Vitellaria paradoxa

20 11 2008

I’ve spent the last few weeks researching and writing about the shea butter industry for ISODEC and thought I’d share a bit of what I’ve learnt.

The shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) is an unimpressive tree to look at, not particularly tall or beautiful or even interesting but it bears a useful fruit. Growing wild across the northern Ghanaian savannah it provides a small but important income for one of the poorest groups in Ghana, northern women. Each year at the beginning of the rainy season it starts producing nuts which are harvested almost exclusively by women and children. By tradition the trees aren’t owned by anyone and the start of the rainy season is one of the most difficult times for subsistence farmers, when the last stocks of the previous years harvest are coming to an end but the new season’s crop has yet to be gathered. The nuts gathered by the women are sold and the money used to buy food.

This is where it gets tricky. The women pickers mostly sell at the same time, creating a bit of a glut and pushing prices down. Some of the nuts are bought locally and processed into shea butter (a long and arduous task which I can describe if asked) and about half the crop is bought by trading companies who sell it on to food, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies who produce the butter themselves. Now in Ghana shea butter is viewed as a bit of a poor persons substitute for cooking oil so a half kilo tub sells for 40p, whereas on the international market 4oz can sell for as much as $16. Clearly what is viewed at the moment as a bit of a sideshow could be a reasonable source of income. While I was investigating I chatted to several VSOs (and a volunteer from Engineers Without Borders) who’re working with groups of women processing shea and visited a cooperative who are making shea butter of a high enough quality that a Japanese cosmetics company is buying from them.

In Ghana shea butter is used for cooking, but it’s also used as a moisturiser because it’s good for the skin and has mild sunscreen and antiseptic qualities. Apparently in Uganda some of the rebel groups cover themselves in it in the belief that it repels bullets. They may be mistaken.

Chatting to the volunteers and reading up on the internet I came to the following conclusions:
The largest non-domestic market for shea butter is as “cocoa butter equivalents”, i.e. a substitute for cocoa in the food industry. In Ghana the body responsible for overseeing and helping the shea industry is the “Cocoa Marketing Board”. The government of Ghana needs to take the shea industry seriously and create a shea marketing board. Sagnarigu demonstrates that commercial quality shea butter can be produced in local conditions. It also demonstrates the power of cooperatives, with the women able to not only produce quality shea butter but also in reasonable quantities which allow them to supply international companies directly and so greatly increase their income. Local districts and NGOs should work to organise cooperatives and spread information about best practise in butter processing.

shea nuts

References and further information
Agricultural report:
UNDP report on shea butter cooperative in Tamale
Wikipedia article on shea butter
TAWODEP (Talensi Area Women Development Project)
Africa 2000 Network

Engineers without Borders




2 responses

26 11 2008
Gutsy Writer

Next time I buy my shea butter soap at Trader Joe’s in southern California for $4.00/ soap bar, I shall think of those women. I used to live in Nigeria as a child. How long are you going to be living there? I have kids but long to travel in 3rd world countries again.

26 11 2008
Tim Little

Thanks for your comment, I’m taking a look at your blog.

I’m not sure exactly how long I’ll stay in Ghana, but at least until next March (which will be 18 months) and no later than July. It depends on work etc.

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