of income for women from agricultural groups (Chalfin, 2004). The growth of the international shea trade and emerging specialty markets in the global North since the 1990s have generated new contexts for actors along the chain, including the women who sell the product at its source in the villages of Burkina Faso (Elias and Saussey, 2013).

Improved prospects in the shea trade have led the government of Burkina Faso to promote the importance of this commerce for women's empowerment and support the product's export. In its forestry programme, the Burkinabe government has advocated upgrading the trade and modernising a traditional division of labour where women are economically marginalised due to their isolation from markets (Westholm and Arora-Jonsson, 2015). Various actors, including national and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), multilateral institutions, and the private sector have converged in giving shape to the shea value chain (Laube, 2015). The result has been the emergence of what we call the 'alternative' strand of the value chain, in which shea butter production and sale have moved from an individual endeavour in the longstanding 'conventional' strand to a collective female enterprise.

Yet, policy and NGO discourses around shea have paid little heed to the processes of social inclusion and exclusion that mediate gains in an increasingly segmented shea value chain. Shea producers are frequently portrayed as an undifferentiated group of poor women who benefit equally from collective participation in alternative value chain configurations. (1) Scarce attention is given to the 'horizontal relations' (e.g. Leslie and Reimer, 1999) that shape unequal prospects for producers from different geographical areas, ethnicities and ages within new marketing arrangements, which undermines efforts to promote equity within the value chain.

Value chains are normally studied with an inherent political economy logic, with a focus on vertical linkages among actors fulfilling different functions in the chain (e. …

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