Can ICT’s really preserve tradition?

Introduction to Shea’s intersection with ICT implementation

Imagine you go to your nearby drugstore to pick up some tissue as you’ve come down with a terrible cold. Your nose is raw from blowing it so much already so you check out the options: regular tissue, 2ply, aloe-infused or tissue with shea butter. You choose the last option. Moving on to the soap & shampoo aisle you notice a shea option again, and shampoo again, lotion again, face wash again. Shea seems to be in every cosmetic option in the drug store, but what does it mean to have such readily available access to an ingredient native to Africa, spanning a variety of products in a drugstore in Canada? What are the implications of this type of globalization for the communities that this ingredient is native to and to the people that process it?
Shea, is the nut that you find in shampoos, lotions, and soap and it has the potential to improve the lives of women and promote development in rural Africa. Unfortunately, the industry isn’t being accessed by African women to the extent that it could be because of a lack of technological resources that would make the local industries competitive enough to bring in a sustainable income. However, Shea harvesting was traditionally a female practice done in Africa. The commodification of the industry caused it to become heavily controlled by patriarchal influences as women were pushed out of the labor market.
This paper will examine how ICT’s have affected female participation in the labor market in rural Africa throughout the past five years and the ways in which future strategies can be implemented to increase women’s ability to support themselves. This paper will take into consideration the pressures of the Shea butter industry and it’s lack of female participation, and will make well-rounded suggestions for its future development. Three areas are flagged that could be improved by the implementation of ICT’s. Main focuses include: concepts of education, recording, and sharing. An examination of how the use of ICT’s can enhance education, recording and sharing to support women in participating in the global Shea market is provided through the lens of a case study on women in Burkina Faso. The case study focuses on preserving the culture of shea butter processing and tracking processes to create access for future generations.
Suggestions for development in this paper take into account the current state of female participation in Africa’s labor market and the factors influencing the state of low participation. The extent that ICT technologies can improve levels of female participation, as well as the dangers that may accompany such implementation, will be evaluated to determine the level of value that ICT’s may have on women in the labor market. The social implications surrounding ICT implementation are considered to avoid developing a technologically deterministic outlook when conducting future research.

2. Pressures and urgency towards female marketplace integration in rural Africa for the betterment of the lives of women

Obstacles for women entering the Shea butter industry include patriarchal pressure. Practices that were historically and culturally female are now being taken over by men as these industries become commodified. “Shea is a traditional gender-selective crop; it has the potential to provide value addition for women and the means to improve their livelihoods resulting in the promotion of rural development.” (Bello-Bravo 2015). This pushes women out of traditional roles due to the increase in the global popularity of specific goods, such as Shea butter. The findings of Julia Bello-Bravo in The Evolution of Shea Butter, further support this position stating that “men may preferentially want to control exported commodities.” (Bello-Bravo 2015). Women are not able to participate in markets that make up the majority percentage of income in the regions of rural Africa, even if the industry commodified was traditionally a female practice. Men that are competing with women in the shea industry are stated to not “select high-quality nuts nor do they put their harvest through the necessary pre-transformation steps to prevent nut germination. The deepening demand for nuts has thus adversely affected nut and butter quality” (Bliss and Gaesing 1992, in Boffa 1999). This exemplifies how the dissolving of female tradition can have adverse negative effects on entire industries and marks a need for furthered education, sharing and recording processes for women that can be amplified through proper integration of ICT’s into Shea nut collection and processing.
The low state of female participation in the workforce has further been flagged for concern by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and Africa’s Agenda 2063. Women rank number one on issues to consider in Africa’s Agenda 2063 followed by “peace, youth, technology, trade, gender, education, governance, infrastructure and inclusiveness” (UN 2015). Nhamo reports that “the global leaders committed and reaffirmed their strong commitment to supporting Africa’s growth and development agenda” (Nhamo 2017) putting the sustainable development of African women’s well being, in relation to furthering participation in the labor market, at the forefront of global issues which gives an impetus to the overall urgency of this topic.

