Rahama Wright on a course to becoming africa’s largest shea butter production
Rahama Wright is the founder of Shea Yeleen a social enterprise that sells high-quality unrefined shea butter products. With a mission to get people to think about where shea butter comes from and the people
Rahama Wright is the founder of Shea Yeleen a social enterprise that sells high-quality unrefined shea butter products. With a mission to get people to think about where shea butter comes from and the people behind its production, Wright has developed a business model that empowers and trains women-owned shea butter cooperatives. Applause Africa spoke with Wright about building her company, developing a socially conscious business model that empowers women and how she thinks Africans in the Diaspora can support businesses like hers.
Would you consider Shea Yeleen a startup?
No, I have been doing this since 2005 and so I’m going into my 9th year. We have also grown tremendously over the last two years. I launched it in 2005 as a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization and created an LLC profit arm in 2012. Part of the reason to do that was so we could diversify our sources of income and get income from impact investment.
Moving to that model was actually a great decision because two really amazing things happened in 2013. We were picked up by Whole Foods in the North Atlantic region. So you can find us in Connecticut, Maine, New York, the New England region, Pennsylvania and basically along the East Coast. We also got investment funding from a fund based in New York that is supported by Richard Parsons and Ron Lauder.
Was it hard to make the decision to move from just being a 501 (c)(3) to creating an LLC profit arm?
It really was. The non-profit still exists. We consider our model a social enterprise model. For me the difficulty was making sure that whatever path we were taking with our structure would ensure that we will be able to accomplish our mission. As the founder I am very much concerned with being able to accomplish the mission of why I started Shea Yeleen. I started it because of the women in sub-Saharan Africa who are the traditional shea processors. Our entire vision and model is geared towards helping these women bring high quality products to markets as a way to support economic development. I wanted to help women move from making less than $30 a month to a 100 and more – giving them the ability to send their kids to school, buy food and medicine.
Has this move been beneficial?
It has. And the reason is that when I started Shea Yeleen I was 23 years old, I had no idea what I was doing, I self funded for the majority of the last nine years and creating a new structure gave me the ability to attract the right investment and funding that we really needed to sustain the organization.
One of the things that we do that is very different from other brands is that we actually bring women to the U.S. We sponsor them to do speaking tours, to leave their communities, come to the U.S., meet with Whole Foods buyers, meet with customers and meet with consumers. We are not trying to just sell shea butter – that isn’t really why I created Shea Yeleen. It’s about giving these women a voice and visibility in a marketplace that for generations has kept them out, not only kept them out in the sense that we don’t see them but also in the sense that they are not financially benefiting from their labor. There is absolutely no shea product anywhere in this world that is on a shelf and is being sold that didn’t have an African woman as part of the supply chain and the reason is because the raw material comes from sub-Saharan Africa. You can’t find the shea tree anywhere else in the world. The fact that this product is so closely connected to the lives of these women to me means that they deserve to have the benefit of not only being an active part in the industry but financially benefit from it.
Why did you decide to sell your products outside of Africa?
I felt the U.S. consumer base is the biggest in the world and I felt that it was very wrong that so many people were buying these products and had no connection to the lives of the women in sub-Saharan Africa who were producing it. I really want to give these women the opportunity to benefit from a consumer base that already exists. And that was what my vision was. So now as we are becoming more ‘business-like’ and less ‘non-profit-like’ we have realized that some of the top emerging economies are in Africa so to not look into them will be foolish. Its definitely something we are considering.
Do you do your production from start to finish in sub-Saharan Africa?
We work with locally organized, independent cooperatives so its not like they are our workers. We support them with training, resources and capital to create shea butter. They make the shea butter at processing centers. These processing centers ensure that they are following a very strict quality control process and that they are making the shea butter in a central location just to ensure that everything is done properly.
What has been your biggest success story so far?
There are two things. Of course, having the women come to the U.S. – oh my gosh, amazing. Imagine being all the way from the North of Ghana and you haven’t even been to Accra and now you are in Washington, D.C. and then you are in Boston, and then New York, come on, can it get better than that? No, it can’t [laughs]. For me, it’s also about wanting the women I work with to understand the entire process and to feel like they are part of it. It’s not just telling them about where the products end up but to feel like they are part of a model that is really set up for them.
Getting funding from the private equity fund has been good. Ron Lauder of Estee lauder, one of the biggest beauty brands in the world gave me money to do what I love? Sometimes, I’m just pinching myself [laughs]. We got funding from Richard Parsons who is a premiere African American businessman, run Time Warner and Citigroup and is someone who is really behind the work we are doing. I mean those are heavy hitters and for them to want to support the work we are doing and seeing the importance of women who for generations have not been given the opportunity to make money is awesome. We are talking about women who have a challenge with making just one cedi in one day. Now to be able to get them to a point where they say, I’m saving money – that’s why I get up and when its hard and not easy, I’m like, I have it easy because when I think about what they are going through, my life is good.
What 3 lessons have you learned so far from building Shea Yeleen?
For me they are follow your heart and really do what you believe is right, because when I started Shea Yeleen a lot of people thought I was too young and very idealistic. There were a lot of people that did not encourage me and so for me I really had to move forward without getting a lot of support and kind of being on my own. I think that just do what you believe in and have a passion for.
Another thing is, be persistent. It took me nine years to get to this point and we are still at the tip of the iceberg. And so you just have to be persistent. If I had decided in 2007 to give up, all of the achievements of 2012 and 2013 will never have come to pass because I would have given up in 2007 I think that that persistence despite the challenges, some of the painful moments of writing a grant proposal and getting rejected, or getting a meeting with someone and they not returning your call and just the levels of rejection.
Finally, take care of yourself. Sometimes when you are running a mission driven organization, it takes over your life. I think that if you burn out, the mission can’t go on without you until you build the right team who can continue it. So I think that for anyone who wants to pursue their own business idea, they should make sure that they balance work and life.
What challenges have you faced?
I don’t want to be negative but I have to say that there are business structures that are have been in place for decades and the mere fact that they are in place is to ensure that the communities that we are working with never advance. People have been using shea butter for decades. Why are the women who produce it poor? That question clearly says someone is taking advantage so we are not fighting against it. We are educating people and telling them that ‘hey this is not just shea butter, this is a woman’s ability to send her kids to school, this is a woman’s ability to buy medicine.’ One major challenge is really teaching people to rethink what they know about shea butter and where it comes from.
We are competing in a very competitive marketplace where humongous brands that are worth billions who have a legal division and marketing division and can write a check for a million dollars and their products sell, sell sell. We are a small baby brand trying to get awareness around this and getting people to look at the product differently.
How do you think Africans in the Diaspora can support you? Solidarity. We have to stick together. I think that one way we can stick together is consuming products that are being led by diaspora leaders and products that we know are supporting on the ground communities where we all originate from. Also, talking and telling people our stories. One of the things that is frustrating to me, is that I feel like a lot of the times other people tell our stories and we are not telling our stories. That’s why I think media like Applause Africa are really taking back our power and telling our stories.
Also, just representing each other well is really important. We just need to continue to build solidarity.