What should I know about shea butter producers?
Some call shea butter “women’s gold” because it is one of the few economic commodities women control in Sahelian Africa. The earliest mention of shea butter comes from the 14th century when Muslim scholars recorded its value in the local economy. Exclusive to the sub-Sahara, shea butter’s use in cooking, as lamp oil, ointment, moisturizer and soap, make it one of the most relied upon products in West Africa.
Rural women in the Sahel do not have it easy: they hold an inferior position in society, they are predominantly less educated than men, and they also handle household chores and child rearing most of the day. In developing countries where women have engaged in economic endeavors, the overall wellbeing of the communities improves. Some of the ways for women to participate in economic endeavors is to be better informed of the opportunities available to them. For example, even though shea butter is a hot commodity, most women in isolated rural communities are unaware of the popularity of this indigenous product.
By informing women shea butter producers about such opportunities and strengthening their ability to supply a global market through the organization of cooperatives – as well as training them on more efficient production methods – there is a real opportunity to make a financial impact on their lives. Shea butter production, however, is an extremely arduous task. In the first step, the women rise at dawn and begin by gathering shea/karite nuts in the countryside. This takes several days and sometimes the women suffer from poisonous snake bites. Once collected, the nuts are boiled over large, hot, open pots until the nuts are softened and all bacteria are killed. After the nuts are dried for 3 days, they are shelled and cracked. The shelling alone may take a few weeks resulting in very stiff fingers and backs.
The second stage involves a more laborious method. The nuts now need to be crushed, roasted and pounded with mortar and pestle. Once reduced to a paste similar to chunky peanut butter, the women then refine them on a flat stone using a stone rolling pin. In the third stage, water is added to create a paste. Two to three women then knead and beat the paste until a caramel-colored foam floats to the surface. This foam is transferred to a bucket of water, where several washings remove residue. The cleansing process, sometimes repeated up to four times, yields increasingly whiter foam. This is then boiled for half a day one last time. The top layer, which is skimmed, is strained through a cheese cloth and cooled. It then becomes the creamy shea butter found in every day products.
The entire production, from harvest to finished product, lasts for several months. The women usually work in small family groups, balancing these extra tasks with other daily duties that are traditionally the women’s responsibility. Because of the difficulty in producing shea butter, women producers are not competitive compared to the industrial processing facilities in European countries. However, working as a cooperative, and gaining access to production tools such as shea nut grinders and mixers can assist women in creating high quality shea butter that can provide a source of income for them. Not only is shea butter a necessary product in West Africa, it has become a well sought-after commodity in the global community. Each year, 40-60,000 tons are exported to North America, Europe, and Asia. International, governmental, and non-profit groups, such as Shea Yeleen, are now mobilizing to promote this women’s industry.