3. Understanding cultural context and supporting female empowerment to create long-lasting change with the implementation of ICT’s

The work of Annie Webb states the importance of implementing ICT’s with the context of improving female empowerment. She states that “availability of information and communication technology (ICT) does not ensure equitable access and gender equality” (Webb 2016). If the implementation of ICT’s does not have a clear focus on female empowerment, the availability of ICT’s to women may be overlooked and not contribute to making long-term changes in the labor distribution infrastructure.
Women are not able to participate in markets that make up the majority percentage of income in the regions of rural Africa, even if the industry commodified was traditionally a female practice. This is due to male domination of the increasingly competitive industry and lack of access to best practices that would make the women’s work competitive in the global industry. Instead of working in the Shea market, Women in Africa “constitute the majority of the workforce in unpaid household labor” (Uchenna 2018) Uchenna goes on to state that this phenomenon attributes to the gap in gender distribution of work in rural Africa. It is important to consider this when adopting principles that may aid in development. Bypassing this historical background ignores women’s cultural contexts and therefore will not be effective in bringing about long-lasting and impactful change by means of implementing ICT’s.
Globalization has pushed the market into other areas of the world as shea butter is exported to other marketplaces where it gets extracted, purified and converted. The current global shea value stands at more than 3.8 billion dollars, but this money is not being poured back into African communities, and furthermore, the distribution of the industry isn’t allowing African women to partake in the workforce to preserve tradition and sustain their families. It is even stated that “Major shea-producing countries are among the poorest in the world” (Elias 2007). So how can women in rural Africa mobilize without an external force to preserve tradition? This question is looked at through the participatory paradigm to ensure a bottom-up approach to development which will aid in the preservation of tradition.

4. Leveraging the participatory paradigm to ensure female empowerment, preservation of tradition and long-lasting development

The participatory paradigm is defined as using “participatory communication techniques to achieve social change at the individual level to bring about changes in behavior, belief, and attitude.” (Dutta 2011). The use of the participatory paradigm as a lens to understand this issue is beneficial because it focuses upon the participation of the community of women which is fundamental in preserving culture as it differs from the implementation of western aid and, in turn, western ideals. This theory is described by Melkote as occurring in the development of a “citizen sector” (Melkote 2015). The citizen sector works together as a bottom-up approach to creating social change (Dutta 2011). The use of this paradigm puts a focus on the effects of the implementation of ICT’s and will evaluate to what effect they serve the purposes of the participatory paradigm. ICT’s under this paradigm should act as a bridge to education to further the quality of life, create safe working conditions and preserve traditional practices such as the traditional production of Shea butter done by women within the community.
The importance of preserving culture through the participatory paradigm will be beneficial in aiding in the shea butter market as social change will be made from within the community and not rely on external forces (Sparks 2007). “Women need information about best practices for storage if they are not going to process the nuts right away. They also need information about fair market prices at which to sell the kernels or the processed shea butter in the local markets, or to agents or international traders” (Bello-Bravo 2015).
The thought of implementing ICT’s from the perspective of the participatory paradigm is that the implementation of these technologies will act as a bridge to education to further the quality of life, create safe working conditions and preserve traditional practices such as the production of Shea butter done by women within the community. These goals differ from the goals that would be in focus of implementing ICT’s under the dominant paradigm as the main goal of the modernist perspective is the growth of capital.
Understanding the importance of tradition in relation to this topic puts the participatory perspective at the forefront of development paradigms, as opposing theories such as the imperialism paradigm, focuses on “changing people without recognizing that they lived in circumstances that constrained their freedom of action” (Sparks 2007). This highlights a major issue of this paradigm that arises when it is applied to the idea of how ICT’s can benefit African women in the labor market. The research that is being framed around this subject places importance on understanding the ways in which a return to traditional practices through the use of ICT’s will bring women back into the labor market, educate women on traditional practices, record information about practices and pass along information to the workforce and the future workforces in the same field.
Schiller further explains the imperialism paradigm to be a fully western commercial communication means of portraying messaging through the channels of “education and cultural systems” (Sparks 2007). As the channels of education and cultural preservation are vital in the return of the Shea butter as a traditional practice to African women to aid in supporting themselves and their family, it would appear counter to implement western ideas through media upon culture and education. Instead, the subaltern study should be applied to the participatory paradigm as a means of viewing the subject to ensure the protection of traditional practices.
The “primary concern of the subaltern study is to restore the history and recover the subaltern consciousness” (Dutta 2011). This is seen as an alternative discourse and is important to apply to the participatory paradigm as a means of “uncovering the marginalized” (Dutta 2011). This directly relates to the uncovering of traditional practices of women in Africa such as in Shea Butter production and can be applied to the implementation of ICT’s to aid in this process.

