Many people don’t think about where shea butter comes from when they glide their favorite shea product onto their skin or hair, but Rahama Wright thinks about it every day. As founder of Shea Yeleen International, the socially conscious leader has made a business out of her passion for helping female shea butter producers.
Growing up in upstate New York, Wright’s Ghanaian heritage influenced her interest in African-related issues. After working and volunteering in West Africa and drawing on her mother’s stories as an immigrant in the United States, Wright committed herself to making the invisible women behind shea butter production visible to the world.
With patience and relentless diligence, she has grown her company—which initially started as a non-profit—with Shea Yeleen soaps, lip balms, and body butters now available in over 40 Whole Food stores in the United States. In between meetings for the growing natural body care brand, Wright stopped to chat with BlackEnterprise.com about her career journey and commitment to women’s empowerment.
BlackEnterprise.com: What inspired you to use shea butter to empower women in West Africa?
Rahama Wright: It wasn’t until I did an internship at the American Embassy in Burkina Faso and started learning about income-generating activities for women in the Sahel region that I learned about shea butter. It struck me that this great product that was in so many mainstream haircare and skincare products came from this part of the world, yet there was a lack of visibility for the women producers in the marketplace.
After my internship, I served in the Peace Corps for two years in Mali, which was my first time living in a rural setting. Seeing a lot of the women in my community unable to send their kids to school or buy food or medicine made me want to do more than just say, ‘I served in the Peace Corps.’ So, I started researching income-generating activities for the women in my community, and shea butter came up again. When I returned to the U.S., I started Shea Yeleen to create a space that allowed market visibility for female shea producers.
Ghanaian artist Tafa has imbued his vibrant oil paintings with motion by stroking thick layers of paint across each canvas with a palette knife. Inspired by his West African heritage – especially the colors and patterns of Kente cloths and the rhythm of traditional drums – Tafa rose to prominence as an artist in his own country in the 1990s before moving to New York. His imagery encompasses sporting themes, as well as spirituality and music.
“I paint sports themes because they are a universal form of communication that is replete with powerful, multi-layered symbolism. Team sport fosters hard work, fraternity, excellence, and international understanding … It is an area of life that underlines Dr. Martin Luther King’s vision that people should be judged by the content of their character.” To see more of his inspiring works, click here.
Ghana’s Grace Amey-Obeng, one of West Africa’s most successful businesswomen, made her fortune promoting products which emphasised the beauty of the black skin, at a time when many of her competitors were selling dangerous skin-bleaching formulas.
The business empire she started a quarter of a century ago with around $100 (£63) now has an annual turnover of between $8m and $10m. Her FC Group of Companies – which includes a beauty clinic, a firm that supplies salon equipment and cosmetics, and a college – has eight branches in Ghana and exports to Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Togo, Ivory Coast, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.
Mrs Amey-Obeng has won dozens of accolades and industry awards for her skincare beauty products and marketing. But one of the things that make her especially proud is her FC Beauty College which, since its opening in 1999, has trained more than 5,000 young people, mostly women.
Born into a wealthy family, Alakija studied fashion design in England back in the ’80s and soon after founded the Nigerian clothing label Supreme Stitches. Her one-of-a-kind creations were worn by the who’s who of African society, quickly making her the premier fashion designer in the West African country. In fact, she has been called one of the “pioneers of Nigerian fashion” and stays connected to the industry through the Fashion Designers Association of Nigeria (FDAN). The well-heeled businesswoman and philanthropist made the switch to oil in 1993 and the rest is history. Ventures Africa reports that Alakija owns at least $100 million in real estate and a $46 million private jet.
Shaka Camera of Oakland has been a leather worker for over 43 years, specializing in hand stitched and hand tooled leather bags. His designs are earthy with a sophisticated touch – his bags practical yet unusual. Shaka’s pouches, purses, bags, even computer cases are embellished with beads, shells, silver and bronze acquired from his multiple trips to Africa.
Radiating from Burkina Faso in West Africa, where he has family, he collects beautiful objects for his finished work from the Baoule, Tuareg and Dogon people. The Tuareg of the Saharan interior of North Africa are well known for their fine silver jewelry.
Shaka may incorporate Tuareg crosses and cowry shells with other adornments in what he calls a “mixed Pan-African” esthetic. The Tuareg cross translates into a protective symbol and cowry shells, which were used for centuries as a currency in Africa, represent wealth, new growth and abundance. Carrying a bag with such adornments may have value beyond its beauty!
Shaka, whose company is Bogolani Designs, will show his work at the 42nd annual KPFA Crafts Fair on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 8 and 9, at the Concourse in San Francisco. His wife of 12 years, Amatula, will share his booth with her original clothing designs made with hand-woven fibers.