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Technology and Human Rights: Improved Shea Butter Processing for Women in Northern Ghana

By Erin Peiffer

I sat engulfed in a cloud of smoke watching a middle-aged Ghanaian woman roast shea over a fire, feeling nauseous from the toxic fumes and secretly eying places that, if it came to it, I could discreetly throw up.  How women and their children tolerate these conditions every day is unimaginable, but I guess that’s part of the reason why we’re here. As a graduate engineering student at the University of Dayton I spent the summer interning for Burro, a Ghana-based company, through the university’s Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service learning (ETHOS) program. In the Spring of 2018 I received a transdisciplinary Human Rights Center Graduate/Law Summer Grant in support of my proposed ETHOS work mapping the Sustainable Development Goals – discussed in more depth later – to ETHOS student projects.

Starting as a company providing a rechargeable battery service for those without access to electricity, Burro now sells solar products, improved cookstoves, pumps, among other products, all with the goal of providing people with tools to be more productive in their ever day lives. In line with these values, Burro, in collaboration with Burn Design Lab – another ETHOS partner located in Washington state – received a USAID grant to design a commercially viable improved shea nut roaster for shea butter processors in northern Ghana. As part of our initial research on shea roasting we were there interviewing and observing people involved in processing shea butter – all women – about the problems they face with roasting shea.

This led me to my current smoky predicament. I spotted a nice secluded area behind a large water storage tank and, following the 70-minute roast, headed in that direction, away from the burning plastic and smoke. Although I didn’t end up getting sick, it took me several hours away from the fire to fully regain my composure, and while I shamefully stood across the courtyard, my roasting companion emptied the finished batch of shea, reloaded it, and continued her work.

The shea tree, or more accurately the fruit that grows on these trees, is considered “women’s gold” in the shea belt that expands across parts of West Africa. An estimated 16 million women in this expansive region are involved in some part of the shea industry. Of the 600,000 tonnes of shea collected annually, only 10% is processed into handcrafted shea butter while the rest is exported to be used in food or pharmaceutical products. Despite the vast majority of shea being exported, it still seemed like every rural woman living in the areas we visited around Wa and Tamale processed shea butter.

While roasting shea exposes women to smoke and heat, the rest of the process isn’t much better. In turning shea nuts (following the removal of the fruit and outer shell) into shea butter, several labor-intensive steps are required including crushing, roasting, milling, kneading, and boiling. Between each step, women are tasked with physically moving the shea – a feat that includes balancing large pans on their heads, requiring help from others due to its sheer weight. Through hours of painstaking labor in grueling conditions, the women finish each exhausting day sometimes with barely any profit. “Women’s gold” seems like a bit of a euphemism.

While we witnessed women processing shea butter with infants strapped to their backs, it wasn’t uncommon to spot husbands snoozing in the afternoon shade. Although traditionally a woman’s job, we learned that men had taken over some steps of the process where technology had been brought in such as electric powered milling and crushing machines. Instead of women manually milling and crushing shea nuts, men bought the machines to do so and then had women pay to use their machines. This truly shocked the research team and highlighted unforeseen repercussions of technology that can occur if not careful.

We spent four weeks interviewing and observing shea experts in northern Ghana, and every day was a learning experience – an opportunity to really try to understand what women want and to someday deliver a product that can help improve their working conditions and increase their profit. The whole experience opened my eyes to problems I had only read about but never seen firsthand: exploitation, gender-based violence, poverty, and the role of technology in bringing advancement or detriment to these problems.

Around the world, countries are trying to tackle these same big picture issues through global collaboration. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outline the seventeen most pressing issues that the world must address together. In mapping the potential impact of an improved shea nut roaster to the SDGs, we see all the potential for good this technology could bring:

  • SDG 1 No Poverty: Helping women make more money at the end of the day by reducing fuel and increasing productivity.
  • SDG 3 Good Health and Well-Being: Reducing exposure to smoke, heat and burns.
  • SDG 4 Quality Education: Being able to afford school dues.
  • SDG 5 Gender Equality: Affording school dues for both girls and boys.
  • SDG 7 Affordable and Clean Energy: Opportunities in new shea technology.
  • SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth: Improved work conditions and profit.
  • SDG 9 Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure: Innovative solutions to difficult problems.
  • SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities: Economic empowerment for women leads to overall empowerment.
  • SDG 12 Responsible Consumption and Production: Reducing waste and fuel consumption.
  • SDG 13 Climate Action: Reduced emissions and fuel consumption.
  • SDG 15 Life on Land: Reduced fuel consumptions mean reduced deforestation.

Although just one product addressing one issue seen in one industry, we can start to see the power in humanitarian engineering and the ripple effect across key issues observed today. The ETHOS program and the Human Rights Center, in partnership with community-based organizations such as Burro, represent the collaborative efforts involving sustainability, technology, and human rights. These collaborations are necessary for a better tomorrow – working together to support (17) Partnerships for the Goals.


Founded in 2013, the Human Rights Center expands the University's mission to integrate theoretical and practical approaches to learning and engage others working toward the common good — locally and globally.

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