[This article was originally written by the author for The Travel Word, a blog on local travel and ecotourism initiatives.]
Mole National Park, located in Northern Ghana, is a remarkable natural landscape. This grand expanse of nature is the country’s largest national park and its largest protected ecosystem. As a wildlife reserve, it is refuge to nearly 100 different mammal species, more than 300 types of birds and in excess of 30 kinds of reptiles. It is understandably also a major tourism destination for travellers to Ghana.
Diverse Natural Features and Communities
In addition to the rich biodiversity within its borders, Mole National Park is surrounded by nearly 30 indigenous rural communities, all of which rely on the land for their livelihood.
The land for the park was initially set aside as a wildlife refuge in 1958, but in 1971, the government relocated the human populations and designated the land as a national park. The government also annexed a sizeable chunk of indigenous land, thereby compromising the welfare of families and communities that earned their income directly from the land. Unfortunately, the line between community lands and park property – between accessible commons and nature preserve – has blurred over time as a result and the actions of the communities have been at odds with efforts to preserve the national park and Ghana’s natural savannah.
Today, the relocated indigenous communities continue to struggle to survive, and their traditional subsistence activities, including hunting and woodcutting for fuel, have over the past decades degraded the parkland and resulted in substantial loss of the park’s biodiversity.
Identifying an Ecotourism Opportunity
When M&J Travel and Tours, a local Ghanaian tour operator and the whl.travel local partner in Northern Ghana, opened an office in Mole in 2010, addressing the issues raised by the park’s fringe communities fit perfectly with the organisation’s commitment to ecotourism and sustainability. Since its launch 20 years ago, M&J has consistently sought to make a positive impact on local communities through tourism.
In June 2010, M&J Travel and Tours therefore launched a shea-butter income-generating project that targeted women’s groups as they’re the main harvesters of the abundant shea trees’ oily nuts from which they then produce a buttery byproduct that is used as a key ingredient in moisturiser creams and cosmetics, hair conditioners, cooking oil, medicinal ointments and soap. Shea-butter production is already a major economic industry in Ghana and the rest of the West African region, where Ghana is now also the leading producer.
“The main idea is that when the government took over Mole Park, they took over a huge chunk of [local communities’] land, compromising the women’s ability to pursue their traditional activities, such as hunting and farming,” commented Arnold Asafu-Adjaye, Head of Sales and Marketing at M&J. “What was left were the shea butter trees. So, we saw the need to develop this industry.”
This community issue is now at the heart of the M&J’s corporate social responsibility initiative in Mole.
Women Shea-Butter Producers
Before this project, while local women were already organised to produce shea butter, it was only at a small scale. Now, numbers have grown, and approximately 30 percent of all economic activity for the national park fringe communities results from some aspect of shea-butter production.
Women continue to be the primary producers, while the men serve as hunters and search for other work alternatives. The women, who mostly stay in the home, are located in close proximity to the shea trees. Although the women now work longer hours now than they used to – farming and tending to the shea trees, harvesting and processing the nuts – their work provides vital additional income to support their families.
In total, M&J estimates that some 10,000 women are actively engaged in shea-butter production for commercial trade in northern Ghana, although M&J works directly with only about 350 of them.
Developing a Viable, Local Industry
Of course, introducing shea butter as a sustainable industry is only the one part of what needs to be accomplished; working with the women to strengthen their rate and quality of production is just as key to ensuring that the women and their families improve their output and reap the full benefits of their efforts.
Therefore, in partnership with a nongovernmental organisation called TechnoServe, M&J is working to provide technical training for the women in quality nut picking, quality butter processing and marketing. There is also hope of collaboration with other agencies and nongovernmental organisations, all involving strong partnerships with financial institutions so as to provide credit facilities to help the women launch viable small-scale businesses.
The women must also overcome existing challenges in the production of shea products, including quality controls, finding consistent buyers for their products and producing at a level that meets customers’ demand, thus ensuring a good return on their time and investments.
Building a Customer Base
According to Mr. Asafu-Adjaye, what the women are now predominantly looking for is buyers, especially those that can ensure their product reaches external markets. At present, sales are more locally based and focus on attracting tourists who visit the Mole National Park.
Their shea butter is not yet available even in the capital city of Accra or other major urban centres such as Kumasi and Takoradi, although M&J is in discussion with local companies that support Ghana-made products.
M&J is also looking partnerships with other potential customers, such as tourism and hospitality services.
“Shea for us is very important in the tourism supply, since products such as soap can be supplied to [those in the] hospitality industry and also become attraction sites to tourists who want to participate in alternative tourism,” explained Marian Thompson, Managing Director of M&J.
Promoting Local Sustainability
In parallel with the support of the women in Mole, the experts at M&J Travel are actively pursuing other areas of socially responsible engagement with the communities in which it works, from supporting reforestation in northern Ghana to alleviating the effects of climate change and providing local employment opportunities.
Another community project with which the company is presently involved will upgrade the quality of stoves used in local homes to reduce smoke, improve the environment and promote family health in the region.
For M&J Travel, the shea-butter initiative is targeted at ensuring local communities share in the gains that local tourism brings to the national economy.
“The main thing is that we think about the communities that we work in,” says Mr. Asafu-Adjaye. “It’s not just about bringing tourists; it’s about being a part of the community as well. When the tourists do come in to see what they want and are satisfied with everything, how is the local community affected? We need to be a part of the local community, to make sure they are self-sustainable. And in doing that, we’re working with them on shea butter production, making sure they aren’t left out.”