09 September 2020

The CEO of Shea Yeleen Rahama Wright smiling in a colourful dress

Entrepreneurship is all about spotting an opportunity and running with it. Just as the Ghanain-American businesswoman, Rahama Wright, did following a trip to Mali with the Peace Corps in 2002.

She saw that women in Mali are key to the production of shea butter — and that shea butter is a much-loved cosmetic in developed countries. But she also saw that; "women could not take basic steps to improve their families’ health and nutrition because they lack independent income."

These observations sparked an unstoppable idea. An idea that resulted in Rahama founding Shea Yellen in 2005 - a social enterprise whose profits go back to the female-owned cooperatives that are cultivating and developing the products.

Shea Yeleen provides living wages for women producers of shea butter in West Africa. It’s a successful Fair Trade beauty brand with distribution in Whole Foods Markets and MGM Resorts. 

We were lucky enough to speak with Rahama and find out more about her successful and ethical company.

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Why is shea butter special to people across Africa?

Producing shea butter is a respected way for women to generate income. It's very convenient; the know-how is handed down from mother to daughter, and there's no need for any special equipment. 

Supporting these women and helping them to improve the process of producing shea butter helps them to create better lives for themselves and become independent. That's why it means so much to me.

What's your vision for Shea Yeleen?

Big corporations put the focus on increasing the profits, not on strengthening the livelihoods of the African shea butter producers.

It’s ironic. Shea butter producers earn only $2 per day and yet these women are the backbone of a multibillion-dollar industry!

We do things differently. My vision is for people to use products which were produced in a place that the raw ingredients come from. Our producers earn five times the country's minimum wage, and our final product is made in Africa.

I also consistently challenge the industry. Giant corporations are now paying attention to small businesses and are starting to talk about ethical sourcing.

ghanaian women working for shea yeleen holding empowering messages“A

What do you think is behind the trend for Made-in-Africa products?

It's the diaspora! The diaspora community is becoming more entrepreneurial and they play a key role in opening markets between countries. We’re proud of our roots and products coming from our countries.

Things are moving in Africa's favour. Perceptions are changing. I’m excited to see that the general public began to recognise the potential of the African market. We need less aid and more local solutions!

Can you tell us about your journey to entrepreneurship?

You never get to a place where it's all peachy. There always are new challenges in every level of entrepreneurship.

My first challenge was that I didn't have a business background. It took me seven years of odd jobs and sleeping on my friend's couch to raise enough capital. And when I earned enough money, I couldn't find the right people for my team.

Unfortunately, being your own boss often means 80-hour weeks. I’ve never worked this hard for anyone else.

Also, I started the business in my early twenties and got rejected many times. I was told that nobody would buy shea butter from women in Africa and that I’d never be able to train local women to produce the quality needed to succeed in today's market.

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What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?

Align with those who share your values and believe in what you are doing. There’s always something you won't have access to, but you can always gain access to the right people. 

Be patient. There are many misconceptions about how long it takes to build a sustainable and profitable company.

Take the ethical cleaning supplies business called Seventh Generation. The CEO believed in his business and continued financing his business even when nobody was interested in his products. Eventually, he sold the company to Clorox for millions of dollars.

This inspired me to ask myself: 'Would I continue working on my cause even if I get nothing in return? Is it worth all the work if it's only about giving women producers more visibility?' And the answer is yes.