1. Introduction

Globalisation is an ideological and portmanteau concept employed by many authorities with different meanings and interpretations (Hopkins 2002). There is, however, broad agreement that it is “a process that transforms economic, political, social and cultural relationships across countries, regions and continents by spreading them more broadly, making them more intense and increasing their velocity”.1 The potentials and limitations of globalisation are increasingly recognised and debated (Hagerup et al. 2000; Chang 2002; Hopkins 2002; Stiglitz 2002; Harris 2003; Schaeffer 2003; Schott 2003; Milanovic 2003; Wade 2004), although the debate remains “almost exclusively Western in conception and indeed in orientation too” (Hopkins 2002, 19).

The shea nut tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) is widespread in the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa, and the fruits and kernels serve as important ingredients in the diet of communities struggling with the harsh semi-arid conditions in this part of Africa. The fresh fruits are eaten during a limited period of the year when they are available (June to mid-September). However, the most important part of the fruit is the kernel inside the nuts of the fruit. Windfall fruits are collected, processed and traded almost exclusively by women in Ghana (Chalfin 2004a). After drying, the kernels may be stored for later use or immediately processed by a laborious manual process into shea butter which is used in daily meals, either as an ingredient or as a frying medium, and also sold in local, regional and global markets (Lovejoy 1985; Fold and Reenberg 1999; Becker 2001; Buttoud 2001; Nacoulma 2002; Chalfin 2003; Chalfin 2004a; Hatskevich et al. 2011).

Historical evidence indicates a widespread and centuries old exchange of shea kernels and shea butter on a regional scale in West Africa, not only between producing and non-producing areas but also internally in producing areas due to seasonal variations in supply (Dupuis 1824; Moloney 1887, 54, 379; Bowdich 1966 (1819); Park 1983 (1799), 155, 172, 269, 301, 345; Chalfin 1996; 2004b; Buttoud 2001). In the early part of the 20th century, the British (and French) colonial administration considered the possibilities of starting large-scale exports of kernels to Europe. Multiple initiatives were not successful. After the Second World War new technological developments in the fats and oil industry demonstrated the value of shea butter in the production of so-called cocoa butter equivalents (CBEs), components used by the chocolate industry as a cheap alternative to ‘real’ cocoa butter made from cocoa beans predominantly after the 1990s. In some of the EU-countries the use of CBEs in chocolate production was restricted but recently its use has been legally endorsed and demand for shea butter is expected to increase, not only in the EU but also in terms of broader global trade.

This paper focuses on two phases of globalised trade (colonial and post-colonial), and is inspired by the global commodity chain (GCC) approach (Gereffi 1994; Raikes et al. 2000). In previous analyses of global agricultural commodity chains emanating from Sub-Saharan African countries, priority has been paid to issues concerning quality regulation, restructuring processes and upgrading (Raikes and Gibbon 2000; Fold 2001; Gibbon 2001; Larsen 2002; Ponte 2002; Mather and Greenberg 2003). Of these issues, the prospects and potentials for different kinds of agricultural chain upgrading (notably in relation to local value-added processing in the case of shea nuts and shea butter in northern Ghana) in developing countries is the most relevant seen from a development perspective. This emphasis is linked to the broader debate on development trajectories via participation in global markets as an (assumed) more viable alternative to reliance on local or domestic markets (Humphrey and Schmitz 2002). Hence, food security and the dynamics of local socio-economic systems are implicitly relegated to an inferior analytical position. Our intention is to incorporate these issues in the framework of GCC analysis by expanding the period under scrutiny in order to compare governance of the shea commodity chain under present and previous waves of globalisation. The paper draws on new historical sources as a contribution to existing scholarly work that has incorporated historical dimensions in the analysis of global commodity chains (see, for example, Little and Watts 1994; Goodman and Watts 1997; Hagerup et al. 2000; Rammohan and Sundaresan 2003; Chalfin 2004a,b). We argue in this paper that there may be risks associated with accelerated global trade in shea products (i.e. increasing commercialisation and exports) from northern Ghana. Historically and culturally-embedded patterns of shea trading may now be challenged by the emergence of new processing technologies, and the restructuring of the global commodity chain due to growing demand for cocoa butter equivalents.

The paper is also part of a corrective to the focus in much Ghanaian historiography which continues to focus on the palm oil, timber and cocoa producing south of the country, although there are notable exceptions (Lovejoy 1980; Chalfin 2004a; Abaka 2005). In general better archival records exist for these commodities given the larger quantities and, hence greater values traded with European metropoles (Kotey et al. 1998; Lynn 1998; Acquaah 1999).2 We suggest that the comparative lack of data regarding the shea trade also reflects the complexities of unrecorded international trade with shea products moving south and north across an international border since colonial boundaries were first defined (May 1985; Ellis and MacGaffey 1996; Fold and Reenberg 1999; Chalfin 2001; Wardell et al. 2003b). The paper was also inspired by the significant scholarly work which has focused on the role of women in African economic development, and gendered commodity chains (see, for example, Boserup 1970; Clark 1994; Bryceson 1995; House-Midambe and Ekechi 1995; Chamlee-Wright 1997; Chalfin 2004a,b; Kalu and Rachael 2006; Elias and Carney 2007; Shackleton et al. 2011. See also Mwangi and Mai 2011).

The next section of the paper presents an historical background to pre-colonial patterns of trade in West Africa. This is followed by a summary description of shea production and marketing systems in northern Ghana. In the two following sections, shea trade during the two waves of globalizations in the colonial and post-independence eras are presented and discussed in relation to changing governance regimes prior to some concluding remarks.

