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  • Shea Butter Republic: State Power, Global Markets, and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity
  • Mahir Saul
Brenda Chalfin . Shea Butter Republic: State Power, Global Markets, and the Making of an Indigenous Commodity. New York: Routledge, 2004. xx + 295 pp. Photographs. Tables. Maps. Bibliography. Index. $ 33.95. Paper.

This book is the study of an encounter between the global market and a highly robust regional commodity, one that may be something of a mystery to the general reader but well-known to the people of the West African savanna or to expatriates who have conducted research there. "Shea butter" (known in Francophone countries as karite) is the tropical oil that local women produce every year in tens of thousands of tons, following more or less traditional techniques, from the fruit of the ecological wonder, the spontaneously growing shea tree (Butyrospermum parkii, alternatively paradoxum). In what Chalfin calls a "forceful intersection of distinct economic formations" (6), women play a preponderant role, certainly on the African side, but increasingly also on the "global" side, as international demand for shea shifts to beauty products with exotic ingredients, in addition to moderately priced chocolate.

In the first chapter Chalfin describes the production and sale of shea oil in northern Ghana, its fit with the farming economy, and the older patterns of commoditization. The role of women comes out clearly in this discussion—as gatherers of the fruit, processors of the nut, extractors of the oil, and finally sellers of the product and also intermediate merchants bulking it, distributing it regionally, and supplying the cities. The second chapter focuses on the impact of colonial policies after 1901, which aimed to foster exports and produced mountains of technical research but ultimately foundered on the economic crises of the 1930s. Part of the problem was that shea is a high-value product; it cannot be supplied cheaply because of a resilient regional demand with which the export market has to contend. Chalfin demonstrates that unsteady state intervention reflected shifting [End Page 141] agendas and an uneasy relationship between colonial government and private capital.

Fast forward to the 1980s reform period in chapter 3. J. J. Rawlings's government was torn between its populist promises to expand the shea trade and pressures of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to withdraw from the economy in order to qualify for vitally needed loans. The shea industry became the sacrificial victim the Ghanaian state led to the altar of structural adjustment in order to save some control over the much more important cocoa marketing.

Chapter 4 situates shea oil in international trade and includes a discussion of the European Union "chocolate wars." African cocoa-producing countries united to influence these European debates and prevent the relaxation of chocolate purity standards, which would have resulted in greater use of additions such as shea oil. Ghana was torn, because the campaign pitted the country against its northern savanna neighbors, who as shea exporters favored dropping the chocolate purity standards. But Ghana was also torn internally, with its southern part the largest cocoa exporter and the northern part a heavy shea producer and exporter. In the end, not surprisingly, the cocoa interests carried the day.

Chapters 5 and 6 analyze the consequences of privatization and free enterprise reforms—which the Ghana government ended up accepting grudgingly, even for cocoa—and provide a broadened evaluation of the relationship between global markets and the worlds of household and community life. Replacing national marketing structures with individual entrepreneurs did not lead to expected gains in efficiency, improved local incomes, or even greater competition in the local arena. The new marketing enterprises were established by former personnel of the old marketing board and could stay in business only by imitating its ways. But the new ways of conducting business did have an unintended impact on the relative participation of men and women in the upper echelons of export trade. Furthermore, the growth of shea exports destined for high quality beauty products, the concentrated nature of industrial shea refinement, and the imposed privatization of marketing curtailed the role of local women in shea processing.

Altogether this is a fascinating case study, showing all the advantages of...