Feb 3, 2008
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Western demand drives Burkina Faso organic goods

Feb 3, 2008

TANGHIN-DASSOURI, Burkina Faso, Feb 3, 2008 (AFP) - Burkina Faso may be one of the poorest countries on the planet but some of its people are now getting ahead thanks to rising demand in the developed world for organically grown cotton and skin-saving shea butter.

Workers stack packages of organic cotton grown in Burkina Faso at the Faso Cotton factory in Ouagadougou - Photo : Georges Gobet/AFP

And the principal beneficiaries of this flourishing new trade are village women.

The famed US women's wear chain Victoria's Secret last July signed a deal for the delivery this year of 600 tonnes of organic cotton, with the first shipment sent out on December 24.

"They came to us, wanting biological cotton for women's lingerie," recalled Athanase Yara of Burkina Faso's national union of cotton producers, the UNPCB.

He said the arrangement would contribute to "sustained (economic) development."

"It enables women to improve their standard of living, to care for and educate their children. They (the women) are among the most vulnerable segments of the population."

More than half the producers of organically grown cotton in Burkina Fasso are women, according to Georg Felber, local coordinator of a cotton project sponsored by Helvetas, a Swiss association promoting international cooperation.

"This is not a fluke or a fad but a genuine trend followed by the big companies."

Organic cotton production in Burkina Faso came to just 350 tonnes in 2006, rising to 1,000 tonnes in 2007 and is estimated at between 2,000 and 3,000 tonnes this year.

While the progression is impressive, it amounts to but a fraction of the country's total conventional cotton output of 500,000 tonnes.

Shea butter, extracted from a nut that grows on a wild tree found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, is likewise riding a wave of popularity in the West and galvanizing a thriving business in this village 25 kilometers (15 miles) from the Burkinabe capital Qugadougou.

Toiling in heat and smoke, about 20 women grouped in a local production association are selecting, washing, cracking and roasting shea nuts before crushing them to get the chocolate-coloured paste.

The paste is then kneaded until the fat content, which is white, rises to the surface. Shea butter is in demand as a skin moisturizer and healer.

Hygiene rules are strict and nothing is wasted here, with the residue from the procedure dried and then used as kindling.

The process has been under way since 2003, supervised by an international control organisation called Ecocert. The operation got its start thanks to an order for shea butter from French cosmetics firm Occitane.

"We got some backing and we got started," recalled Henriette Ouedraogo, president of the production association.

From 2004 to 2007 shea butter output in Burkina Faso doubled to reach 20 tonnes a year, all of it turned out by women.

"With the organic product, the purchase price is higher and the women earn more," Ouedraogo said.

The association buys the nuts at the equivalent of 30 euro cents (44 US cents) a kilogram.

Shea butter is then sold at the eqivalent of 2.2 euros a kilogram in western countries, three times what it would cost in a shop in Ouagadougou.

Ouedraogo, the association president, says with pride that Burkina Faso, one of the world's leading suppliers of shea nuts, is also ahead of its West African neighbors in shea butter production.

by Christophe Parayre

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