Our Geneseo alumni make a difference all over the world, including Rahama Wright '02, who started a skin-care business working with women's cooperatives in Africa, which in turn helps build sustainable communities, empowers women and, in turn, addresses the United Nation's Sustainable Development goals.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Mali, Rahama Wright ’02 helped women develop the area’s first shea butter cooperative so they could have more power to harvest and sell shea seeds working together.
In Mali and as an intern with the U.S. Embassy in Burkina Faso the summer after her Geneseo graduation, Wright saw the need for more self-reliant income among women — and a better, more profitable way for them to be part of the shea supply chain.
Wright created Shea Yeleen in 2005, with a mission to empower women with sustainable income, training and opportunities, not just by selling raw materials to others, but producing valued-added shea butter and other finished products themselves.
“I had to create a new business model,” she says.
It took seven long years to build Shea Yeleen: She spent the first two years researching grassroots organization, how to structure the operation, how to train women and how to identify and work with local leaders. The process came with it’s own set of challenges: She used all of her Peace Corps money, and then some. When money ran out, she had to leave her apartment; she slept on a blow-up mattress in her friend’s apartment.
“Honestly, if I look back, I don’t know how I kept going. Everything was telling me, ‘this is not going work.’ But I believed. It boils down to faith. I remember telling myself, I am committed to these issues, regardless if it takes a month or 25 years.”
Now, Shea Yeleen is sold online, and in retail stores, including Whole Foods. Shea Yeleen works with some 800 women in two cooperatives in northern Ghana — in Tamale and Damango.
Shea Yeleen provides living wages — $6 per day from the usual $2 per day – access to community health cards for family care, and an opportunity for savings. Most often, Wright says, the income is used for their children’s education.
It also funds dreams. In a video, Gladys proudly shows her small café, opened from Shea Yeleen income.
“I think you don’t know if you can do something until you try, or someone opens your eyes that this is achievable,” says Wright. “We all just need a little encouragement and support to believe you can achieve something that you might ever have considered.”
Shea Yeleen cooperative women work in small facilities, in groups of 10, and produce butter, and most recently, shea butter soap. Products are shipped and labeled in the U.S.
Wright has received several accolades for her vision and success. In 2008, she was one of 80 women selected to participate in an Oprah Winfrey and White House leadership Project. She is a member of President Obama’s Advisory Council on Doing Business in Africa.
“One of my proudest moments was when we brought some of the women to the U.S.,” says Wright, so they could see Shea Yeleen on the shelves, and understand their position in the supply chain. “These are women who didn’t even have passports or birth certificates. Those moments hit home.”
One of Wright’s favorite images from her journey is of her with children of the cooperative members. She is crashing one of their dances.
“That moment really captures why I’m doing this,” says Wright. “Throughout history, I have been inspired by people who were able to change the lives of the next generation. When I started Shea Yeleen, I said, ‘I might not be able to completely change a woman’s life. She may still have a first-grad education. But what if she’s able to change her child’s life, and they have a much different experience, and education and a different job?”
— Story by Kris Dreessen
— Photo by Adam Francis Purl