2. Historical background to pre-colonial patterns of trade in West Africa

Historical patterns of local, regional and international trade in West Africa pre-date the arrival of the Portuguese on the West African coast in the 15th century (Brooks 1993; Wilks 1961; 1971, 1982; Hopkins 1973). The ebbs and flows of the dominant commodities exchanged during the last five hundred years have been determined by a complex web of social, cultural, religious, economic and ecological factors across the region (Fage 1969; Daaku 1970; Dumett and Johnson 1988; Webb 1995). These, in turn, were influenced by the larger framework of the world economy, progressive improvements in transport and communications technology, and the influences of fluctuating demand and commodity prices. It was, for example, the opening up of new maritime markets in West Africa after the Portuguese trading monopoly was overthrown in 1642 which resulted in the progressive decline in trans-saharan trade in gold by the late 17th century. A multitude of short distance commercial networks and longer distance trading relationships have continually forged linkages between local, regional and global trade (Newbury 1972). Furthermore, long-distance trade was possible long before the advent of colonialism as common monetary units such as gold standards and cowries existed, and trade relays involved multiple exchanges and modes of transport – camels, donkeys and human porterage – in different ecological zones (Webb 1995). Elaborate decentralised networks of commercial alliances were maintained as trade routes changed and new loci of commercial centres emerged. Some scholars have highlighted the persistence of local and regional trade in, for example, salt (Sutton 1981), kola nuts (Lovejoy 1980; Abaka 2005), and shea nuts (Chalfin 2004a).

European trade was largely confined to the West African littoral until the early 20th century. It was nurtured, initially, by African middlemen and European firms who operated as personalized oligarchic semi-monopolies. A significant expansion in the export of bulk commodities from, and bulk imports to West Africa occurred during the 19th century (Davies 1976; Arhin 1980). This period – often characterised as the era of ‘legitimate trade’ after the abolition of slave trading (Mcsheffrey 1983) – was dominated by the growth of trade in palm oil and palm kernels in exchange for imported cloth, guns, gunpowder, iron, salt and rum (Brooks 1970; Chamberlain 1979). The transition to bulk exports was facilitated by falling prices for bulk steamship transport, the advent of the telegram, and growing demand for raw materials amongst the new industrial economies of Europe. This era did not involve any major economic, political or social disruptions in the region; external trade had already proved to be profitable and offered the most favourable sources of credit. The credit or trust ‘system’ expanded and as Newbury has noted “Cash sales ... also increased, but did not dispace the advance of bulk stocks against supplies of kernels and oil, ivory, cotton and shea butter” (Newbury 1972, 93).

The period did, however, usher in some changes notably in terms of the organisation of European trading firms (separating the functions of merchants and shippers and progressively shifting to more corporate forms of ownership and management), early efforts to bypass coastal agents in order to reach African markets in the hinterland, and the increasing ‘democratisation’ of trade as, increasingly, smaller traders entered markets. It was also an era characterised by classic ‘boom and bust’ cycles and periodic failures associated with trade in palm oil in the 1860s (Lynn 1998), and mining in the 1890s (Silver 1981). During the latter part of the 19th century, trade in wild rubber (Arhin 1972) and West African mahoganies (Kotey et al. 1998) started to expand. At this time an African agent of the British Gold Coast Colony secured treaties of friendship and trade with many traditional rulers in northern Ghana and the neighbouring territories of Haute Volta, Côte d’Ivoire and Togoland (Metcalfe 1964, 457; Arhin 1974). These treaties aimed to grant the British i.a. free access to the areas concerned, and the right to conduct trade and industry. The establishment of these ‘free-trade’ agreements led to an escalation in the military presence in the region in the late 1890s. A British military detachment led by Major H.P. Northcott occupied Gambaga where he was subsequently appointed Commissioner and Commandant in the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast. The defeat of the Ashanti in 1900 also heralded the beginning of a new trading era in the Gold Coast hinterland which soon set great store by the potential of the shea nut.

3. Shea nut production and marketing systems in northern Ghana

The harvesting, processing and marketing of shea nut kernels and butter has provided local communities throughout the Sudano-Sahelian zone of West Africa with i.a. food ingredients, skin-care products and household incomes, for at least 200 years (Buttoud 2001; Wardell et al. 2002b; Chalfin 2004a; Elias and Carney 2007).3 Early references to shea nuts in West Africa (see 1 above) were later confirmed by both a Fante official of the Gold Coast Colony, George Ekem Ferguson, and subsequently by other British colonial officials (for example, “Timber” Thompson 1910; Conservator of Forests McLeod 1922; Vigne 1935). Ferguson was commissioned by the Crown during the period 1888–1896 to negotiate treaties of ‘friendship and trade’ in the Gold Coast. He recognised that the shea-butter tree was “growing abundantly” and noted that “Before reaching the coast it is sometimes adulterated with flour procured from the yam, which is kneaded up with it in a mortar” (Arhin 1974, 68; see also Chalfin 2004a, 89–91). This suggests that local ‘tricks of the trade’ (Chalfin 2000, 996–1000) may have existed at both ends of this regional commodity chain.4 A Gold Coast forest botanist acknowledged that “…the most valuable product (in the savannah areas) is the shea butter” (Chipp 1923, 19).5

The historical evidence available in Ghana suggests that shea butter has constituted an important item of local and regional trade from at least the mid-nineteenth century, often comprising the return cargo in the Volta River salt canoes.6 Thus, shea products have formed part of a long-established trading complex linking both the Sahelian kingdoms in the north, and the Fante and Ashanti kingdoms to the south. As Inez Sutton remarks “... the amount of yams, cattle and shea butter passing south was directly related to the amount of salt going north” (Sutton 1981, 52 also cited in Chalfin 2004b, 91; see also Wilks 1961).

