By Justine Humbert, Biodiversity & Sustainable Ingredients Specialist, L’OCCITANE EN PROVENCE
It's quite something to be invited to New York to speak at the Business Call to Action Annual Forum. And it's a huge responsibility too, because I want to do justice to the women of Burkina Faso who work so hard to make shea butter for L'OCCITANE. Without them, I wouldn't have a success story to tell.
It was a humbling experience to meet these women in Burkina Faso and see how they live and work. From gathering the shea nuts through all the stages involved in making shea butter, it's a long, laborious process. I have nothing but respect for them.
Our partnership with women shea producers in Burkina Faso began over 30 years ago, and I've been involved for the past six years. I work closely with a team on the ground that's dedicated to managing the supply chain and overseeing its development.
The story of L'OCCITANE and shea butter is a success story, but there have been lots of bumps along the road and there will probably be many more in the future! However, today, we can proudly say that there are over 10,000 women involved in our shea butter supply chain – which is incredible when you think that there were just a few dozen at first, in the 1980's! What's more, over 200,000 people benefit indirectly from this industry.
Every year, L'OCCITANE orders several hundred tons of shea butter. This means that the women who produce it have a stable source of income, enabling them to enjoy better living conditions. The majority of these women contribute to household expenses and 75 percent have been able to enroll their children in school. We've worked with them to obtain organic certification and, more recently, Fair Trade certification – which add to the value of their produce. Our contracts with them are non-exclusive, so they're free to trade with other clients and develop activities that are not necessarily shea related. We actively encourage this; it's important.
In 2018, we went even further and launched the RESIST program: Resilience, Ecology, Strengthening, Independence, Structure, Training. It's an ambitious, US$2 million project that covers a three-year period and tackles many of the challenges we identified with our producers. Over 50 percent is funded by L'OCCITANE, but it's also supported by donors who believed in this project, such as USAID and SEQUA.
We're focusing on protecting the shea parklands and securing access to them for the women. This helps to maintain biodiversity while also, of course, protecting their source of income. We've been developing innovative technologies to improve environmental performance and working conditions. And we're looking into ways for the women to diversify their income, so they can enjoy greater financial stability and autonomy.
It's not always been easy. There have been problems with logistics, quality, and production capacity. Poor harvests have disrupted objectives. There can be serious safety and security issues. The RESIST project has compelled everyone to re-evaluate practices and habits that have existed for years – and are difficult to change. We're constantly asking ourselves whether what we're doing is the right thing, whether our actions really make sense locally. That's why it's so important to let the women "take over" this project to a certain extent. The initiative may have come from L'OCCITANE, but it's up to them to make it work for them and fit their needs, so it's something that will really help them – not just now, but over the long term.
At the end of the day, we are just a small cog in a big wheel, working within a complex environmental, social and political context. There is still a lot of work to be done, but we are making a difference. Simply being invited to talk about this makes me and my colleagues feel reassured that we have made decisions that were good and right. Working directly with over 10,000 women and helping to improve not only the way they work, but also their day-to-day lives, is something that we are immensely proud of. It supports the ecological, economic and social sustainability of an entire ecosystem.