by Stephanie Jackson
Sitting there looking at the cockroach the size of a human hand crawling up the wall in this tiny Ugandan school, the horrific stories that once played out behind these walls that were used as a safe haven for young girls that had been raped and left pregnant and alone during the atrocities of the Joseph Kony revolution.
It was a very surreal and emotional experience, but all somehow connected into a greater meaning for Debbie VanGrieken, CEO of Moyaa Shea Products.
How does librarian, wife, and mother of 5 from a small rural Canadian town become the owner of a Fair Trade Shea Butter import business? And the creative director behind a growing wellness brand built on the principles of Fair Living to end suffering for all?
There are several different connection points to Debbie’s WHY of Moyaa Shea and when the life business balance get intense, it’s this reconnection to her WHY that keeps the forward momentum going.
Much of Debbie’s global awareness came through her experiences as a volunteer mentor with DREAM (Designing Routes to Education and Mentorship) and their Global Literacy program that gives grade 11 Dunnville, Ontario Secondary School students an opportunity to spend a week learning and interacting with local Mayan families, in Ek Balam, Mexico. Her travels to Nicaragua on a mission trip gave Debbie the experience of seeing first-hand how our decisions in the first world affect third world countries.
Debbie, a mother of 5 boys, lives and breathes her strong values of family, faith, community, and authenticity.
Having her own personal health struggle with melanoma where a large portion of skin and tissue from her upper leg had to be taken out,this experience really made her evaluate the day-to-day lifestyle choices she was making. Consequently, she began to look at natural alternatives, organic foods, living an overall healthier, and fair-conscious lifestyle.
This all started to have a snowball effect because it wasn’t just about the natural and healthy products, it was about connecting to the lives of the individuals producing the products through the entire process of the supply chain.
Even by incorporating more Fair-Trade teas, chocolates and clothing, in to her own family and community, and selling products in local markets, cafés, and networking with cooperatives to expand her impact, Debbie’s vision of change needed to go way beyond helping her own family and community to have real sustainable impact.
Today, Moyaa Shea Products Ltd is a really ambitious organization with an enormous vision to make a sustainable difference in the lives of the Ugandan farmers. A difference in the lives of a population built with the same flesh and blood like you and I, but with remarkable strength, resilience, and a deep desire to rebuild and heal.
Running a business like Moyaa Shea is anything but regular and easy. Sometimes going weeks without hearing from the Ugandan supplier Margaret, with no way of contact, only to discover she “was in the bush”. Her supplier takes on a lot of responsibility working with and sometimes against various interest groups that want to develop the Shea Industry. Debbie and her suppliers want to leave the control in the hands of the communities not the government or NGO’s that sometimes make decisions that can negatively affect the farmers and their income. Working together, Debbie and Margaret are united in ensuring that the money gets in the hands of the farmers and the community.
So why take on the stress? Why not run a small-scale farmer’s market business model, live a low stress life in your quiet town with your family?
This is where Debbie always brings herself back to her core values of why she started Moyaa Shea in the first place. On both a local and global level with the vision to end suffering, she makes this difference daily. Just receiving those emails from her customers who use Moyaa Shea, the thank you notes and testimonies to the true benefits of the all-natural organic East African Shea butter, the relief from sun burns, psoriasis, diaper rash, eczema, the dry skin and the various healing properties. Debbie gets great satisfaction knowing that customers are getting a premium product to help their skin issues and that the producers and planet are not exploited to get it.
With the status of Grade A by the American Shea Butter Institute, Moyaa stands out as a premium Fair-Trade Shea brand. It takes a lot of resilience and attention to detail to maintain the highest standards in product quality from production, packaging, and shipping. The supply chain and packaging processes need to be continuously monitored so that the product maintains the natural benefits.
Why Moyaa goes beyond Fair Trade. It was important to look at the entire cost model. How long does it take to produce a litre of Shea? How much would be needed to purchase in order to make the difference in the community? Making sure producers have access to bank accounts. Many women have never had their own accounts and many rural communities have barriers like lack of identification.
What does this mean for the community? One of the foundational values Moyaa has is to keep families together. In the rural villages, located 10 hours away from the big cities, the families remain together and are not split up to go find work in the urban centres. Children can go to school and the men and women can work within their communities. This is one of the social problems that Moyaa is actively shifting. There are so many abandoned women, children, and families with multiple children. The whole region, Northern Uganda, Sudan, the Congo, are still recovering from the torment of the revolt where hundreds of children were kidnapped and recruited as child soldiers, girls were raped at the age of 12-13 years old. There was and still is a need to take care of the after-math.
Staying in a school specifically built for the young girls to have their babies safely,it was a horrific experience to be within this reality, the trauma of these stories. To be in the same exact physical location the documentary Invisible Children was filmed where kids would hide in the basement of the hospital, to avoid being kidnapped when the villages were raided.
When you experience a small taste of this drastic difference of day-to-day life, it quickly puts everything into perspective. To see the illness and so many infected babies with malaria. And the cost of just $4, is what it takes to safely deliver a baby and provide pre-natal care. Something so humanly basic, but which so many are denied. It was this reality, that got Debbie really questioning the entire business model and that there’s just got to be a better way.
And this is exactly the model of social enterprise. To build commerce on solving a problem within a society that empowers the local communities to be productive within environmentally sustainable practices while improving their livelihoods, giving them access to better education and health care. Most businesses just focus on the single bottom line at the cost of livelihoods and the environment.
Moyaa Shea has the triple bottom line business model of a Fair-Trade Social Enterprise: people, planet and profit. It’s not a charity or non-profit model where there is a lot of waste, inefficiencies, and enables a handout vs. working for the work model. Social Enterprise is about empowering communities, restoring dignity, and breaking the cycle of dependency. Communities that have been raised within the refuge camp model and given handouts of rice bags, bombarded by NGOs, lack the appreciation for what they have.
With a plot of land to cultivate vegetables, chickens, and maybe a goat, families can sell their goods at the market and take care of their own school fees, giving them a sense of ownership. This is what starts the cycle of: education, goals, and mentorship, which ultimately rebuilds and heals these people as a productive society.
These strong values of education, empowerment, community, family, and health are at the core mission of Moyaa Shea, and CEO Debbie VanGrieken.
Every single day, Debbie asks herself this before any purchasing decision, and encourages us all to do the same: Am I part of the exploitation or part of the transition to a better world?