AgricultureThe Ugandan Shea Butter Industry – An Interview with Suzanna Mushabe-Haarbosch, Co-Founder Caio Shea Butter

adminOctober 17, 202119223 min
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Please introduce yourself to the CueAfrica audience

My name is Suzanna Mushabe-Haarbosch, born in the Netherlands and I have been in Uganda for about 10 years. I have a Bachelors in Facility Management and a masters degree in International Business Administration. For the past 15 years I have been supporting businesses in various capacities, including as a manager, consultant, mentor, investor and board member.

Suzanna Mushabe Haarbosch. Photo Credit: Caio Shea Buter

How did the Caio Shea Butter company start and what influenced you to open shop in Uganda? 

I was working in North Uganda setting up agro processing factories with other investors when I came across Nilotica together with my friend and co-founder Semine. Since I was young I’ve had eczema and a very dry and sensitive skin and nothing helped. From my time living in Uganda it had gotten a lot worse and then I was told to try Nilotica. I did and I loved it. It really helped sooth and heal my skin and it really changed my life. Then I started giving it as gifts to friends and family abroad and they loved it as well. Not just because it was a great and effective product, but also because it made them feel part of what I do in Uganda. Based on that I started learning more and became even more interested as I learned how much it means to the women who gather the nuts. So I developed and wrote the business case. Once that was done we met and we literally said either we need to stop talking about this, or we need to do this. Because the projects I was involved in were about to be commissioned I had time on my hands so we decided to take the plunge and start.

For our audience who don’t know what shea butter is, could you please elaborate more on it , how it’s applied in our day to day living and it’s benefits?

Nilotica shea butter is a 100% natural vegetable butter, pressed from the seeds of the Nilotica shea tree. It has a soft, luxurious texture that melts upon touch. This makes it really easy and versatile to use. Due to the natural composition rich in vitamins A, E, F, antioxidants and allantoin it effectively supports the natural healing, moisturizing and protection of our skin and hair. Pure, coldpressed Nilotica is especially suitable for newborn babies and eczema prone skin, but equally amazing to smoothen and soften skin and hair.

Nilotica Nut Seeds. Photo Credit: Caio Shea Buter
Nilotica Shea Butter. Photo Credit: Caio Shea Buter

The Shea butter sector in the Savannah regions of Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Mali, Togo, Benin and Nigeria is substantially growing, why is The Shea butter sector in Uganda is still under developed and under looked by investors and how can we drive more awareness and drive investment towards this sector?

Nilotica shea butter is still very unknown compared to West African shea butter. Most people don’t even know it exists. In addition, the price point of Nilotica is at least 4 to 5 times higher then West African shea butter. As such it is also a very expensive ingredient for companies to use. Combined it is a very difficult product to sell as it is only a niche market that is interested.

A shea nut tree needs an average of seven to eight years to produce the first harvest, Do you think this could be the reason for less investment in the sector in Uganda?

That is the same as the trees in West Africa, so that is not the reason. However the shea sector in West Africa has 2 main advantages. 1) West African shea butter is very hard. As such it is suitable as a Cocoa Butter Equavalent (CBE), that is used in chocolate confectionary to keep it from melting. About 80 to 85% of all shea butter is used for this. This is a mass market with a bottom price. 2) the shea sector in West African started developing in the 1990s. So they have been developing the sector for 30 years. In Uganda it is only since the LRA rebellion was resolved that the sector has started to develop. So basically we are simply way behind in development of the sector and we have a very different product and price point.

In Uganda Shea butter or Moo yao as it is known in Lango and Acholi sub-regions is an indigenous fruit tree that grows mostly in the northern part of the county, why is this the case? Why isn’t the shea nut tree widely grown just like the banana in Uganda?

Different plants need different growing conditions to cultivate them successfully. Some plants are not so specific like the banana, and others are highly specific and are therefore only found in a very specific location. Nilotica shea needs very specific conditions that are only found in North Uganda and South Sudan.

