l’Occitane en provence, improving the lives of women

BCtA Breakthrough Series

In July 2014 Tom Harrison interviewed Justine Humbert of L’OCCITANE EN PROVENCE (L’OCCITANE). L’OCCITANE products range from skincare to home fragrances. All are manufactured using natural ingredients, primarily from Provence. The company was founded by Olivier Baussan in the south of France in 1976. Today L’OCCITANE also has a significant worldwide presence, with over 2200 boutiques in nearly 90 countries.

Tom asked Justine about L’OCCITANE’S procurement of shea butter from women in Burkina Faso, which started in the early years of the company. The company’s BCtA commitment is to increase the value to Burkina Faso and to provide women with the tools to develop their own processed products, to reduce the physical labor of women and give them access to new markets, and to promote organic farming and reducing the environmental impacts of processing Shea butter while preserving traditional skills.

Tom: Tell me more about the evolution of the initiative.

Justine: The company has a core value around valuing the communities where it sources, be it France or Burkina. This has been present from the 1980s which were the very early days of the company. The company has always supported its supply chain in Burkina Faso. We began with a few kilos in the 80’s and in 2014 our order was near 700 tons of shea butter. In the last 7 years the supply has grown 7 fold. Since the beginning, co-development has been at the heart of our partnership with women in Burkina Faso. So this is a very mature initiative but it is now scaling and seeking to address different challenges, such as attracting young women to this rural activity, modernising, processing, and decreasing the environmental impact of the process.

Tom: How does it work in practice?

Justine: L’OCCITANE buys shea butter directly from five co-operatives of women. These unions are composed of more than 200 groups of women, which represent more than 17,000 women in 10 provinces of Burkina Faso. To organize the partnership, L’OCCITANE has two people based in Burkina Faso all year in charge of the ordering process and the added value projects. They are part of the Sustainable Ingredients Department which is based in Manosque. Two other people supervise the projects from France.

Mobilizing human resources on the ground and developing tools adapted to the local context have made it possible to secure supplies in terms of quality, quantity and traceability, and guarantee the social, economic and environmental sustainability of this partnership. Beyond this fair trade partnership, in order to complement the actions related to the supply of ingredients and to allow more people to benefit, in 2006 we created the Foundation L’OCCITANE which focus on three core areas: literacy, enhancing income-generating activities through training and microcredit programs, and support for small businesses.

Tom: What are the next steps for the initiative?

Justine: We want to improve the working conditions of the women and give a new boost to the supply chain through a project industrializing the process. We have one pilot so far in one of our co-ops, and we want to duplicate this to others partners. We work on environmental impacts all along the process in partnership with an NGO. This began in 2013. We gave 50,000 euros to this NGO to develop eco-technologies adapted to the shea process to reduce the consumption of wood, of water and to valorise the residues. We also want to promote organic agriculture and would like to reach 100 per cent of organic production in 2017.

Besides these ambitious projects, we are spending a lot of time building capacity of the co-ops, improving their governance, and persuading them that they need to be more transparent. This will build the conditions that will make them investable to obtain financing on their own and not to build further dependence on L’OCCITANE.

Tom: What are the main commercial opportunities and challenges?

Justine: The co-ops are highly dependent on L’OCCITANE and we see this as a huge challenge. We want the co-ops to supply other customers, both so that they can scale up but also to reduce the burden on L’OCCITANE. We think that this ambitious project will permit them to be more and more compliant with what the international market are waiting for. L’OCCITANE works also to fill the missing links in the supply chain locally, to increase added value in West Africa.

Tom: What is the social impact?

Justine: According to the UNDP, Burkina Faso has a HDI ranking of 181 out of 187 countries and 46 per cent of the population live on less than 1 dollar a day. Rural population and women are the most vulnerable and 66.9 per cent of women are illiterate. Direct buying of shea butter delivers a lot of additional value to very poor women. 17,000 women have already benefited directly from the supply chain as collectors and processors, and we have established that there are indirect benefits to 200,000 people, through the benefits to household members and jobs created. More than 14,000 women have benefited from the Foundation’s activities to improve their leadership, through a literacy program and micro-credit. When I come to Burkina Faso and I speak with these women, they explain to me how the L’OCCITANE orders have changed their lives. These testimonies give us more and more energy to push even further in this win-win partnership.

In 2013, UNDP recognized L’OCCITANE as an exemplary company for this business model in Burkina Faso. Today, this recognition of our action by the United Nations is proof of the value of the partnership set up with the women of Burkina Faso 30 years ago. The shea tree is what binds us to these women, but it has also paved the way for their economic emancipation.

This interview was one of many carried out as part of the review of the Business Call to Action (BCtA) portfolio that was published as the Flagship report Breaking Through: Inclusive Business and the Business Call to Action Today.