Production systems in northern Ghana are characterised by rainfed subsistence arable farming on compound and bush farms, irrigated dry season ‘market gardening’ on small protected plots and extensive livestock grazing based on crop residues, bush farm fallows and dry season transhumance along the river valleys and within protected areas (Benneh 1973; Webber 1996; Blench 1999; Wardell et al. 2003a). The landscape is distinguished by extensive tracts of tropical dry forests, narrow strips of fringing forest bordering the tributaries of the Volta River Basin, and in settled areas, agroforestry parklands dominated by shea nut and African locust bean or dawa dawa (Parkia biglobosa) trees. Seasonal variations in millet, sorghum and maize food crop production, often due to the vagaries of climate and poor edaphic conditions, have resulted in multiple adaptations to sustain livelihoods (Dickson 1968; Watts 1987; Webb 1995; see also Mortimore 1998). Historically-embedded patterns of seasonal male labour migration outside the region characterise the distinctive ‘hoe and wage’ subsistence economy of many communities in northern Ghana (Hart 1974; Cordell et al. 1996).

Local communities collect a large range of Non Timber Forest Products for subsistence use and for sale in local periodic markets. These encompass i.a. shea nuts, wood fuels, thatching materials, grasses for basketry, vegetable dyes, building poles, medicinal plants for human and livestock disorders and bush meat. Shea nuts and shea butter products continue to be of critical importance in sustaining rural livelihoods. Recent estimates from Mali indicate that women earn 55% of their personal income from the sale of shea butter compared to 24% from the sale of firewood (Becker 2001, 515). Shea trees are usually considered the property of clan lineages. A woman married into a founding lineage thus collects from trees retained in fields and fallows of her husband’s lineage. Shea trees are also found in common-pool areas, including forested areas gazetted by the colonial state, and their tenure is sometimes contested (Pogucki 1955; Becker 2001; Chalfin 2004a, 47–49; Wardell and Lund 2008).7

Periodic markets perform a vital role in the economic and social life of people throughout West Africa (Bromley 1971; Hodder 1971; Meillassoux 1971; Smith 1971; Hill and Smith 1972; McKim 1972). In northern Ghana, a complex hierarchy exists linking periodic three-day village markets to larger foci of trade in places such as Bawku, Yendi and Tamale which, in turn, are linked to centres of consumption in southern Ghana, neighbouring Burkina Faso (for example, Bittou and Tenkodogo), and other parts of the West Africa littoral. The aggregation of the periodic market system facilitates northern trade in surpluses of agricultural food and cash crops such as millet, yams, onions, tomatoes, livestock, shea nuts and shea butter (Hill 1970; Clark 1994; Chalfin 2000).

Shea nuts remain a critical source of edible oil to meet subsistence needs, with women processing and selling surplus shea nuts and processed shea butter in markets throughout northern Ghana, and southern Burkina Faso. Surplus nuts from individual households or small communities are brought by females to the markets and sold to wholesalers or forestallers who may be stationary or itinerant. These traders – in turn – sell the nuts to women in need of raw material for domestic production of shea butter or, alternatively, they may sell to agents from large-scale trading companies. Over the year, village women may choose to sell nuts they have collected and prepared within a limited period of the year, thereby exchanging their stored commodity capital with cash. Alternatively, rural women may choose to process the nuts and sell surplus butter on the markets. Some specialise in the processing of butter and buy nuts in local markets if self-collected volumes are insufficient in relation to processing capacity. Often the processing on a large(-r) scale is organised by womens’ groups as there are some economies of scale linked to a division of labour during the process – after the nuts have been ground and boiled the process must be continued and completed without stops. Moreover, specialisation may be linked to access to grinding mills, a particularly useful facility for processing as it replaces an exhausting manual labour process (Chalfin 2000, 2004a).

In a similar way as nuts are traded in local markets, shea butter is sold as a retail good (of different lump sizes) to other women or it may be sold to female wholesalers. These traders accumulate butter for resale to other retailers (forestallers) or wholesalers operating in distant markets, i.e. in other areas of northern and southern Ghana (Chalfin 2004a). Moreover, unknown but probably significant volumes of butter – and nuts – are traded across the border zone between Ghana, Burkina Faso and Togo (Fold and Reenberg 1999; Chalfin 2001; Elias and Carney 2006). These trade flows serve to link surplus regions with deficit regions. As reported by Chalfin (2001), women completely dominate this part of the chain with collectors/producers, traders, and wholesalers linked by well-developed trust and credit relationships. Power asymmetry and exploitation is, nevertheless, still an integral component of this part of the shea commodity chain.8

Finally, wholesale butter traders supply the markets in the larger towns in the southern part of the country, notably Accra. There is a clear seasonality in this trade as shea butter is used predominantly for skin protection, or as a hair restorer, during the Harmattan period (December to February). Tamale serves as a reception centre for butter destined for the southern urban markets and some of the wholesalers based in Tamale have expanded their activities to the South (Fold 2002; Chalfin 2004a).

4. Colonial efforts to integrate the Northern Territories (NT) of the Gold Coast Colony in the global economy

Efforts to support economic development in the NT focused on attempts to develop trade in export crops including shea nut and silk cotton (kapok), production of food crops for the ‘southern colonies’, cattle-raising and the establishment of a road network.9 In practice, the absence of exportable raw materials, and high transport costs from the NT ensured that the more accessible and better endowed areas of the Gold Coast Colony and the Colony of Ashanti were ‘developed’ first by the British (Wardell 2002a, 2006). Early interest in shea nut recognised its potential as a taxable commodity that could help to pay for colonial administration in the Protectorate. Subsequent investigations focused on the development of shea nuts as an exportable commodity with the NT considered as one of the privileged sources in British West Africa during the period 1912–1930. The last experimental shipments of shea butter were despatched in the early 1930s before the colonial state abandoned the shea nut export trade.

