“The company was founded by Mawuse, a fantastic Ghanian woman who escaped poverty and built a start-up that helps women and their children produce shea butter”, explained Hester.

Shea butter is a replacement for palm oil and is made from shea tree nuts. It’s an emerging market and one that is growing every year. However, many shea trees in Ghana are being felled for charcoal that Ghanians make from shea tree wood. Hester explained: “Poverty means that people in Ghana generally look for short-term solutions: making and selling charcoal is the quickest way for them to earn money. So the fact that it takes around three to five years before shea trees grow nuts and generate income is not very attractive to Ghanaians. Charcoal is worth more than shea tree nuts, making it a much easier way to earn money quickly, although the shea butter industry offers many more advantages in the long term.”

Hester van der Weij stage Ghana – eigen foto
Image credit: Own picture

That’s because as well as protecting shea trees, which preserves nature and biodiversity in Ghana, Sommalife also provides women and their children with a livelihood. The company offers savings plan guidance and support for children’s education, Hester explained.

Germination project

Hester and her team developed a germination project to counter shea tree felling. They planted five hundred new trees and built a greenhouse to safeguard project continuity, with the ultimate goal of planting fifteen thousand trees a year.

Hester also devised a point system. “The point system provides Ghanian women with more motivation to care for the trees. We gave the women bags that they then filled with shea tree nuts, after which we bought these bags and gave them extras such as toys or school exercise books for their children.”

Cultural differences

The days were long. Hester was often already dressed in her shorts and flip-flops by 5.30 am, ready to get on the back of the motorbike en route to the villages. But her day only really started around 9.00 am, because on arrival they first took the time to greet everyone in the Ghanian way. “We had to bow to everyone and talk some Wali with them, as most Ghanians don’t speak any English”, she explained.

Hester van der Weij met kinderen in Wa Ghana stage – eigen foto
Image credit: Own picture

These so-called field days often comprised different aspects, some days planting trees or other days helping to build the greenhouse. “This work was generally seen as men’s work, but as soon as we pitched in, the Ghanian women often joined us”, added Hester.

Hester noticed more of these kinds of cultural differences. “It’s very normal to have multiple wives in Ghana, so I received some two to three marriage proposals a week. I even bought myself a fake wedding ring to try to stop this”, she explained.

What she found more difficult was that women are treated differently in Ghana than in the Netherlands. For example, the women were never allowed to talk directly to the chiefs within the villages; they always had to do this through the male constable. “This was sometimes difficult to watch, but it is their culture and I wanted to respect that. But I do hope that women in Ghana get more equal opportunities. That’s why I think it’s so fantastic to see that the shea butter industry is an industry run entirely by women.”

Back in the Netherlands

Hester returned to Netherlands feeling satisfied. “We finished the project and everything we’d set up was successful”, she explained. “I think it’s amazing that our ideas are now being used, and I’m looking forward to going back with my team in a few years to see whether everything is still going well.”