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Shea’s A Force

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Unrefined shea butter imported from Africa is in high demand these days by skincare manufacturers worldwide. But few companies that create products made with the in-demand raw materials are certified for quality control – Amina Gerba’s Kariderm was the first.

Her cosmetics line is one of three businesses the native Cameroonian launched in her adopted Canada homeland, which includes Kariliss that distributes haircare products made with shea butter, and Afrique Expansion, a public relations and consulting firm that promotes a coming together of Africa and the Americas.

Likewise, Gerba’s Africa Business Forum a gathering of more than 500 business leaders – is held biennially in Canada to promote Africa as a destination for North American investors.

“I immigrated to Quebec for school from my home in Bafia – the only girl of 19 children in my family who had a chance to go,” states Gerba.

“I never expected to stay. But it was during my studies that I noticed the potential of Africa was not highlighted.”

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A 1996 visit to Burkina Faso inspired Gerba to visit the Songtaaba Cooperative, an association of women producers of raw shea butter. A chance meeting with the president of the co-op resulted in a partnership where she was entrusted to promote their raw material worldwide.

“We started small, importing just a few kilograms of shea butter for our line of products. We soon realized that the quality of the material was not perfect,” she explains. “There were a lot of impurities that generated waste. To remedy the situation, we sent one of our trainee engineers from Ontario to help the association improve the quality of their production. After three years of technical assistance and supervision, we managed to obtain the organic certification for the shea butter, and ultimately grew the co-op from 20 to more than 2,000 women producers.”

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Gerba’s fair trade skin and haircare ventures are not only profitable for the cooperative – with a percentage of sales going directly to the producers – they also have a social component.

“Through Kariderm Social Funds, we’ve financed a nursery inside the premises of the cooperative that offers first aid material, medical drugs, and is managed by a professional nurse specially recruited to take care of the co-op members and their families,” she says.

“A vast majority of women there still do not benefit from any social or private insurance coverage for their health needs, and they only see a doctor at the latest possible stage of illness. So, we’ve also put health insurance systems in place which cover the basic drug needs of participating women.”

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Giving back and supporting women entrepreneurs in Africa is a priority for this diasporan.

“It’s clear to me the economic empowerment of women is the only way for African women to aspire to gender equality. To do so, they must first have access to education and then have the financial resources to assume their family responsibilities and ensure their economic inclusion in society.”

For her part, she created, with her daughters, The Gerba Foundation, a not-for-profit whose mission is to facilitate access to schooling for children from underprivileged communities in Africa.

“I am living proof of the impact education can have on a girl’s life. It’s what gave me all of my chances today, to evolve in a world of men and negotiate fairly with them.” – Written by Shirley Neal

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