5. Applying theory to reality- a case study of Shea butter sales from women in Burkina Faso

The case study from 2007 in Burkina Faso, examines how women boosted Shea butter sales by doubling their original amount of profit. Burkina Faso was chosen for the case study as “shea nuts rank fourth among national export commodities” (Elias 2016). This case study can be used to extrapolate a view of how women can interact with ICT’s in the Shea butter industry throughout Burkina Faso and other rural areas in Africa. The ICT’s used in the case study are defined as “cell phones, computers, internet, email, and GPS”. (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). Using the participatory paradigm, this case study can be utilized to examine how the areas of education, recording, and sharing are affected by the use of ICT’s in relation to the Shea butter market, to improve the lives of women.

5.1 Education with ICT’s

ICT’s can be used as a tool for education to increase female participation and overall well-being in the workforce. This work is outlined by Asongua and revolves around “the synergy effects of governance in mobile phone penetration for inclusive human development in Sub-Saharan Africa” (Asongua 2016). Improvement of female participation with the use of these ICT’s and the relationship to closing the gender gap in the labor market is stated as two major benefits that will come as a result of the implementation of ICT’s and are stated to include “improvement of corporate management” and “reduction of the gender gap” (Asongua 2016).
The focus on education first begins with an education of the technology being used, before it is even able to be applied to the realm of accessing information. It is stated that women in the case study “dismantled a computer to literally see how it works. They then learned about computer maintenance and data processing. ‘Each training is followed by lots of practical exercises so that the participants can memorize what they have learned,’” (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). This understanding of the technology is fundamental to aiding in a participatory approach to this issue, as it is giving women the autonomy to understand and control the technology that they are utilizing. This will ensure that women aren’t reliant on a gatekeeper if the technology needs fixing or if a problem occurs during usage, allowing for a truly bottom-up approach to using the technology within the application to the Shea butter business.
Furthermore, an understanding of the ICT’s themselves will help develop knowledge surrounding the positive and negative ways that an individual interacts with technology. As the technology defined to be ICT’s in this report is not made in Africa, the technology may not represent the entirety of the people using it or the practices it is used for. Mark O’Connell for the New Yorker magazine provides a succinct statement on the problems with using technology but not understanding it and states on the basis of phones and laptops that “I don’t understand them; I just use them. (And perhaps one of the effects of not understanding them, of just using them, is not understanding the extent to which I am used by them.)” (O’Conell 2014) A thorough understanding of how the utilized technology is made will allow users to leverage the technology while understanding how it does and does not represent them and how this interacts with the ways that the technology uses them and the way that they use technology.
Education through the use of ICT’s is further affected by how women are able to access information. The women in the case study state that “‘Thanks to ICTs, we are always informed about the various promotional and sales fairs and can attend regional and international meetings to promote and sell our products.” (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). The use of ICT’s to access this information allows equal access to information that is available to the larger Western Shea butter industry, helping these women’s businesses to become competitive in the marketplace.
With readily available access to information through the internet via ICT’s, the concept of integrating digital literacy and how women interact with the technology should be designed to promote women in business and to protect them from exploitation. The case study states that “apart from technical training linked to the production of shea butter, Songtaaba provides women with courses in business management and literacy. So far, the organization has built women literacy centers in ten of the villages it works in.” (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). An integration of digital literacy should be woven into the regular teachings of literacy in these schools. As the women utilize the internet and learn about best practices they can then obtain a space on the internet for their website. Women should understand the fundamentals of not only how computers work but also algorithms and the importance of social media. Without the implementation of digital literacy into these training programs, the women may be left vulnerable to surveillance and their privacy or freedom may become threatened.
This lack of digital literacy may threaten the participatory paradigm that was in place to protect the traditional practices of Shea processing when using ICT’s to access education. Exploitation of the women in this case study, through internet, is highly possible. Fuch’s states that the public sphere created by the internet is aimed at the privileged and wealthy. (in what way?) So what are the effects of a marginalized community accessing this semi-public space? It is possible that the information that is being sought out by the women on best practices for Shea butter processing may all be in English or a language that they don’t understand. The pressure to be competitive in the industry may cause women to adapt to primarily reading in a language other than their native tongue, causing their historical and cultural contexts to fade away. A primary drive in conducting this research is to evaluate practices on their ability to preserve tradition while also providing education, thereby attributing to women’s greater sense of being. Therefore, acknowledging the importance of a need for digital literacy and the threat that comes with a loss of tradition is vital in assessing the effects of ICT’s on African women in the Shea butter industry.

