Københavns Universitet
Uafhængig af ledelsen


Phd defence: Francois Questiaux

Ph.d.-forsvar — PhD defence for Francois Questiaux, Department of Food and Resource Economics.


Date & Time:

Von Langen, Rolighedsvej 23, 1958 Frederiksberg C.
The defence is open to all

Link for hybrid Zoom participation:

Sign up for a link and passcode for online hybrid zoom participation:
Please contact PhD student Francois Questiaux francois@ifro.ku.dk 19 September 2023 - 22:00 (CET), at the latest.

Hosted by:
Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen


Title of thesis:

Shea nut collectors in a global market


In this thesis, I look at the experience of shea nut collectors in Burkina Faso and Ghana facing global market integration. Shea trees (Vitellaria paradoxa) grow all over rural West African parklands. Each year, millions of collectors, mostly women, collect the nuts and process them into dry kernels. They sell the kernels or process them further into shea butter, for household consumption or for sale at local markets. While shea remains a minor household income, it is a crucial one, as it covers subsistence needs during the lean season, where other sources of income are scarce. Over the last decades, the final use of shea nuts has dramatically changed. This domestic product became an export commodity integrated into a global value chain. Today, shea nuts travel to Europe, Asia, North and South America to be processed industrially into shea butter and used mostly in chocolate products and cosmetics. Suddenly, Shea nut collectors found themselves at the incipiency of a fragmented global value chain with new international actors and major power asymmetries. Despite being the largest link of the chain, their experience remains simplified, if not overlooked. This thesis intends to understand their experience and meaning making of such changes.

To do so, I study how the collectors are affected by the ongoing global market changes, by understanding their implications on a local scale. I explore the meaning making of such changes by the participants, as they have different experiences of and abilities to adapt to market integration. I use both survey and photovoice data, analysed with literature from agrarian change and feminist political ecology, where both structures and agency play a role in individual’s everyday experience.

The main goal of the thesis is to explore and explain how socioeconomically marginalized population such as the shea nut collectors experience and strategize with global market integration. More specifically, I address three different objectives. First, I study the market dynamics among collectors in the early stages of trading, where shea nut collectors sell their nuts at a low price to other local actors before lead firms enter the market. I show that some early buyers are shea nut collectors themselves and are able to derive a significant income from the early trading. While for most it is a site of reproduction, where they sell nuts to cover their subsistence needs, for a few, it is a site of petty accumulation, where they can buy cheap nuts that they will sell later to wholesalers and lead firms. By doing so, I highlight the early trading as a site for potential social differentiation among shea nut collectors.

The second objective is to explore how this social differentiation among collectors takes shape. I build a typology of collectors, distinguishing income from labour (collection of nuts) and income from capital (early purchase of cheap nuts and sales at a profit later in the season). I also take into account the reliance of collectors on their shea income in comparison with their other sources of income to show how the social relations of production among collectors have shifted to capitalist relations. This typology highlights the relational aspect of social differentiation among collectors, as the better-off minority is able to purchase nuts from the more precarious collectors in the early market. Consequently, a small group of collectors derives an increasing income from their capital, at the expense of other collectors, which contributes to social differentiation in the shea nut collecting population.

At last, my third objective is to study the parallels between social differentiation and access. I explore the way capitalist market integration contributes to exclusion from shea trees and income from shea for some collectors, while others are able to maintain their access, sometimes at the expense of more precarious collectors. I show that while market integration does not rely on any form of land appropriation by external actors, most collectors find themselves in a more precarious situation to access shea trees, because of the emergence of exclusion among other collectors. While shea nut value has increased, better-off collectors as well as community members tend to enforce private property in a stricter way. Trees that used to be almost open access in community and seen as poorer women’s way to earn petty cash are now increasingly being privatized by individual farmers who claim to own the land the trees stand on. Combined with a decreased access to the shrinking commons, precarious collectors who do not benefit from the same social connections see their access to shea trees threatened.

Market integration of shea nut thus benefits a minority of already better-off women, which challenges advocates of global value chain development as a way to improve livelihoods and alleviate poverty. I conclude that conversely, market integration delivers unequal development, enabling a small population to benefit from the market expansion with their capital, at the expense of a majority squeezed to the labour intensive, insecure and low revenue part of the supply chain: collecting shea nuts.


Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen


Associate Professor Mariève Pouliot, Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen


Professor Christian Lund, Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen

Assistant professor Nerea Turreira Garcia, Department of Food and Resource Economics (IFRO), University of Copenhagen

Assessment Committee:


Professor Jens Friis Lund, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

Associate Professor Paul Stacey, Roskilde University

Senior Scientist Marlène Elias, CGIAR Gender Platform, Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT

Master of Ceremony:

Assistant professor Kasper Hoffmann, Department of Food and Resource Economics, University of Copenhagen

Request a copy of the thesis

If you are interested in a full copy of the thesis, please contact the PhD student or the PhD Secretary milton@ifro.ku.dk.