Why This $1 Million Beauty Startup Cares About African Shea Farmers

Shea Radiance founder Funlayo Alabi wants to help women farmers who create the raw African shea butter used in her company’s hair and skincare products.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Funlayo Alabi of Baltimore started up to make lives easier. Now, she’s taking that mission to a new level.

She’s the founder of Shea Radiance, a beauty business selling soaps, moisturizers and more containing raw African shea butter, a natural product made from the fat of shea tree nuts. She launched in 2008 after finding the product to be an effective solution for her sons’ eczema breakouts. Since then, she has built the business into a sure-footed firm selling a range of products online and in Whole Foods, with well over $1 million in revenue earned to date.

Funlayo Alabi of Shea Radiance is helping women farmers making African shea butter. (Credit: Shea Radiance)

Funlayo Alabi of Shea Radiance is helping women farmers making African shea butter. (Credit: Google)

She gives a lot of credit for her success to the West African shea farmers who provide the company’s namesake ingredient. And the vast majority of these farmers are women — so much so, in fact, that the product is often referred to as “women’s gold” by those who sell it. But shea farming and butter production is rigorous work, and the women who do it often face physical, social and financial hardships.

So, through her new “1,000 Women” project, Alabi’s pledging to do her part toward improving their personal health and profitability. As the name indicates, her mission with this initiative is to help 1,000 women shea producers, in particular ones working in the Oyo state of Nigeria. She plans to do this by providing clean cooking stoves and new warehouse facilities for safely producing and storing raw African shea butter. This month, she launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo to raise at least $35,000 to that aim.

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“By providing women shea producers with warehouses and clean commercial and personal cook stoves, they will have access to healthier work conditions and the ability to increase their incomes and support their families,” Alabi says on the campaign’s page.

The Needs of Women Shea Butter Makers

Alabi says “there would be no shea industry without” these women farmers, but added that “for years, for centuries, their needs have been ignored.”

Reports state that the lack of government regulation over shea farming has allowed for abuse of these women farmers, done at the hands of men in their communities, to run rampant. Working conditions are also poor, with many women having to walk miles through hot, snake-filled terrains to collect the nuts. And they make little money for their trouble — one woman interviewed by the BBC says she earned the equivalent of $2 USD after 5 days of work.

Alabi first became passionate about improving working conditions for shea farmers when she joined up with the Global Shea Alliance in 2011, just after it was first formed by an international group of shea-using entrepreneurs and ethical consumers. In 2015, she took on a more active role in the Ghana-based organization, and began attending annual meetings.

Her perspectives as a business owner and an African woman — born in the United Kingdom, Alabi grew up in Nigeria and moved to the United States in 1982 — proved valuable to the alliance’s mission. It’s true that her business relies upon the shea butter produced by these women, but she says she is motivated by empathy, and that she sees “a lot of myself in these women, and parallels between having the skills and product and bringing it to market.”

Through her new “1,000 Women” project, Alabi’s pledging to do her part toward improving the personal health and profitability of 1,000 women shea producers. (Credit: Shea Radiance)

Through her new “1,000 Women” project, Alabi’s pledging to do her part toward improving the personal health and profitability of 1,000 women shea producers. (Credit: My Photography)

To better address their needs, she and other members of the alliance looked closely at the challenges the farmers were facing, and realized that new stoves and warehouses would solve several significant problems they grapple with. “I saw women exposed to toxic fumes while processing shea [when I visited them]. These safety issues, they’re just used to it,” she says. New, clean stoves would significantly minimize those fumes, she adds. Warehouses, meanwhile, provide a clean, secure place for storing those hard-earned nuts.

[Related: On the Power of Women Helping Women]

Rewarding Valuable Work

Alabi says, simply, that these women farmers deserve all the help and autonomy they can get. “We’re giving them the support they need to scale and remain healthy” because “what they’re doing has value.”

Fiscally, she’s right — shea butter exports from West Africa reportedly generate $90 million to $200 million each year. But on a more personal level, West African women are people, and they “want what every woman wants — the ability to be economically independent,” Alabi says.

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So far, Alabi says her efforts have resulted in the construction of one new warehouse — which provided enough storage space for women in several Nigerian states — and the donation of 50 individual cooking stoves last year.

Alabi has other aspirations for helping them, too. In addition to better working conditions, it’s also important that these women have reliable, steady customers who can then sell what they make, she says. “The women are very good at creating shea butter, but beyond that, they need logistical partners to take the product from the farm gate to the port, to make sure it’s packaged correctly and gets to the U.S. or U.K., that there are no problems in customs, and to find customers that want to buy.”

She adds, “This whole interdependence, this value chain, women really get it, and are willing to take more risks with each other.”

Alabi will continue to source raw African shea butter from them, to keep that chain connected. And through her crowdfunding campaign, she hopes “to keep them healthy and empowered, to make an income and take care of their families.”

[Related: Women Entrepreneurs Doing ‘Good on the Ground’]

Posted: February 19, 2019

Candice Helfand-RogersWhy This $1 Million Beauty Startup Cares About African Shea Farmers