In 1901 the NT was constituted as a British Protectorate under the Governor of the Gold Coast Colony (Figure 1).10 The NT was plagued throughout colonial rule by difficulties stemming from the limited infrastructure development and lack of vision of the British colonial administration. Road construction became one of the earliest priorities in the NT as the Protectorate was transformed into a labour reserve to support economic development in southern Ghana. The introduction of direct taxation in the NT in 1936 reinforced cyclical patterns of labour migration thereby maintaining the internal structure of labour appropriation established under the former domination of the Asante empire.11 Several scholars have argued that the comparative neglect of the NT contributed to the systematic underdevelopment of northern Ghana, a situation which persists to the present day (Dickson 1968; Kay 1972; Bening 1975; Ladouceur 1979; Sutton 1989; Saaka 2001; Chalfin 2004a, 130).

4.1. Identifying the resource

Early initiatives taken by the colonial administration to give impetus to the shea-butter trade encompassed efforts to encourage the Adas to expand their trade by diversifying beyond salt, to curry favour with a key Gold Coast trading firm (Swanzy) eager to exploit new commodities, and to ship the first samples of different types of shea butter – Grunshi and Dagomba – for tests at the Imperial Institute in the metropole in 1912.12

Nevertheless, a number of more sceptical viewpoints were expressed by colonial officials when distinctions were made between the relative importance of the shea nut trade to African producers and consumers, and to the colonial administration. Repeated references are made in NT Annual Reports during the first decade of colonial rule to the small local trade in shea-butter, dawa dawa and locally made cotton cloth, whilst also lamenting that it brought in little revenue to the government.13

Direct taxation was only introduced in the NT in 1936 during the period of ‘indirect rule’, and paying for ‘hegemony on a shoestring’ (Berry 1993) was a constant pre-occupation of the CCNT and his Provincial and District Commissioners. Hausa traders, who drove livestock south from neighbouring French territories and returned with kola nuts and salt, initially provided the Protectorate with its only source of revenue. However, the caravan tolls were scrapped in 1907 to obviate the risk of forcing trade into neighbouring French or German colonies.

The first report by the Director of Agriculture (he did not visit the populous North-East and North-West Provinces) recognised that “a considerable local industry is carried on in its butter and kernels” but advised against developing an export trade. The Acting Governor of the Gold Coast concurred with Tudhope in a covering despatch to the Secretary of State noting “that it is impracticable, at present, to develop an export trade on any large scale, and I should be inclined to pursue a policy of encouraging by precept, in the form of itinerant instructors, and by example, in the form of small agricultural stations, the cultivation of economic products generally, throughout the Protectorate…”14 Similarly, the 1916 Commission on Oil Producing Nuts and Seeds was clearly opposed to the development of the shea nut (export) trade due to the difficulties of storing, refining, and transporting the fat. Furthermore, shea was of little importance compared to oil palm nuts or groundnuts as it yielded much less oil.15 The Commission concluded “The condition of the trade does not appear to be such as to warrant prolonged treatment on this report” though it recognised that shea could become important if the many difficulties were resolved.16 Thus, the colonial administration, at this stage, was encouraging local production and not export of shea products.

Inspite of these doubts the period under Frederick Gordon Guggisberg’s Governorship17 heralded a new developmental and interventionist era driven by a particular vision – that of integrating the Northern Territories into the Gold Coast colonial economy. Guggisberg’s main ambition, which ultimately failed, was to link the North to the South with a railway line (Coull 1926; Bening 1995, 237). Railway or no railway, this necessitated more systematic efforts to estimate, and to harness the potential of developing external trade in shea nuts.

4.2. Investigating the potential of trade in shea nuts

At the start of the 1920s the first signs of increasing interventionism by the colonial state started to appear. Colonial initiatives encompassed efforts to regulate and control customary resource use practices, extensive surveys by the Departments of Forestry and Agriculture, and research into extraction methods and plantation techniques.

In 1920 instructions from the Acting CCNT required that the Acting Provincial Commissioner of the Southern Province had to “… take steps to pass the word round among the Chiefs of your province that the Natives should on no account cut down Shea butter trees.” The Acting CCNT went on “I know that in clearing farms a certain amount of cutting is absolutely necessary, and this cannot be helped, but the cutting down of Shea trees for the purposes of making charcoal is a most idiotic proceeding and is practically throwing money away...”18

It was, however, in response to Governor Guggisberg’s Memorandum on Gardens, Food Plantations and Timber, that the first extensive forestry tour of the NTs was undertaken in 1922.19 The dual purpose of Conservator of Forests McLeod’s tour was to evaluate the government’s opportunities to exploit teak plantations (established by the Germans at Yendi), and the feasibility of developing an export industry based on shea nut, shea butter and silk cotton.20 McCleod’s report raised concerns about the “heavy toll levied on young Shea” due to the demand for building poles used in the construction of government rest houses in the NTs, and made preliminary estimates of the number, productivity and economic value of shea trees throughout the Protectorate.21

The Department of Agriculture was soon also commissioned to prepare revised estimates of the shea nut potential in relation to the planned railway to the NTs.22 This laid the foundations for the frequently strained relationships between the Departments of Agriculture, Political Officers, and Forestry Officers over jurisdiction for the regulation of the shea nut (export) trade.23 The tensions between technical departments continued until after the North Mamprusi Forestry Conference in November 1947 (Wardell 2003c). Conflicts over governance of resources frequently characterized relationships between different sections of the colonial administration, as other scholars have noted (Lonsdale and Berman 1979; Mamdani 1996; Chalfin 2004a).

