Shea: For people and planet

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By Kim Kido 

Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa, nilotica) is one of few trees that can withstand the harsh, semi-arid climate of the Sudan and Guinean savannas and the Sahel. Hardy, drought-resistant, and with fireproof bark, the uses of the shea tree are numerous and ancient, dating back to the 1300s.

Woman processing shea kernels into butter. (Photo credit: TREE AID)

Tools and coffins are made out of the wood, while the wastewater from processing seeds acts as a pesticide against weevils. The tree provides forage for sheep and goats as well as food for people. The sweet pulp of the fruit, similar to an avocado, is eaten fresh, providing a valuable source of nutrition early in the rainy season when food can be scarce. And, the tree’s flowers can be added to salads.

The shea tree also provides many environmental benefits. Farmers often intercrop the shea tree with cereal grains where they help to prevent wind erosion, provide shade, and contribute organic matter to the soil.

The uses of the shea nut are most widely known and offer the highest economic value. The seed contains a kernel that is eaten fresh, roasted like almonds, or processed to extract shea butter. Shea butter is traditionally used as a waterproofing material for houses, a cosmetic, a primary source of vegetable fat in cooking, and as a medicine for treating various skin diseases, arthritis, and other ailments.

Seed kernels and shea butter from West Africa are exported to Europe and North America where they are mainly processed into cocoa butter substitute, but also used in margarine production and the cosmetics industry. Studies show that shea nuts account for more than half of the income of women in rural areas of Burkina Faso and up to 60 percent of women’s income in Mali, where up to 90 percent of households process the seeds. The collection and processing of shea seeds is traditionally done by women.

There are many challenges associated with processing shea seeds. The tree takes 12 to 25 years to bear its first fruit, does not reach full productivity until it is 30 to 50 years old, and bears fruit only once every two to three years. The trees are semi-domesticated, widely dispersed, and yields vary, resulting in inconsistent harvests. Manually processing the seeds is time-consuming, labor-intensive, and inefficient traditional methods of extraction recover only about half of the fat in the kernel compared to 80 percent recovery in industrial mechanized extraction. Several different technologies have been developed to provide low-cost mechanization. Finally, the dense tree wood makes good charcoal, posing a threat to a resource that takes decades to create.

The Shea Project has been operating for nearly 20 years in northern Uganda in partnership with the Northern Uganda Shea Processors Association, a cooperative managed by women of over 2000 producers. The organization works to create economic incentives to help preserve shea trees. In 2006, organic certification was obtained, establishing a price premium for shea products. The organization helps farmers strengthen business skills through training programs, conducts national marketing of shea products, and is working to overcome barriers to fair international trade of Ugandan shea. Competition from West Africa results in international prices half that of local prices and new equipment is needed to produce a consistent product. The Project has established a revolving credit program to help finance inputs needed for shea production and other investments, while also partnering with the World Agroforestry Center (ICRAF) to establish tree nurseries in charcoal-producing areas that will provide a carefully managed source of firewood in the short-term and shea nuts in the long-term.

Do you know of any other projects working to conserve the shea tree?

Kim Kido is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project.

To read about more indigenous crops see: Star Apple: Prized Fruit and TimberShalakh Apricot: Protecting a Species’ Diversity and a Local CultureFalse Yam: A Famine Prevention Trifecta, and Tamarind: Not Jsst for Sauce.

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