5.2 Sharing with ICT’s

The subject of sharing through the use of ICT’s is explained in the case study of the Burkina Faso women through the use of their own website. The website launched two years ago and is said to have been “particularly successful in boosting the visibility of the products” (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). Created using the basis of a solid education on how the technology works, the women are able to “manage and update” the site themselves (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). This is a fundamental aspect of the participatory paradigms approach to this subject because the women control their website themselves. This places an importance on the participation of the women within the business rather than those women seeking third-party aid or contracting outside sources to run the website. Due to the autonomy of controlling and leveraging the site, the products were able to be shared to a wider audience and is stated to have brought in a 70% increase in online orders (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007).
However, exploitation from a collectible amount of data produced on the internet by the women in the Shea butter business is a concern of the businesses online presence. “Owners of idle capital seek “to release a set of assets (including labor power) at very low (and in some instances zero) cost. Over-accumulated capital can seize hold of such assets and immediately turn them to profitable use” (Harvey, 2005, page 149). This concept is important to remember in relation to understanding who the buyer is. Songtaaba states that online orders increase 70% but it is not recorded whether or not these customers were larger Shea conglomerates buying the harvested butter for less, remarketing it and selling it for more.
Exploitation of labor is made easy through the global digital economy that serves up a surplus of workers bidding for the lowest price under pressure from larger conglomerates only giving “jobs” to the cheapest bids. Casilli states that this “leads to workers’ loss of bargaining power, to workers’ underbidding, and to dangerous race to the bottom dynamics. The “opportunities” promised by digital platforms result in ever-increasing unpaid/underpaid value extraction from individual users who find themselves exposed to market volatility”. (Casilli 2016). These factors are cause for concern. Is the sharing of the Shea butter website attracting international customers and is it really beneficial overall to the well being of these women?
The concept of sharing is further included in how the women in the case study distribute the technology within the business. The women state that “To speed up their internal communication, the Songtaaba women of each village share a cell phone with which they communicate”. (“Rural Women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). This concept of sharing the technologies themselves would be beneficial in a larger scheme for female participants in the Shea labor market if sharing of technology could work as cooperative. This concept works in conjunction with what Trebor Shultz defines as “platform cooperativism” (Shultz 2016). The hub of technological resources for women in the Shea industry could be ‘city owned’ with the notion that access to technology would further boost the economy of, in this case, the Burkina Faso region and other regions in rural Africa that the Shea industry is located in. However, to keep true to a participatory approach to development on this issue, it would be ideal if the technology hubs were cooperatively owned between the women to avoid any economic pressure put on the women from governmental or third-party sources and support a “rejection of excessive workplace surveillance” (Shultz 2016). The benefits of a technological cooperative owned solely by women in the Shea butter industry exemplifies a bottom-up approach to using ICT’s for development that could benefit in increased privacy, decreased third-party pressures and an increase in social interactions of knowledge-sharing that will attribute to the betterment of the lives of women working in the industry.

