“I consistently challenge the industry, and I can see that big corporations are now paying attention to small businesses.”
Born to Ghanaian parents and raised in the United States, the time she spent in West Africa helped her to connect with her roots. She lived in a remote village working in a pre-school and could finally see her mother's stories about Africa come to life.
The experience motivated her to start a business that would make a positive social impact through shea butter—which is critical to the livelihoods of many women across Africa.
Today, Rahama’s company, Shea Yeleen, distributes high-quality, unrefined shea butter products and improves women's access to living wage jobs.
To celebrate our new business service, we’re bringing you an exclusive interview with Rahama. We chatted to her about how she got started in the beauty industry and how her business benefits local communities.
Hi Rahama! Growing up in the USA, how did you stay connected to your Ghanaian heritage?
I feel very connected to my Ghanaian roots, but I have a perspective that is the result of my American upbringing.
My mother helped me to create a strong connection with our roots – from the food she cooked for us to the music we listened to.
Even though I didn’t grow up in Africa, I consider myself a Pan-African. I’ve felt like I'm home in every corner of Africa that I’ve visited.
The only thing that I missed out on is the native language - a feeling I’m sure that many people in the diaspora can relate to. My parents didn’t want to confuse me when I was a child, so they spoke only English to me.
You can’t live in Africa without being multilingual - my mom speaks at least five languages!
What makes you proud to be Ghanaian-American?
There is so much to be proud of. Did you know that Africans are the most educated immigrant group in the United States? Many are pursuing careers in fields like law or medicine.
I took a slightly different path when I chose entrepreneurship.
I had a dream to create market connections for women in rural communities, to add value to their lives and help them sell their products. And I accomplished all of that!
Why is shea butter special to people across Africa?
Producing shea butter is a respected way for women to generate income. They don’t need any external knowledge or equipment, because the know-how is handed down from mother to daughter.
Supporting these women and helping them to improve the process of producing shea butter helps them to create better lives for themselves and become independent.
That's why it means so much to me. I can see women sending their children to school, buying food, buying medicine and investing in their businesses. That’s something they couldn't do before.
The Shea Yeleen model is not only about creating shea butter; it’s also about helping women use a local resource as a stepping stone to build a better life.
What’s your vision for Shea Yeleen?
There are many issues with sourcing. As per standards, shea butter producers earn just $2 per day. It’s an irony that these women are the backbone of a multibillion-dollar industry!
Big corporations put the focus on the products, not on building the livelihoods of African producers. 90% of shea which enters the global market was not even produced on the continent. It’s being shipped off to large manufacturing facilities in Asia.
We do it differently. Our producers earn five times above the country's minimum wage.
The final product is made in Africa, but due to barriers and challenges, the packaging is completed in the USA. My vision is to build local distribution, including packaging, so the whole product can be made in Africa. I want people to use products which were produced in a place where you can find raw ingredients.
Back in 2013, I wanted to partner with larger companies to improve their supply chain, but they declined. However, I consistently challenge the industry, and I can see that these giant corporations are now paying attention to small businesses and starting to talk about sourcing ethically.
Today, Made-in-Africa products are on the rise. What is, in your opinion, the reason behind the growth of this trend?
I think it’s the diaspora! More and more people are moving back home, and they want to have access to the quality of products that they are used to. We are proud of our roots and products coming from our countries. The diaspora community are also becoming more entrepreneurial and play a key role in opening the market between countries.
Things are moving in Africa’s favour. Perceptions are changing and I am excited to see that fewer people think of Africans as ‘poor people who only need aid’, but instead are focused on building local solutions and realizing the market’s potential.
Being an entrepreneur isn’t an easy path. Can you tell us about some of the lows you’ve encountered on your journey?
You will never get to a place where it’s all peachy. There are new challenges in every level of entrepreneurship.
First, I had no business background. It took me seven years of odd jobs and sleeping on my friend’s couch to raise enough capital. And when I earned enough money, I couldn’t find the right people for my team!
I love what I do, and I have never worked this hard for anyone else. Unfortunately, being your own boss doesn't mean that you get to a point where you can put your feet up and relax. It means Monday to Sunday 80 hour weeks.
Also, starting a business in my early twenties didn't work in my favour. People were patronizing - they rejected my business idea and said that nobody would buy shea butter from women in Africa and that I would never be able to train local women to produce the quality needed to succeed in today’s market. For some, it was a way too big of a goal to achieve.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Align with those who share your values and believe in what you are doing. When I started, my resources were very limited. There is always something you won’t have access to, but you can always gain access to the right people.
Also, be patient. There are many misconceptions about how long it takes to build a sustainable and profitable company. You don't need to have a fully functioning profitable business within the first three years.
The example is an ethical cleaning supplies business called Seventh Generation. The CEO kept putting money into a dying business because he believed in it, even when nobody wanted to buy his products at the time. He was passionate and believed in his business. Eventually, he sold the company to Clorox for millions of dollars.
This example inspired me to ask myself the question: ‘Would I work on this and get nothing in return? If it’s only about giving women producers more visibility, is it worth it?’
And, the answer is yes.