The nuts of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) – which grows in over three million square kilometre zone across the arid Sahel stretching from Senegal to Uganda, Sudan and Guinea Savannah eco-zones of West, East and Central Africa – are picked and processed into butter for use in cosmetics, confectionary and pharmaceuticals. The trees are not intensely cultivated but are managed traditionally in parklands across the region; they are a significant economic and cultural force today as they have been for a millennium.
Currently, more than four million rural women in West Africa contribute to their livelihoods and support their family and children’s education by collecting the shea nuts; either to be sold and exported or process the nuts into butter for local consumption and to be sold for exports to the international markets. Demand for shea butter produced in West Africa has increased by over 1200% over the last 10 years. The increased demand has led to new businesses. There are now more companies operating at every level of the shea value chain.
Production of Shea
Shea butter has been traditionally extracted by women from the dried kernels of the shea tree for many millennia. This species is extensively protected and managed in the agroforestry parklands of semi-arid Africa in a 6,000 km x 500+ km zone from Senegal to Uganda. Total production potential has been estimated at over 2.5 million MT kernel.
Traditional utilisation: The semi-arid zone of sub-Saharan Africa, until recently, has had few native sources of edible oil or fat and shea butter is traditionally utilised in large quantities (at least 150,000 MT kernel is estimated to be consumed annually) for frying, adding to sauces, as a skin pomade, for medicinal applications, to make soap, for lanterns and for cultural purposes at ceremonies (births, weddings and funerals).
Non-traditional utilisation in edible products: There has been a growing demand for vegetable fat in the western marketplace and shea butter is now commonly used in the production of cocoa butter equivalents or improvers (up to 5% content by weight is allowed under EU regulations on chocolate), other confectionaries and margarines. An estimated 350,000 MT kernel are exported from Africa (with a market value of approximately US$120 million with prices around US$450 MT f.o.b. Tema, Ghana) and used for the preparation of ca. 60,000 MT stearin (the solid ‘fat’ fraction) with an estimated value of US$120 million. It is unknown what volume is used in the US for edible products, though no non-cocoa vegetable fats are currently permitted in US chocolate.
Non-traditional utilisation in personal care products: In addition to being a commodity traded in the edible vegetable oil and fat market, shea butter is recognised as having important therapeutic properties, particularly for the skin (UV protection, moisturizing, regenerative and anti-wrinkle properties) and is now sought after for personal care products (pomades, soaps, pharmaceuticals, etc). The total used in this market is estimated to be about 5-10% of the total African exports
Certification of shea kernel and butter has become increasingly important for a number of reasons – The EU started demanding that all agricultural products are traceable from source from 1st January 2005. A number of cosmetic companies are asking for organically certified shea butter for formulation of organically labelled ‘botanical’ products and the demand for consistent ‘Quality @ Quantity’ from rural producers is increasing the need for quality assurance. A number of buyers are also aiming at obtaining ‘fairly traded’ supplies and FLO is currently developing a set of guidelines specifically for shea butter.