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Women growing a community: “Together, we have more power”

16th May 2024

Shea tree leaves blow softly in the warm breeze, brightly coloured birds glide between the canopies searching for breakfast. It’s early morning in Koulpellé, a small village in the Centre-Sud region of Burkina Faso. The sun isn’t at its highest yet, but temperatures are already reaching 30 degrees.  

One by one women arrive on bicycles, pitching them up under the shade of a nearby tree. They gather outside a shea processing plant, their colourful clothing standing out against the dry and dusty backdrop. Despite the early start, the energy amongst this group of women is as vibrant as their clothes.

Awa Convolbo is the president of the Laguem Taab la Panga cooperative. She also heads up the union – a collective of 22 women’s cooperatives in the area, all creating non-timber products from the forest’s resources. At just 37, she is considered a young leader here. However, her age is no barrier to respect and admiration from the other women. 

“There are some women in the association who are older than me, but I am the leader and they have accepted me, for good work and results in the association,” she explains.  

Building women-led enterprises

Awa Convolbo, president of the women's union in Koulpelle, Burkina Faso. She is standing at the entrance to the shea warehouse, and she is wearing a bright blue dress and headscarf. She is smiling at the camera.Awa Convolbo outside the shea warehouse, Koulpellé. All photos by Martha Tadesse.

The union was created in 2019 as part of Tree Aid’s forest governance project, where we are supporting communities to develop forest management plans, build water-conserving boulis, and set up enterprise groups to sell non-timber forest products like shea butter.  

When they work together in this way, women can earn a sustainable, reliable income and support each other to thrive. “It is a big union, so we build cohesion within the society,” says Awa. “We give each other advice about family life, we are together to protect the forest and the [shea processing] unit allowed us to get money for health and food in our families. With the creation of the union, it is very important. The communities are sensitised on protecting forests and the cohesion between women.” 

Transforming shea and lives

The shea butter they produce is such good quality, it’s gained organic certification. It’s sold in natural health shops in Burkina Faso’s capital city Ouagadougou, sought after for its anti-inflammatory and healing properties. 

Being part of a union and having the tools and training to produce more shea butter and take care of the trees that provide the shea nuts has given them more security. "Together we have more power,” says Fatimata Ilboudo, fellow cooperative member.  

“When I was in the association, we didn’t have the possibility or power to make something big. But now, in the union, we have the capacity to work more and get more benefits. With the shea butter transformation, if you are alone, you cannot transform as much as when we are working together.” 

Fostering community cohesion 

Close up of Awa's hands holding shea nuts

There is a palpable sense of community amongst these women despite their different backgrounds and circumstances. Some of the women here have been displaced, fleeing conflict and violence that is increasing in other regions of Burkina Faso. But as Fatimata explains, their strife is the collective’s strife: “They are in a sad situation, and we didn’t want to leave them in that situation. If it was me, I would want other people to support me.  

“We are together, and we have to help each other to make life better. We support them to get out of this sad situation. We are very happy to be with them. When there is something wrong, they call immediately for us to come and be with them.” 

Communities capturing carbon

Fatimata Ilboudo, 34, a member of the women's cooperative producing shea butter in Koulpellé, photographed with her son Faisatou Tiendrebeogo, 1 year old. She is wearing an orange leopard print headscarf, and her son is wearing a bright orange bodywarmer.Fatimata Ilboudo, 34, and her 1-year-old son Faisatou Tiendrebeogo. 

Building on the work of the forest governance project, communities here and across 37 forest sites, covering 30,000 acres, will also benefit as part of the Tond Tenga project, a pioneering model that will contribute to the Great Green Wall by regreening degraded lands, capturing CO2, and giving local communities direct access to a share of income generated from the sale of carbon credits.  

“The forest is life,” says Awa. “Trees protect the environment against climate change. The trees help us to get many things – shea nuts come from the forest; baobab leaves come from the forest. All of these things help us to have good health and food. The forest is so important to us.” 

The power of paying it forward

Both Awa and Fatimata believe it is important that more communities can have the opportunities they have had to improve their lives and build better futures for their families. They see the power of paying it forward. “My hope is my children can support other people in their lives, generation by generation supporting each other,” Fatimata says.  

Awa agrees. “Today, we have the support of other people in our associations,” she says. “My hope for my children is that they will also support other people to develop. I hope that my children have the capacity to help other people.” 

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