A cooperative of shea butter producers in southern Mali uses ICTs to market their product, improve management systems, and train members in new processing techniques.
In southern Mali, it is women who traditionally gather nuts from the shea tree (Butyrospermum parkii). They use the oil for cooking, or process it into a fatty ‘butter’ which works well as a skin moisturiser. When women in the Zantiébougou area (approximately 200 km south of the capital, Bamako) started to work together, they saw that they could get better prices if they collected together all the shea butter they produced and sold it in larger quantities.
In 1999, they formed Coopérative des Productrices de Beurre de Karité de Zantiébougou, or Coprokazan. As well as organising collection and transport to markets, the cooperative invested in equipment to process the shea nuts and refine the oil on a larger scale. They got support from local and international organisations that helped them improve the quality of the shea butter and find markets outside the local area, particularly in Bamako. Coprokazan also developed their packaging processes to make the product look more professional and desirable to consumers.
But the cooperative also wanted to raise their profile, and promote their organisation and products to a wider audience. In 2006, they started working with the International Institute for Communication and Development, with a view to developing the marketing of their shea nut products.
Although the town of Zantiébougou has good road connections to markets in Bamako and Sikasso, it is not yet connected to the country’s main electricity grid. The lack of a reliable power source limited the choice and amount of electrical equipment they could use. The project team decided that three computers, a small video camera, a printer, a projector and a few digital photo cameras – all powered by a solar panel system – would meet their immediate needs.
Because of the limited amount of equipment, and due to the distance some people would have to travel to receive training, the team decided that it was not necessary or practical to train all the cooperative’s members to use the equipment. The objective was to train a small number of people to produce training materials; they could then take these to the rest of the members, to show them how to process the shea nuts and improve the quality of the butter they produced.
The project team initially trained a group of members who lived close to the cooperative offices, and who could be available for regular training. The trainees learned to use the cameras, and how to edit photographs and videos using computer software.
One challenge in the training sessions was that the operating language of most the equipment and computer software was French, but not all the trainees were fluent in the language. The team overcame this by giving the equipment appropriate names in the spoken language of the trainees – names that could be easily understood by anyone using it for the first time. Allocating recognisable words helped to make the equipment more familiar, and be thought of as just another tool to use in their work.
The new training materials mean the team can train more farmers faster than with previous, more traditional, methods. Video and photographic materials are also useful for training members who have low literacy levels. And visual training aids are often more effective than written materials when introducing new information, especially if those images are of an area, or of people, that are recognisable to the farmer.
Previously, the women would bring their harvested shea nuts to the cooperative collection point, only to be told that many of the nuts were not suitable for processing. Now the women can quickly compare the nuts they gather to the examples shown in the photographs, saving them costly trips back and forth to the collection centre. The women who have been trained in the new techniques now produce better quality shea butter, while the quantity has also increased since the process is more efficient.
ICTs have brought many benefits beyond marketing and training. Coprokazan office staff use the computers for the routine administration and management of the cooperative’s business. They record the registration and payment of membership fees, which helps members to see exactly when they paid and when they need to pay again. Staff also produce PowerPoint presentations for the regular cooperative meetings, to give members a clear, visual overview of the yearly accounts and the cooperative’s activities. This all helps to improve transparency and gain trust.
Through keeping computer records, the cooperative can see exactly how much shea oil and butter they buy from their members, and can make more accurate estimates of the amounts of products they will have available in the coming year. A sales register helps the cooperative to plan its income, to spread payments and credit schemes more evenly throughout the year, and to prevent times when the cooperative could run short of funds.
Individual farmers benefit from having a guaranteed income; they know the cooperative will buy their product if it is up to standard. The cooperative will also provide women with a better price than the local market, since it has access to more buyers and has a stronger negotiating position.
The increased revenue has given some members the opportunity to invest in other businesses, reducing their reliance on agriculture for an income. One member, for example, sells meals from her home. She was able to use the extra money from shea butter sales to build a small roof in front of her house, providing extra shelter for customers. She now sells twice as many meals.
Since introducing ICTs four years ago, the cooperative’s shea butter production and income has increased, and is now nearly three times greater. And the organisation continues to develop rapidly, with a doubling in production and revenue in the last two years. The computer software has improved efficiency in the organisation’s management and accountancy procedures, and they can now deal with many more members. From around 370 members in 2006, they expect to have more than 1100 by the end of 2010.
The equipment Coprokazan currently has is likely to be sufficient to meet the training needs of their new members. The next step could be to sell to more specialised markets, which could offer a better price for the product. There could be interest, for example, in organically produced shea butter. This is likely to involve selling to international markets, however, many of which require strict quality and traceability standards. The cooperative would have to invest in extra equipment, such as GPS tracking technology, plus systems for monitoring and evaluation.
Packaging for their products is already more professional and attractive to consumers, while e-mail and internet access (through a dial-up connection via the existing telephone landline) has put them in touch with several new markets, with orders now coming from Senegal, Burundi, Saudi Arabia, Belgium, the USA and France.
In the four years since introducing ICTs, Coprokazan has developed many useful techniques for using the technology to train farmers and manage a growing cooperative. The organisation is now helping others in West Africa and beyond to develop and apply these skills to their local situation.
Coprokazan staff organise and attend meetings to share their experiences with other projects involved in using ICTs for agricultural development. The cooperative has also been very active in sharing their ideas with other organisations working in gender and agriculture, and has produced a short video to demonstrate how they use ICTs in their work. The video was broadcast on national television, which helped to further raise the profile of the organisation within the country. Coprokazan’s work has also received praise from government ministries and earned them several national awards.
Coopérative des Productrices de Beurre de Karité de Zantiébougou
Coprokazan works to improve the livelihoods of women producing oil and butter from the seeds of the shea tree. It currently has more than 600 members from 26 villages in the Zantiébougou area of southern Mali.