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February 5, 2016 Calgary Zoo

Wechiau Adventures

Andrea Brussa travelled to Ghana, to witness the impact that various conservation projects have left on the community of Wechiau.

Editor’s Note: In August, Andrea Brussa and Dr. Clément Lanthier, President and CEO Calgary Zoo, travelled to Ghana, to witness the impact that various conservation projects have left on the community of Wechiau. Now that Andrea has had time to reflect on her African adventure, we thought we’d check back with the local philanthropist for an update — the second installment of a two-part series. [Those who missed Part I can read it here.]

Flying by the seat of your pants is a quintessential part of the traveller’s act and art. Being a veteran traveller means Andrea Brussa knows what it’s like when reality tilts and teeters and you’re confronted with something entirely unexpected—such as the day back in August, when hundreds of locals jogged down the main street in Wechiau to meet her.

Brussa and Clement Lanthier were fully expecting some hoopla at the official opening of the organic shea butter processing factory, which Brussa’s donations have helped fund, but they had no idea that there would be a full-blown procession that would start the moment they arrived in Wechiau.

“I had no real clue of the impact the shea butter factory was having on these villagers,” admits Brussa, “until I saw people dancing and swaying and coming towards me. Truly, it was one of the great highlights of my life.”

With little kids tugging their hands, Brussa and Lanthier were led to the chief’s palace where the 16-year-old partnership between the Calgary Zoo and Wechiau were saluted.  What began in 1998 as a conservation project, first created to protect hippos on this section of the Black Volta River, has expanded to include boreholes, solar lights, scholarship programs, school buildings—with the latest development resulting in a shea butter factory. However, the visit with the chief and other dignitaries was just a little warm-up for next day’s “official” opening of the factory. That’s when some 400 people turned up in full Ghanian regalia ready to dance, sing, play instruments and present the Calgary visitors with gourds of creamy, rich shea butter. Numerous speeches were given before the duo were given an in-depth tour of the factory that now employs hundreds of women from 17 communities.

“The moment that really caught me off guard was when I began to deliver my speech,” admits Brussa, months later. “Hundreds of women stood up to salute me . . . I don’t think I’ve ever felt the bond of sisterhood that intensely before.”

That’s when Brussa realized her philanthropic efforts, which began eight years ago, have now changed the gender roles in the entire area.

“This factory has given women a voice and power,” explains Brussa, adding the factory almost exclusively employs women.

Andrea Brussa is given a demonstration in the sorting and sifting stage of shea butter production, before the nuts leave this area to get roasted, pressed, kneaded and then whipped into butter — a 22-step process, in all.

Andrea Brussa is given a demonstration in the sorting and sifting stage of shea butter production, before the nuts leave this area to get roasted, pressed, kneaded and then whipped into butter — a 22-step process, in all.

The shea tree grows across a wide swath of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia and Uganda, comprising about 500 million trees. Its fruit is gathered from the wild and is highly valued by local communities, not only for the economic and dietary value of the cooking oil, but also for the fruit pulp, bark, roots and leaves, which are used in traditional medicines and for the wood and charcoal, used for building and cooking.

The production of shea butter is an important income earning activity for many rural women in northern Ghana and for some it is their only source of income. Traditionally, women have dominated the extraction process, right from the arduous collection of shea nuts to its final processing into shea butter. However, their participation has remained restricted to local markets, while the men had garnered the large export market to Europe for the cosmetic industry. The factory in Wechiau was engineered to bypass some of the costly middlemen, with greater shares reaching the women who produce it. This empowerment process is what Brussa witnessed which is why she has decided to further support the project.

“I’d love to see the factory grow and become even stronger,” adds Brussa. “We may look at building staff quarters, supplying these women with uniforms, improving the efficiency of machines, building in more safety measures — and perhaps even expanding the operation as so many villages that rely on tourism dollars need a secondary income, precisely what we’ve done in Wechiau.”

When an organization such as the Calgary Zoo fully invests in a community such as Wechiau the results can be ground-breaking and sustainable.

“What began as a conservation effort to save the hippos has grown to include an empowerment and employment project for women,” says Brussa. “What we are doing in Wechiau is building a legacy and I am so thrilled to be able to lend a helping hand.”

Andrea in front of a package of creamy, refined shea butter produced in Wechiau’s new factory.

Andrea in front of a package of creamy, refined shea butter produced in Wechiau’s new factory.

If you’re interested in learning how you can help in Wechiau or support our other conservation projects, click here.


Comment (1)

  1. Becky

    This is a cool initiative, will be wonderful to hear how further community-based participatory development can fuel capacity building, leadership, and greater conservation in the area. Please keep us informed of the progress. It would be wonderful to see the Calgary Zoo integrate more human dimensions into the conservation work, even within the Zoo itself – many amazing local people, knowledge systems, projects could be incorporated.

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