Despite the numerous benefits of the small scale shea butter business both locally and internationally, the farmers who are mostly women are observed to record low revenues and poor standards of living, how is Caio Shea Butter as a company improving the lives and empowering women shea butter farmers in northern Uganda?

We are one of the first companies who work with the gatherers and not with traders. In many agricultural value chains, traders are the ones who get rich and the producers are the ones who suffer. This is because the buyer buys at the lowest price possible, and the farmer who doesn’t have access to markets has no choice but to sell to them because they need the money and they don’t know who else to sell to. We work with close to 2000 suppliers, mostly young women, in North Uganda and provide them with 2 income opportunities. First of all we buy the Nilotica nuts from them at an above market rate, secondly we have a special productline that we make for them of Nilotica skincare products. They buy this at cost-price and then retail this in their communities. This not only gives them another year-round source of income, it also helps them practice their entrepreneurship skills (which we also train them in). Secondly we provide a lot of training and support to them in a range of areas including literacy, bookkeeping, lifeskills etc.

Photo Credit: Caio Shea Buter

Our goal with that is to make sure that not only they have access to sources of money, but they also have the skills and the knowledge to multiply that money so that they can realize their dreams. We have a long term relationship with all our suppliers. We have an office up North and I go there regularly so they all know me and the team and have our contact details. We know how they are doing and are always there to help them in any way that we can. This also creates stability for everyone.

Photo Credit: Caio Shea Buter

Ghana Produces 85% of the World’s Shea Butter, how can Uganda compete favorably for this market to able to meet the demand from the western world?

As I said before West African shea butter is a very different product to Nilotica shea butter, so even though the product names are similar we don’t really compete with them.

The process of extracting shea butter from the nut has created an industry that feeds thousands of families. When multi-nationals purchase and export the raw shea nuts they cripple the industry, making it almost impossible to source shea butter locally and cutting the locals off as one of the beneficiaries of this booming industry. What regulations can be put in place to manage this and make sure the locals are not left out?

I think there are a lot of assumptions in that question since currently in Uganda that is not happening on a large scale. However if that would become a threat then regulations could be put in place to ban the export of Nilotica nuts.

The United States Agency for International Development and other companies have suggested a classification system for shea butter separating it into five grades: A, B,C D and E, Please kindly elaborate more on these grades and suggest the significance of each of the grades?

There are a number of stakeholders involved in the shea industry globally. The grading you mention is specifically developed for West African shea butter, and not universally agreed upon. However in general Grade A is understood to mean fresh, coldpressed, unrefined shea butter, grade B can be refined shea butter, grade E is the worst quality not suitable for cosmetics or consumption.

With the shea butter sector in Uganda still young and under developed, in your opinion, what does future of this sector look like in Uganda and Africa at large?

The sector is very small since the supply chain is limited to a geographic area and there are only so many nuts that the tree can produce.

Shea Tree. Photo Credit: Caio Shea Buter

However that not withstanding it can create a lot of impact for many families in North Uganda when it is coordinated, streamlined and properly supported to ensure high quality production, maximum value addition and sustainable management of the shea trees in Uganda. A lot of marketing is needed globally to let the world know about Nilotica shea butter. At the same time we need to urgently create and implement quality standards suitable for the international market. If someone in the US buys a product called Nilotica and its a bad quality, or adulterated, they will never buy the product again. Regardless if they bought from a bad supplier, they will blame it on the product and never buy Nilotica again. That is how a product gets a bad name before it is available. So one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that the product that goes to market is high quality, pure Nilotica shea butter. This requires the sector to come together to coordinate initiatives and create a supportive environment.

As we end our interview with you, please tell us how we can get your Caio Shea Butter products and give any last remarks to the Cue Africa audience?

When you are interested in what we do and / or looking for Nilotica shea butter you can find us on facebook and instagram on @caiosheabutter, and our website is www.caiosheabutter.com. You can also message me on +256751893189.

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