In 1924 the (then) Superintendent of Agriculture and Forestry, Captain Coull, estimated that 63% of the total area of the Protectorate could be considered as a ‘production area’ capable of yielding 57,000 tons of shea nuts for export each year (Coull 1924, 9).24 Coull’s report also raised concerns about the perceived inefficiency of traditional methods of extracting the fat. Thereafter, research into expanding production of shea nuts in the NT was based primarily on either developing improved extraction methods using imported crushing machinery and solvents – by agricultural technicians,25 or on improving plantation and fire protection techniques for shea nut trees – by forestry technicians who advised political officers.26 Neither approach proved successful.

4.3. Abandoning the shea nut export trade

The 1920s constituted the dawning of the ‘age of the lorry’ in the NT and shea butter was increasingly transported by road (for example, 318 tonnes crossed the Yeji ferry in 1928) at a cost of ca. £10 per ton.27 Additional subsidised shipments of shea butter were sent to the UK in the early 1930s and demonstrated clearly that trade in shea butter using road transport was still uneconomic: the cost of nuts purchased was ca. £25 per ton with an estimated cost delivered to London of ca. £46; the price on the London market at the time was £19.

The colonial administration was also made aware in the Sessional Papers of other constraints which were limiting the development of the shea nut trade. These included problems associated with the labour demand on women (the collecting season coincided with the main farming season); slow growth rates of shea trees; the difficulties of organising the collection of shea nuts in areas where trees were scattered often in sparsely-populated areas; the recalcitrant seed did not grow well under plantation conditions; the occurrence of a pest and parasitic plant; the incidence of bush fires; factory methods for extraction did not exist; the fat was considered inferior to both palm and coconut oil – both of which were more accessible and hence, more readily marketable; limited demand for the oil and the costs of transporting it were prohibitive.28 Cumulatively, these factors and other events led the colonial administration to abandon its interest in the shea nut export trade, and to shift its focus. Local producers, nevertheless, continued to sell shea nuts and shea butter in local periodic markets throughout the colonial era.

The failure to integrate the NT in the global economy was compounded by the effects of the global economic depression in the 1930s (Coquery-Vidrovitch 1976), and new pre-occupations which emerged in the wake of the cocoa ‘hold-ups’ (Milbourn 1970; Simensen 2004), and the metamorphosis of the Forestry Department into a supply organisation during World War II (Brooks 1947; Kotey et al. 1998). A West African groundnut fiasco29 – financed through the provisions of the Colonial Welfare and Development Act – provided the Gonja Development Company in northern Ghana with a nominal capital of £1 million,30 and ensured that little further state interest (or comparable) investment in shea production or trade occurred at the end of the colonial period.

4.4. Continuity, resilience and sovereignty

By the late 1920s (Volta) river-based transport was progressively being replaced by road transport as colonial public works, (forced) labour, and investments in roads and bridges started to pay dividends. Lorries continued to import Keta salt from coastal Ghana returning primarily with cattle and sheep, replacing (though not entirely) the yams and shea butter of earlier decades.31 Distances to coastal ports and the prices offered for a high-volume low-value commodity such as shea kernels rendered global trade uneconomic, and the rejection of Guggisburg’s plans for a railway to the north did not help this situation. Colonial efforts to transform indigenous systems of (agricultural) production were, in general, unsuccessful, and probably led to further marginalisation of the Protectorate. By the outbreak of World War I, CCNT Armitage had already resigned himself to the fact that “The shea butter industry will never be developed to any extent until a comparatively cheap transport service to the coast has been provided”.32

The colonial ‘labour reserve’ policy in northern Ghana systematically extracted able-bodied men from the territory, leaving households short of labour for agricultural production. Male labour migration, inadvertently, heightened the importance to women of value-added processing of shea kernels, and the marketing of kernels and shea butter, all of which they managed themselves. This enabled women to spread labour demand for processing and selling shea products throughout the year, and to use the opportunities provided by an elaborate network of periodic markets and trade relays to the south and north of the international boundary between Burkina Faos and Ghana. Hence, the constancy of three-day periodic markets has enabled women to sustain their livelihoods and to reproduce social relations devoid of ‘boom and bust’ cycles, price wars and ‘hold-ups’ which characterised globally-traded commodities such as cocoa and palm oil in southern Ghana (Milbourn 1970; Lynn 1998).

Furthermore, women were instrumental in sustaining rural livelihoods by using periodic markets on both sides of the border to trade in shea kernels and butter. Ironically, the key factor which influenced the placement of the border separating British and French territories was the protection of metropolitan trading interests (Arhin 1974). Early attempts to control and regulate the transit trade through the (then) North East Frontier District in the NT were abandonded by 1915. In practice, a border zone distinguished by its ethno-linguistic, cultural, ecological and commercial affinities fostered the strengthening of economic alliances and networks outside the formal boundaries of the nation state, and has resulted in a ‘subversive economy’ (Donnan and Wilson 1998). Since the colonial era, state boundaries separating compatible periodic market systems, differential currency rates and pricing regimes have provided new (and changing) opportunities for women engaged in shea nut trade to develop and sustain their production and marketing systems.

Women, however, were rarely favoured interlocoteurs by colonial administrators and technicians, and the colonial state assumed erroneously that little trade existed while at the same time presuming that producers would respond positively to world market incentives.33 Colonial officials, similarly, had little, if any, understanding of either the social functions of periodic markets or the dominant role of women in the production and marketing processes. After the Second World War the colonial state’s interests for oil crops quickly shifted towards groundnuts. Shea nuts and shea nut traders in northern Ghana were largely forgotten by the state for the next two decades; post-independence governments focused on ambitious, large scale, capital-intensive projects to develop irrigation infrastructure, agricultural processing and large-scale mechanized cooperatives (Beckman 1981; Shepherd 1981). Women shea producers lived in a “world that didn’t count” (McMichael 2004, 7) and have consistently remained in the shadow of cocoa growers in southern Ghana.

