African Engineers: Soft Soap and Body Cream

African Engineers: Soft Soap and Body Cream

The shea tree grows in all parts of the arid savannah of Ghana’s Northern and Upper Regions. Over all this large area the villagers have traditionally harvested the shea nuts and extracted its butter for use as a body cream or for making soap. In spite of its utility, the shea tree has never been grown on plantations because it is said to take sixty years to bear fruit. This fact could help prevent the village women who produce the shea butter losing control of the trade in the face of on-going efforts to industrialise the production process.

The Technology Consultancy Centre (TCC) of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Kumasi, Ghana, first came seriously into contact with shea butter in the mid-1970s when a search was on for a substitute for palm oil in soap making. At that time the available palm oil was not sufficient to meet the local demand for soap. The officer in charge of the project, Peter Donkor, was experimenting with a wide range of alternatives including castor oil, physic nut oil, second grade cocoa butter, coconut oil and neem oil.

It was well known that a traditional soap called ‘amonkye samina’ was made from shea butter using a lye extracted from the ash of burned cocoa husks. Made in this way a soft potassium soap was produced which is said to be gentle on the skin. Soap of this type is marketed in Western countries in liquid form as a special cosmetic product, but in Ghana in the 1970s it did not meet the need for a general-purpose laundry soap. A hard soap could be produced from shea butter by using a sodium lye but the TCC never succeeded in obtaining a sufficient supply to sustain production at its soap pilot plant at Kwamo village.

The crux of the supply problem was the very slow nature of the traditional shea butter extraction process. Peter Donkor alerted scientists in the chemistry and biochemistry departments of the need to find a faster method of extraction and a few experiments were carried out but nothing of practical value emerged. The matter rested for almost a decade before Solomon Adjorlolo of SIS Engineering Ltd took an interest in the problem.

For many years, SIS had been manufacturing and selling small-scale mechanised plants for milling corn, producing gari from cassava and extracting palm oil. Adapting some of his established machines and designing at least one new one, Solomon Adjorlolo produced a prototype shea butter plant and looked for an opportunity to test it. Working through the TCC, the prototype plant was transferred from Kumasi to the Intermediate Technology Transfer Unit (ITTU) at Tamale in the Northern Region where the shea tree is abundant. The tests were successful; the mechanised plant could produce much more butter in one day than a village team of women could produce in a week by the old method.

Now arose the danger of gender shift. It had often been observed in Ghana and elsewhere that as soon as a traditional village industry was mechanised, and the routine drudgery was removed, the industry was taken out of the hands of women and run by male entrepreneurs. So care was taken by the Tamale ITTU to ensure that the SIS plant remained in the test village in the charge of the women who had collaborated in the testing. Later, when the German aid agency GTZ funded four more shea butter plants, these were also allocated to established women’s groups with many years experience of shea butter production.

It was about this time that the BBC came to Ghana to make a film with the famous British industrialist Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop chain of beauty stores. The theme of the film was to be female entrepreneurs pioneering new business activities and the BBC contacted the TCC for help in identifying such people in Ghana. So Anita Roddick met the shea butter producers of the Northern Region and was very impressed, not only with their enterprise but with the quality of their product.

The first order for shea butter placed by the Body Shop was for four tons to be used for experimental purposes. The matter moved ahead slowly but by the early 1990s a Fair Trade agreement had been negotiated with a long-established exporter, Wonoo Ventures Ltd. Within a few years the annual export of shea butter to the Body Shop exceeded 100 tonnes, and the major part of the profit was being returned to the female producers and their village development funds. And that’s the way it should remain for many years, because it could take sixty years to establish a productive shea tree plantation to feed a large-scale centralised extraction plant.