A comprehensive examination of the Shea butter value chain in Okere remains incomplete without a thorough exploration of the vital role played by women as the primary actors. In Okere, Shea trees and the resilient women who tend to them are undoubtedly our most significant gifts. Women not only serve as custodians of Shea trees but also directly experience the tangible benefits that emanate from these trees in their everyday lives.
In contrast to the destructive actions of some men toward Shea trees, women take on multifaceted responsibilities. They safeguard the trees, gather the nuts, undertake the Shea butter processing, and bring the final product to market. The crucial task of picking Shea nuts is predominantly carried out by women and children. During the shea harvesting season, women and children wake up at 5 am to collect the nuts with torches in their hands to collect Shea nuts from both the fields within their homesteads and those situated in distant farmlands. There are many instances when the women or children get bitten by snakes as they collect the nuts. This underscores the indispensable role of women in every facet of the Shea butter value chain in Okere.
In Okere, the impact of shea butter on women's ability to provide for their families and communities far surpasses that of men.
Notably, it is a rarity, if not an impossibility, to encounter a male Shea butter seller in Okere. Within the community, Shea butter production is widely recognized as ‘women's work’, constituting a primary source of income for women. Field data analysis reveals that approximately 25% of women in Okere depend on income generated from the sales of Shea nuts and Shea butter for their daily sustenance. This income is crucial for supplementing family food budgets and covering essential expenses such as healthcare and education.
The Okere Shea Farmers’ Cooperative Society (Okere Shea Coop) serves as a collective in Okere Parish, Adwari Sub-County, Otuke District, comprising 200 members, with 90% being women. These women face challenging circumstances as subsistence farmers in the semi-arid North Eastern district of Otuke, Lango Sub-Region. Confronted with poor soil, unpredictable rainfall, and limited public infrastructure, including affordable transportation, communication, healthcare, and education, they navigate difficult conditions. Still recovering from the repercussions of both the Karamojong cattle wrestling and LRA conflict destabilizations, the socio-economic situation of the people in Okere is deplorable. For instance, a significant portion - 72% of the adult population is illiterate, with women constituting 92% of this illiterate demographic. Furthermore, 58% of households have people living with HIV/AIDS, and a staggering 90% of children eligible for early childhood education programs remain at home. The cooperative endeavors of Okere Shea Coop play a vital role in addressing these challenges and fostering positive change within the community. Until now, a considerable number of women have grappled with daily challenges just to make ends meet. Their subsistence crops, mainly sesame and groundnuts, fail to yield enough food to sustain them and their children throughout the year. This situation leaves them unable to save seeds for the next planting season or sell any surplus at the market.
To supplement their income for feeding their families and covering school fees, many women have turned to strenuous activities like firewood collection, often involving the cutting down of Shea trees. Unfortunately, deforestation has significantly diminished the Shea tree cover, exacerbating existing issues such as climate changes and a reduced collection of Shea nuts. This further compounds the challenges faced by farmers in enhancing both food and income security.
Over decades, women in Okere have been engaged in basic Shea butter production, catering to both household needs and generating income through local market sales. Regrettably, this practice has witnessed a decline in recent times due to extreme poverty, compelling many to sell their Shea nuts to middlemen at meager prices, as low as 500 UGX per kilogram. This economic exploitation exacerbates the myriad socio-economic challenges that form the daily realities of rural life in Okere.
The establishment of Okere Shea Coop in 2020 and the subsequent introduction of Okere Shea Butter to the market have brought a newfound sense of hope to Okere. The community, particularly the women, now harbors optimism for tangible improvements in their lives. Through the Coop, women in Okere are not only securing sustenance for themselves and their children but they are also getting the opportunity to send their children to school for an education previously unattainable. Additionally, the cooperative extends its impact by offering free adult literacy classes, further empowering the community to overcome educational barriers.