The general indecision of the British colonial administration about their ultimate aims in the Protectorate was typified by the erratic efforts to develop the shea nut export trade throughout the colonial era. In 1928 the Acting Governor of the Gold Coast T.S. Thomas had already remarked: “… there seems to be no clear-cut statement of policy: we do not know what is being done and what our administration is intended to bring forth.”34 Other prominent observers considered that the economic possibilities were more potential than actual (Cardinall 1931). The limited road infrastructure, changing metropolitan demand for oilseeds, and the ability of local producers to continue to use their own local and regional marketing networks all contributed to the adandonment of the shea nut export trade. In essence, the production and supply of shea products remained central to servicing the needs of West African consumers throughout the colonial period. Little, if any, global trade occurred. Nevertheless, since the Second World War industrial demand for shea butter has grown progressively as its use, as a substitute for cocoa butter, has increased. This is explored further in the following section.

5. Post-colonial efforts to link northern Ghana to the global economy

Like the colonial government in its quest for sources of revenue, the independent state in Ghana has maintained its ambitions to expand its fiscal base by incorporating the shea nut in a portfolio of taxable commodities. The roots of global demand for shea kernels shifted dramatically after the Second World War as a new use value for shea butter was found. During the 1950s, scientific results and technological development in the European oils and fats industry identified shea butter as a highly suitable ingredient in the production of so-called cocoa butter equivalents (CBEs), a category of components used by the confectionery industry, particularly in the production of chocolate. CBEs are cheap alternatives to ‘real’ cocoa butter made from cocoa beans as the two components have identical physical and chemical properties.

Hence, from being considered as a means of diversifying cocoa exports, shea was gradually transformed into a (partial) substitute for cocoa in the chocolate industry. International demand for shea kernels or shea butter is now determined by the global use of CBEs in chocolate production with prices fluctuating in accordance with cocoa prices. State regulation was initially indirect through licensing and export control but changed progessively to direct involvement in purchasing operations by the Cocoa Marketing Board in the 1980s. The post-independence government of Ghana has progressively been more active in governing the shea trade for export. As with other state-controlled activities in agriculture, the chain was liberalised in the early 1990s and has since experienced a dynamic transformation process. Recent patterns of shea trade resemble those of the era of ‘legitimate trade’ in the 19th century facilitated by falling prices for container transport, the advent of the internet and mobile phones, and growing demand for raw materials by originally four (now three) global companies to meet consumer demand for chocolate, and to a lesser extent, cosmetic products.

5.1. Intensification and dismantling of public regulation by marketing boards

Global demand for shea nuts accelerated during the early 1970s as cocoa butter prices rose substantially and the use of CBEs became widespread in the chocolate industries of a number of European countries. Up to the mid-1980s, demand increased steadily despite fluctuating prices for cocoa butter at the turn of the decade. Demand was stimulated by the adoption of CBEs in chocolate production of the Eastern bloc countries and the success (primarily in the UK) of so-called ‘supercoating’ products – new confectionery chocolate-covered products in which all cocoa butter is replaced by CBEs (Talbot 2002).

The adoption of shea as an important ingredient in the CBE-industry served to maintain the oligopolistic structure in the industry as technological barriers to entry were high. Very few companies possessed the know-how necessary to extract the oil-fraction needed for further processing of tropical oils into CBEs. Four dominant companies exercised virtual monopolies in the national markets in which the use of CBEs was allowed, i.e. Unilever (through its subsidiary Looders Crookland) in the UK and Ireland, Aarhus Olie in Denmark, Karlshamm in Sweden and Fuji Oil in Japan. These four companies have dominated the industry ever since.35

From 1949, exports of shea nuts from Ghana have been controlled by different marketing boards (Chalfin 1996). During the last part of the 1980s (i.e. the period immediately before liberalisation) local trading operations and transportation were administered by the Produce Buying Company (PBC), the purchasing division of the Cocoa Marketing Board (now named Cocobod). Regulation of the national supply chain was partly carried out by the PBCs direct involvement in the purchase and logistics involved in export activities and partly by issuing licences to local traders who purchased and transported the kernels from local buyers/collectors to the ports. A particular relationship evolved over the years between the PBC and the largest local trading company. The latter started shea operations on a small scale already in the 1950s as a sideline to road construction. The company harnessed its relatively large fleet of construction vehicles to transport nuts from rural areas to the company premises in Tamale where nuts were cleaned, re-bagged, loaded on trucks and hauled by road to Tema for shipping. However, all loads were sold to the CMB in Tema and then re-purchased by the company through its London-based marketing office, who then in turn organised the shipping and sale to European CBE-manufacturers.

Apart from this ‘parasitic’ behaviour, the CMB was also engaged in the setting up of local procurement systems, particularly as part of a combined agricultural export diversification and rural development programme during the late 1980s (Chalfin 1996). Local female collectors (and processors) were organised in much the same way as was the case with male farmers in the cocoa chain. Village co-operatives and executive committees were established with the responsibility of securing supplies at fixed prices against a commission per bag. Further, nuts were to be bagged, stored and sold only to the PBC who then advanced cash – at least in the initial years of the campaign.

