Creating Opportunity Justin McCarthy  | August 30, 2018

Natural Product, Global Impact: How Her Shea Butter Startup Helps Africa’s Female Farmers

Often, running a successful business means bridging a gap. In some cases, that may mean bridging a cultural or generational divide, or it may mean closing the geographic gap between your product and the customers who want that product around the world.

Naa-Sakle Akuete, the entrepreneur behind New York-based Naasakle International, has had to focus on all the challenges above, but the gap she’s most keen on closing is the socioeconomic one standing between many African women and well-paying employment opportunities.

“My mom helped build co-ops to give women the infrastructure to increase their bargaining power and learn about market dynamics,” says Akuete, whose mother Eugenia settled in the United States and started her own shea butter business after fleeing Ghana in the wake of a bloody coup in 1979. “She did this initially by selling a few pounds of shea butter at a time, and over the course of 15 years she became an expert in the space.”

And why shea butter? “It’s called ‘women’s gold’ in Ghana because of its moisturizing properties and its healing properties,” Naasakle says. “In the U.S., you often see a shea butter product with pictures of shea leaves on the design, and you flip it over and you find out shea is the 20th ingredient. We want to supply our customers with higher quality shea butter.”

Akuete followed in her mother’s footsteps and started her own shea butter enterprise in 2014, naming the company after her mom: Eu’Genia Shea. Last year, the firm merged with Naasakle International but maintained “Eu’Genia Shea” as the consumer-facing brand name. And staying true to her mother’s mission, the company, whose products can be found in stores like Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, today donates 15% of its profits back to Ghanaian female farmers in the form of an education fund.

While the company’s story is rooted in family history, Akuete has her sights firmly set on the future. We caught up with her to discuss her company’s origin story, lessons she has learned since starting the business, and picking needles out of a haystack during the hiring process.

Tell us a little bit about your company.

Essentially, we bridge the gap between rural shea pickers in northern Ghana, and global shea butter demand through two business lines. We have bulk shea butter by the ton as well as two lines of finished products. One line is called Eu’genia Shea, which is a luxury skin care line, and the other is called Mother Shea, which is the more affordable sister brand. Our supply chain is in Ghana, and the majority of our sales are in the U.S.

How did you get started?

My family is from Ghana. In 1979, my parents and two older brothers left Ghana because of a military coup, and they resettled in the U.S. In 2000, my mom returned to Ghana and rediscovered her love of shea butter. Shea butter is a product my mother was around a lot as a kid because my grandmother used a lot on babies and pregnant moms in her mid-wife practice.

One of the things my mom realized when she was back in Ghana is the geographic, social, and technological fragmentation of women in Africa. For example, in Kenya, one of the means by which farmers compare prices is text message. A lot of the women with whom we work don’t have text message—they don’t have phones. So it’s easy for them to be taken advantage of. Working with us gives them market access, so that they don’t have to be price takers.

My mom started a company focused on bulk distribution, Naasakle, that she named after me. Then 15 years later, we started Eu’Genia Shea, a line of finished products named after my mother (Eugenia)—it also means “the origin of goodness.” We want to supply consumers with highly-concentrated, high-quality shea butter. Our motto is “the more shea butter the better, but not all shea is created equally.” Last year, Eu’Genia Shea and Naasakle International merged.

How many full time employees do you staff?

Naasakle International has 40 full time staff, and all but 3 of them are in Ghana.

How does it impact your management style to have so many employees working (very) remotely?

It means that I have to rely a lot on the distribution of workflow and making sure that everybody understands their role. They can ask for help and advice if they want, but at the end of the day they’re accountable. Hopefully I’m empowering people to do their jobs well, without a ton of micromanaging.

What do you like about being a manager?

The best part of being a manager is being my manager. I live in New York, so I like not having to wake up every morning and put on a suit and take a train to midtown Manhattan. And I like having a job that’s directly impactful to other people. It’s a job that I can be proud of. Being a manager somewhere else would be less fulfilling. There’s tangible good that we’re doing, and the impact that our business is having on people’s lives is orders of magnitude bigger than it would be if I still worked in finance.

What’s the biggest challenge that comes up when hiring someone?

I think the biggest challenge is weeding through resumes. You put up a job posting and hundreds of people apply. Half of them don’t have the skill requirements or live in the region. Or they don’t fit the bill for any number of reasons. But you still have to look through them all to find the right one! Picking needles out of a haystack is hard.

The second challenge is finding the right cultural fit. The person who is smartest or most experienced on paper isn’t necessarily the one who will jive with the team the best. Although it’s tempting to just hire the person with the best pedigree, it’s not always a good idea.

Are there lessons you’ve learned in running your business that you wish you had known when you were starting out?

Fail fast, and often. Some people tend to be perfectionists, and won’t let a product out into the world if it isn’t 100% right. But that means they don’t really know what’s wrong with it either, because they haven’t put it in front of consumers to test. By putting it out there you learn what you may have done wrong, and you can fix it faster.

And also, take help if people offer it. A ton of people have offered me help. At first I was like, “no thank you, that’s so sweet.” But they wouldn’t offer if they didn’t mean it. And if they did offer and didn’t mean it, they’ll flake out soon enough [laughs].

One more thing: I’ve found that it’s important to ground the theoretical in the practical. When I first started, I built out a model that included a specific per kg shipping price. The price made sense in the model world. But then, I made an order for packaging, and got the bill. It was like $13,000. It made sense in the model, and on a per-unit basis. But $13,000 was too much for me to spend at that time. I just wasn’t thinking about what the numbers meant in real life! Which is obviously really important.

What’s next for Naasakle International?

My goal is to keep gaining traction with consumers both on our e-commerce platform as well as with retailers. Right now we’re in Anthropologie nationally, and we just launched with Urban Outfitters online as well as select natural beauty boutiques, Credo Beauty and The Detox Market. We’re courting more mass retailers and hoping to increase our reach.

On the bulk side, I want our company to be synonymous with high-quality shea butter. On the finished goods side, our company mission is to support as many women as possible as holistically as possible. That means not providing 1000 women with a sleeping mat, but 50-100 women with healthcare, and a retirement fund, and education for their kids. A more comprehensive set of benefits. I think the best way to do that is to provide a really high-quality product to as many consumers as possible.