5.3 Recording and ICT’s

Recording as a means to create access for future generations and others in the industry is a cornerstone of applying the participatory paradigm to this idea of development. The women in the participating case study state that they utilize GPS technology “to locate purely organic shea kernels, sesame seeds and groundnut” (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007). The practice of using technology to track and record which trees are optimal for the Shea nut processing can be extracted and used again for future generations of women that will have an easier time accessing the best trees. This can, in turn, lower the generational knowledge gap of this traditional practice to preserve it for years to come.
In conjunction with the concept of sharing, recording these best practices for the purpose of future sharing has been stated to be important by a case study of male and female Shea butter knowledge and management lead in 2015. “Sharing of knowledge about valuable natural resources may hold greater significance for achieving resilient resource management strategies that has been described in previous works on African agroforestry” (Elias 2015). This type of resiliency is seen through generation ties as “the process of rendering butter from shea nuts represents an ancient knowledge system that has been passed on generationally from mother to daughter.” (Elias 2007). By creating knowledge production through recording with the use of ICT’s, the Shea industry will provide better practices to be passed along the female lines of families to improve the lives of many women.

6. Evaluating variables

The Songtaaba women state that “knowing how to use a computer and email has put (them) on equal footing with people living in the city. ‘People from the cities start acknowledging the work we women in rural areas do,’ (“Rural women in Burkina Faso”, 2007), but can the Songtaaba women’s positive outlook on ICT integration into the development of their business be extrapolated into the larger Shea industry for African women and be taken as the truth? Or do the negative impacts on tradition and privacy through exploitation outweigh the benefits? Antonio Casilli in ‘Is There a Digital Labour Economy’ states that “On the one side, it can be maintained that one-to-one communication on platforms would empower users in developing countries by putting them on an equal footing with their counterparts in the global North.” Casilli goes on to state that ‘In local hierarchies, gatekeepers “re-intermediate”’ causing the workers in developing countries to be the “last link” in the labor chain (Casilli 2016). Despite the possibility of being the last link in the global economy chain of Shea butter, a focus on whether or not ICT’s can positively impact the lives of women through education, sharing and recording has evidence that supports this theory. Through access to better practices from education, an increase in generational resiliency through recording and furthered exposure of products to the global market through online sharing, ICT’s integration into the Shea production industry through the participatory paradigm has the ability to better the lives of women.

7. Conclusion

Women in Rural Africa’s Shea butter industry need a focus on development to be rooted in an understanding of the ways in which a return to traditional practices through the modern use of ICT’s will bring women back into the labor market. Education for traditional practices, and recording information about these practices will allow for information to be shared in the workforce and the future workforces in the same field. Through an evaluation of the cultural and historical context of women in rural Africa, best practices for the ICT integration in the Shea industry were approached through the participatory paradigm. It was suggested that the betterment of women’s lives could be aided by using the ICT’s to improve education, recording, and sharing. A self-owned women-based cooperative for sharing technology between each other was suggested and a case study of Burkina Faso was leveraged to understand the implications that ICT integration may have on the community and the individual. The implications that globalization of the Shea industry has had a negative impact on women’s traditional practices such as increasing competition and patriarchal pressure. These impacts have driven the
argument. Overall, integration of ICTs into the Shea production market can have positive effects towards the betterment of the lives of women by improving education as well as sharing and recording data that will have long-lasting effects on the community of female shea producers, individual producers and future generations of Shea butter producers.

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