A prolonged period of declining cocoa prices from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s seriously affected the global CBE industry. Demand among chocolate producers fell revealing their preferences for real cocoa butter. A further blow came in the same period with the foreign exchange crisis of the Eastern Bloc countries, particularly Russia, which resulted in a sudden and dramatic loss of important markets. The long period with depressed and falling prices was reflected in the CBE manufactures’ efforts to defend their operating margins by squeezing the prices for raw materials.36

5.2. Liberalisation and consolidation of private regulation

In 1991 the Government of Ghana liberalised local trade and shea nut prices, as part of a series of World Bank-induced structural adjustment measures. However, as mentioned above, the time coincided with a period of low prices for shea nuts, largely due to the record low in cocoa prices. Restrictions on private company exports were completely removed and the national shea chain underwent a substantial structural change. This change in governance has progressively led to the consolidation of private interest groups along the shea commodity chain in an era dominated by market regulation. The PBC was severely reduced in size but allowed to continue purchasing and exporting shea nuts on market terms and conditions. The relatively large local trading companies which had previously operated under licensed conditions now started to exploit the benefits of unhindered access to collectors and industrial customers. Moreover, a bevy of hopeful individual entrepreneurs and small companies also started operations, some as newcomers to the business and some with experience gained from long-term (former) employment with the PBC. In addition, a couple of former parastatal companies engaged in agricultural input supply to rural communities started trading in shea nuts. The latter were able to exploit new possibilities of 1) barter trade as a lucrative alternative to trade in cash and 2) access to credit supplied by donors and financial institutions controlled by the government. Finally, a transnational trading company with experience and capacity to set up local purchasing operations ventured into the supply chain. This company was used to operating in West Africa, and to dealing with industrial customers in northern markets.

Until these events (i.e. the early 1990s), CBE-manufacturers were carrying stocks of up to one year, fearful of being caught short during periods with rapidly rising demand. However, the stagnating demand which has characterised the global market since the early 1990s has changed the whole supply and demand balance to such an extent that the chain is now clearly buyer-driven. CBE-manufacturers have been able to reduce stocks considerably and source sufficient volumes of shea nuts at very low prices. The developments during the last decade can best be characterised as a period during which CBE manufacturers have tried to organise new types of shea nut and shea butter supply chains in the exporting countries as part of the broader transition from state governance to market governance.

Concerning the situation in Ghana, available data indicate a period up to the late 1990s marked by constant flux of the different types of actors described above, who have been attracted, and subsequently expelled from the shea nut chain. Some constancy has remained notably in terms of the presence of a couple of companies, and the continuing role of women as low-paid harvesters of shea nuts, and producers of shea butter purchased by local bulking-up agents. By the mid-1990s, some evidence existed of the ability of former parastatals and PBC to muddle through and even accumulate capital by chameleonic transformations of organisational set-up (Chalfin 1996). These mutations of former public institutions constituted governance through opportunistic practice but was short-lived. By the end of the first decade after chain liberalisation it had become clear that only the transnational company and the well-established big local trading company had the necessary financial strength, organisational capacity and administrative competence to cope with high-volume trade in shea nuts. All other participants were either ousted from business or relegated to subsidiary positions as buying agents or brokers linked to these two companies (Fold 2004). The government of Ghana’s failure to regulate the shea commodity trade has effectively cemented the transition to governance by oligopoly.

Despite their differences the two large-scale trading companies have strikingly similar modes of operation consisting of a core group of purchasing agents supplemented by a group of loosely linked small and medium scale ‘independent’ traders. Both groups operate in geographically-distinct zones within northern Ghana and have specific target areas: the company-employed agents carry cash and exploit the ‘overseas’ areas with high potential but low-quality infrastructure whereas the traders deal with accessible communities in the vicinity, buy from local periodic markets, and resell their goods to the large companies. In essence, local traders or brokers are used as a kind of buffer in situations where contracts are difficult to fulfil via the companies’ own sourcing.

The two dominant companies are increasingly being challenged by the global CBE-manufacturers who continually attempt to set up alternative supply systems which evade middlemen, increase reliability or reduce logistical problems without tying capital in high sunk costs. These new struggles over market governance continue to develop although it remains unclear whether local women will continue, in the long-term, to be the main source of manually-processed shea butter. Of particular importance are efforts to combine new logistical systems with export of processed shea nuts (shea butter). The imports of processed nuts have several advantages for the CBE-manufacturer, including removal (at origin) of uncertainty about the extraction rate and quality of the oil, reduction of low-profit milling capacity, potential avoided costs of environmental regulation in Europe, and substantial reduction in transport costs.

To date, these recent initiatives have encountered numerous problems primarily linked to the technological and financial constraints of the two large-scale local trading companies and conflicts over price discounts due to the low quality of the shea butter. One of the CBE-manufacturers is now sourcing the lion’s share of their shea nuts from neighbouring Burkina Faso where the supply of nuts originating from Côte d’Ivoire has increased due to civil strife. Another CBE-manufacturer, Looders, is presently setting up a supply system based on local small-scale milling and processing of shea butter in northern Ghana in combination with a large-scale processing plant (Nioto) in Lomé, Togo. This dual approach may provide new opportunities for women producers to continue to supply the global export market. In addition, a newly established trading company owned by expatriate Ghanaians in partnership with local capital has been setup using the model of existing large-scale trading companies. Their organisation has been ‘extended’ by using Unilever’s tankers and storage facilities in Tema harbour. ‘Surplus’ nuts from the trading company are transported to the processing plant in Lomé.

Apart from large-scale company activities, foreign NGOs are also involved in efforts to stimulate exports of manually-processed shea butter in order to increase and diversify income opportunities of rural women (Fold 2002). These activities are the successors to previous and generally unsuccessful efforts to mediate, i.e. act like a broker, between rural womens’ groups and local NGOs on the one hand, and large scale trading companies and industrial customers on the other. Alternative cosmetic companies such as ‘The Body Shop’ and some small US-based firms are also involved in the commodity chain, purchasing butter from women’s groups in pre-selected villages (Jones 2002). Value added is potentially high in this business but so far volumes sold are very modest as the global shea demand for the cosmetics industry represents only ten per cent of the total export trade, now dominated by the CBE manufacturers.

