Burkina Faso, West Africa

Peace Corps — Burkina Faso, West Africa

Christie Gross returned from her two year Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso, West Africa in October, 2012. Below is a summary of her work with Association Ragussi, a women's group working in the production of organic shea butter and shea–based products.

Summary of Service

Tanghin-Dassouri is a village 25 kilometers outside of Ouagadougou, the capitol of Burkina Faso, West Africa. The main village consists of approximately 6,500 people, and the multiple small surrounding villages account for the remaining 13,000 inhabitants of the area. Because Tanghin-Dassouri is one of the first large villages outside of Ouagadougou on the road to Bobo-Dialasso, it is a center for gardening and crop production.

One of the major fruits harvested in the area is the shea fruit. It is a small, green fruit that resembles an avocado. After the fruit has been eaten, the pits are extracted for the production of shea butter. Burkina Faso exists within the shea belt, and is one of the largest producers of this vegetable-based oil.

Association Ragussi is one of the largest shea-producing associations in Burkina Faso. It consists of 25 women who produce the shea butter, and over 1,200 women who collect the shea fruits. The women of Association Ragussi generally make more income than the majority of other village inhabitants. These women have managed to alter their quality of life for the better with the aid of this region-specific resource.

The president of Association Ragussi, Mme. Henriette Ouedraogo, is a unique Burkinabe business woman. She has managed to make her association highly profitable, and has expanded to international markets, both European and American, with the help of the Small Enterprise Development Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to the association. Mme. Ouedraogo has spent much of her time searching out NGOs and other organizations who have donated both funding and resources to modernize the grounds and processes of production at the association. Recently, with the help of the United States African Development Foundation, she has been able to purchase updated electric equipment, as well as electricity for the association grounds. With the 250,000 U.S. dollars from USADF, she has drastically altered the way in which the association operates, making their annual production of over 70 tons of shea butter, both conventional and organic certified, much more efficient.

Christie Gross was the first Peace Corps volunteer to be placed with Association Ragussi. The association requested a Small Enterprise Development volunteer who could assist with the management of the USADF funds and aid in the research of foreign markets. At the time of Ms. Gross’ assignment, the association had not yet expanded past the French market, which consisted of L’Occitane, an international cosmetics company based in Europe. Ms. Gross spent her first year of service assessing the state of the association and assisting in the management of funds. She soon realized that the association’s desire of exporting to the United States and other parts of Europe were perfectly feasible, with some minor alterations.

At the advisement of Ms. Gross, the association renewed its ECOCERT Certification, certifying a good amount of its shea butter as organic. In addition, they purchased FLO-Cert Certification, and are thus Fairtrade certified. This caused their product to be much more highly valued in international markets, and the number of small European buyers increased in the year 2011.

In addition, Ms. Gross encouraged the production of finished cosmetics. Some of the association members had demonstrated an interest in the production of artisanal hard soap and shea-based creams. Ms. Gross therefore began to research local materials to be used in hard soaps and creams. With the assistance of Ms. Caroline Ourdraogo, the daughter of the president Mme. Henriette Ouedraogo, a large list of possible hard soaps was created. Ms. Gross assisted with feasibility studies and cost-benefit analyses. Eventually, four base soaps were decided upon, and the recipes were created and tested. Association Ragussi now sells green clay, neem, honey, aloe vera, and basic shea soaps, which are all hand produced and of high artisanal quality. They are made with a base of 65% organic shea butter, which is also produced by the association. Ms. Gross then helped to create a United States-appealing packaging, and began to market the soaps through the creation of an association website, and through the promotion and sale to other local volunteers, who gave the soaps as gifts to family and friends in the United States.

The soaps completed, Ms. Ouedraogo and Ms. Gross moved on to the creams. They are 95% organic shea butter, and are then mixed with natural ingredients, such as lemon, locally grown aloe vera, and coconut oil. This makes them very good for the skin, as they are natural moisturizers, and provide necessary vitamins to keep skin healthy and clear.

In her second year of service, Ms. Gross reached out the American market. Through her blog and the association website, she began to receive emails from people interested in ordering raw shea butter. Ms. Gross helped to facilitate contact with the association’s first United States client in March 2012. In addition, she sold over 400 U.S. dollars worth of association product to U.S.-bound volunteers in order to establish a market for the finished cosmetic line, Cosméline. In this way, Ms. Gross hopes to establish a base of smaller cosmetic companies that will eventually carry Association Ragussi products. She intends to pursue this market upon her return to the United States. Serving as the association representative to the United States, Ms. Gross hopes to discover new markets and outlets for Ragussi products.

Through collaboration and patience, Association Ragussi and the United States Peace Corps have managed to better an association, and the lives of the women within it. Over the past two years, Ms. Gross and Association Ragussi have created a working relationship that has proved productive for all concerned. Ms. Gross hopes that the discovery and pursuit of new markets will lead to increased production, thereby leading to increased salary for the women who collect and produce the shea butter within Association Ragussi. In addition, she hopes that this expansion of market will lead to an increased awareness of the existence of such associations such as Ragussi, and to an increased awareness of the benefits of shea butter, and more specifically, Burkina Faso shea butter.