Ghanaian mother, daughter grow shea butter business in US

A Ghanaian mother/daughter-run business based in the United States (US) is offering livelihood for hundreds of shea nut pickers in northern Ghana through the sale of quality highly concentrated shea butter-based moisturizers on the US market.

The two are making waves into the US market with Eu’Genia Shea, a finished line of intense moisturizers, using shea butter as the primary raw material.

Eu’Genia Shea was launched in 2015 by Naa-Sakle Akuete, 30, a Harvard Business School graduate and Wall Street analyst who quit her well-paying job in an investment bank and joined forces with her mother, Eugenia Akuete, who is herself an entrepreneur and has been in the shea business for many years.

Eugenia runs the company Naasakle Ltd and Mother’s Shea Ltd, which supplies Eu’Genia Shea with its shea butter. Currently, as the Strategic Advisor to Eu’Genia Shea, she aids in everything – from daily production to sales and marketing.

The products and the company have been featured recently in the April 2017 edition of Marie Claire Magazine, an international monthly magazine for women, Fox Channel 5 and Channel 12 News, all in the US.

Labour of love

The move to start a beauty company was quite a departure from Naa-Sakle’s background. Her parents fled Ghana in 1979 after a political coup and took up odd jobs to give her a good education. Naa-Sakle herself flourished. She attended Wellesley College, then worked at Lehman Brothers and Barclays, got her MBA at Harvard, and ultimately landed at J.P. Morgan, a financial powerhouse.

Starting Eu’Genia Shea, which she named after her own mother, therefore, had very little to do with money. Her primary reason was to have a closer relationship with her mother who moved back to Ghana in 2000 due to family commitments, while Naa-Sakle was in her teens.

“She’s been there for 15 years and I miss her so much,” Naa-Sakle told Marie Claire Magazine. When Eugenia relocated to Brooklyn, she returned from a trip from Ghana in 2015 with a serious sickness. She spent three days in the hospital, slipping in and out of a coma.

“It was pretty scary,” says Naa-Sakle, “For the first time in my life, I said, ‘I’m not doing the safe thing.” Therefore, as Eugenia recovered, Naa-Sakle quit her job, leaving the stable pay cheque to help run Naasakle Ltd, the company Eugenia had started more than 15 years earlier that sells bulk quantities of shea to global corporations, and to launch the Eu’Genia Shea brand.

Mother’s support

Eugenia grew up in Ghana and has spent 25 years in the US, and as such, has strong relationships on the ground. Her educational background and work experience in banking and finance, as well as her business acumen and entrepreneurial spirit equipped her to capitalize on opportunities as presented.

The hardworking mother has been a force in the shea butter industry since 2000. Through Naasakle Ltd, she has become an expert in the space, selling hundreds of tons of shea butter to distributors and brands globally.

She became the President of the Global Shea Alliance, the organisation that advises governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) about best shea practices and also served as the only female on a 17-member committee on Ghana’s National Steering Committee for the shea butter industry. She has also consulted, trained and mentored women groups, NGOs and governments in shea producer countries in West Africa on the shea industry for the past 15 years.

She founded Naasakle Ltd to help empower impoverished women in northern Ghana, equip them and empower them economically by bridging the gap between rural shea nut pickers and global shea butter demand.

Eugenia discovered through her work that oftentimes, the large businesses to which she sold her high quality shea butter tended to care more about keeping prices low than ensuring that the workers in the supply chain had a decent quality of life. Her answer was to commit herself to empowering the women by partnering with hundreds of sustainably paid female shea pickers.

She eventually found cooperatives of female pickers in the Northern Region that provided above-average wages and job training to the workers who harvested the nuts and decided to rely on them for the company’s supply of shea; sending large quantities to her daughter to turn into individual products.

The shea butter production is based in Damongo, where she partners with 1,500 pickers from the communities and 30 full-time women employees in the Damongo facility, including cooperatives at Busunu, Kawankura and Janupunktu.

“I think of this business as an opportunity to give back to my country,” she says.

Concentrated shea product

Naa-Sakle is convinced that many brands in the US that have popularized shea have only just scratched the surface of shea butter’s usefulness, saying there is still room in the US market for products that contain high-quality shea butter. Unlike her competitors, her products have at least 95 per cent shea content.

Challenges

The rise of Eu’Genia Shea has not been without challenges. Naa-Sakle and her mother had to think about creating a product that Americans would want to buy. A big part of this process centered around the packaging design, which needed to look beautiful and luxurious.

Naa-Sakle developed a tin that she believed would be appealing to American consumers, and sent it out to potential manufacturers she found on the website. “The process took about a year,” Naa-Sakle recalls, but eventually she received tins designed exactly to her liking.

Being a small company, she undertakes much of the production herself; and there is also the hard work of getting the word out about Eu’Genia Shea. She built the company website and spread the word on social media. She also reached out to the media herself.

However, all the hustle has paid off. Mother and daughter find pleasure and satisfaction working on this venture together.

Story by Rosemary Ardayfio

|Graphic online