5.3. Risks of disintegration

From a protectionist regime in the early post-independence period, the de-regulation and liberalisation of the Ghanaian shea commodity chain emerged in the early 1990s as part of the government’s structural adjustment programme. Since then the government of Ghana has progressively reinforced its ambitions to expand the shea nut trade as part of the State’s portfolio of ‘major non-traditional agricultural export commodities’ (ISSER 2003). This policy is embedded within the (now) dominant orthodoxy of neo-liberalism, which priviledges monetized production systems and private over public regulation. The dramatic and prolonged decrease of cocoa prices since the mid-1980s also led to cutbacks in activities carried out by former parastatals at a time when relatively stable supplies by far exceeded declining demand, resulting in an increasingly difficult domestic chain to manage, both economically and politically.

The dismantling of public regulation coincided with renewed ambitions concerning private regulation by transnational capital. Foreign large-scale trading companies have started multiple crop purchasing activities encompassing shea nuts. In addition, smaller and recently established foreign companies act as virtual buying arms for CBE manufacturers in the EU and Japan. During the final part of the 1990s, the CBE manufacturers manifested a growing interest in establishing primary processing facilities in the shea exporting countries. Furthermore, new modes of supply chain management by individual CBE-companies indicates a tendency toward regional patterns of organisation. The much improved physical and functional infrastructure in Ghana (and neighbouring countries) has served to make it possible to implement the more advanced logistical systems.

These tendencies may be considered, on the one hand, as an important step towards a vital and necessary upgrading of Ghana’s agro-industrial sector. Alternatively, it may be interpreted as a well orchestrated out-sourcing of low-profit functions by transnational capital to local companies. This may be accompanied by ‘environmental dumping’ through the disposal of toxic ‘cake’ left over from the oil milling process (Wardell et al. 2002b).

Demand in the global shea chain is driven by the opportunities to use cocoa butter equivalents in the confectionery industry, notably in the production of chocolate.37 Being a highly contested issue in the EU until recently, the complex conflict over taste, culture, ethics – and money – has been resolved by a Solomonic decision in EU legislation. The use of CBE in chocolate production is now legally adopted by all member countries and it is expected that the Codex Alimentarius will be changed accordingly. Hence, chocolate with CBE-content will most likely have legal access to all markets of the WTO member countries in the foreseeable future. Obviously, demand for shea products depends on consumption trends in the major emerging markets (China, Russia) and the more or less saturated markets (US, EU), but it is expected that demand will increase substantially – even though the scope is heavily influenced by the development of cocoa prices.

The cumulative impacts of increasing commercialisation and world market integration at the national and local level in Ghana and other West African producer countries are still unknown. There are, however, risks that the long-established local shea processing and marketing systems will disintegrate and possibly result in social differentiation, changes in household consumption patterns and loss of livelihoods, particularly for women. Already in 1924, the Superintendent of Agriculture and Forestry G.C. Coull made a perspicacious remark when he noted that “the collecting of shea kernels is entirely done by women”, but anticipated that this would alter “when it was found out that there was money to be made from shea kernels”.38 Whether or not the existing gendered control over the small- to medium-scale trade in shea products will change remains an open question for further research.

6. Conclusions

This paper has presented historical perspectives on changing governance of the shea trade in northern Ghana. The historical evidence suggests that the continuity, resilience and sovereignty of women’s shea production and trade in local and regional markets are now confronted with potential risks of disintegration associated with the contemporary wave of globalization due to growing global demand for CBEs.

The ebbs and flows of commodities dominating exchange in West Africa have been shaped for centuries by a complex web of social, cultural, religious, economic and ecological factors across the region. These, in turn, have been influenced by the broader influences of the world economy, progressive improvements in transport and communications technology, and the influences of fluctuating demand and commodity prices. A multitude of short distance commercial networks and longer distance trading relationships have continually forged linkages between local, regional, and international trade. Elaborate decentralised networks of commercial alliances have been maintained as trade routes have changed and new loci of commercial centres have emerged over the past two centuries.

The local and regional trade in shea kernels and shea butter has constituted part of this continuum even though it has repeatedly been challenged by global trading interests. The interpretation of this continuum as an incomplete and fragmented process (Trouillot 2001) helps us to recognise globalisation as one of a number of dynamic forces which influence decision-making by local resource users. As Jonathan Rigg and Sakunee Nattapoolwat have suggested – albeit in a different context – “Its (globalisation) role is contingent upon a mosaic of other factors so that the manner by which global opportunities intersect and impact with people’s lives is mediated through the local.’ (Rigg and Nattapoolwat 2001, 957). The dynamism and resilience of the shea trade has served both economic and social functions by spreading women’s labour demand in a harsh semi-arid environment. However, new global markets may change local and regional trading patterns in different ways. Some scholars have highlighted the persistence of internal trade in kola nuts in the region (Lovejoy 1980; see also Abaka 2005) which has failed to develop into an international market.

During the colonial era, many economic factors, limited demand in the metropole, no clear direction on how to govern the shea trade and competing interests of the colonial administration meant that, to all intents and purposes, little global trade in shea products occurred. Women producers remained very much in control of the local and regional shea trade. This was achieved by spreading labour demand for processing and selling of shea kernels throughout the year, and using the opportunities provided by an elaborate network of periodic markets and trade relays to the south and north of the new (colonial) border with Burkina Faso.

The anticipated growth in demand for cocoa butter equivalents in the global chocolate industry may affect these historically and culturally-embedded patterns of production and trade. The emergence of new processing technologies, and greater international demand may, ultimately, result in a progressive loss of autonomy amongst women shea producers and retailers. The control of production and marketing by women may be compromised as new middlemen, bulkers, and wholesalers enter the expanding export trade – most of whom are men. Although it remains unclear how, and to what extent, international capital will be deployed in the future development of the global shea commodity chain in Ghana, transferring low profit processing to West Africa may also transfer environmental problems whilst also providing (potential) opportunities to invest in improved environmental technologies.