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Going for gold in Burkina Faso

Shea nuts are a key source of economic growth in West Africa (WRENmedia)
Shea nuts are a key source of economic growth in West Africa

For the women of Burkina Faso, shea nuts can be - as the saying goes - worth their weight in gold. Appropriately known as 'women's gold' and named karité, meaning 'life', the nuts are indeed a lifeline for many poorer communities. Those who are not able to invest in high-income, high-input crops such as cotton - a major commodity in the country - are often left out of income-generating markets. In contrast to crops which need plenty of inputs, shea nuts grow wild with little need for special cultivation. And, traditionally they are specifically gathered cultivated by women, providing them with a degree of empowerment.

The shea tree (Butyrospermum parkii) can live for up to 300 years, and is found only in Africa, between the Sahara desert and the tropical forests north of the equator. The rich brown shea nuts, with a fat content of up to 50 percent, are nutritional and multi-purpose and for centuries the nuts have been a key source of economic growth in West Africa. In Burkina Faso, where more than 80 per cent of the population depend on subsistence agriculture, shea nuts are the third largest agricultural export.

The nuts are gathered and processed into a range of products - from oil for cooking, to lamp oil and black soap. They also have medicinal value, providing remedies for some childhood illnesses, minor scrapes and cuts, and can be used to repel mosquitoes. But the main economic value of the shea nut lies in the thick, smooth white butter extracted from it - a natural skin moisturiser.

The art of butter making

Shea fruit, and nuts ready for processing (Marlene Elias)
Shea fruit, and nuts ready for processing
Marlene Elias

The process of making butter can take up to two days and involves 22 processing stages. With the first rays of sunlight piercing the morning clouds, a line of women take the journey to collect ripe shea nuts from the karité trees. Then, with up to 40kg of nuts balanced on their heads, they make their way back to the village to begin turning the nuts into butter.

First, the nuts are boiled, sundried and shelled by hand. Then they are then crushed, roasted, and pounded with a mortar and pestle. Two or three women will knead the mixture together, adding water to make a thick paste. When a caramel coloured foam collects above the paste, it is poured away to cleanse the mixture of residues. This cleaning process is repeated up to four times, until a white foam is produced. The foam is boiled for many hours until the water evaporates. It is then left to cool and solidify - the result is shea nut butter.

Getting shea nut butter to the stage where it is ready for sale in both local and export markets demands hard labour, time, and large quantities of water and firewood. Its competitive advantage over raw and unprocessed nuts is variable, since the price received for shea butter depends on the season, and the yield. But recent demand has pushed up the price of nuts in Burkina Faso, and called into question the assumption that processing shea nuts really adds value, or makes any greater profit.

Payback time

Marlene Elias from McGill University in Canada, has researched production of shea nut butter with the women's group Union des groupements des productrices de produits karité de la Sissili et du Ziro (UGPPK-S/Z) in south-central Burkina Faso. As she points out, while the price per kg for shea butter is twice that of unprocessed shea nuts, more nuts are needed to make butter - not to mention the extra labour, time, firewood and water required. "What it comes down to is this:" she says, "instead of being tied to the laborious process involved in making shea butter for export sale, could those women be doing something else to ensure food security, like cultivating their fields?"

A large market for shea nut butter remains, with high demand from cosmetic giants such as L'Oreal and The Body Shop. But demand for raw nuts is also increasing, as foreign companies process the nuts themselves.

Fairtrade for all

Shea butter is the result of a process that can take up to two days and 22 processing stages to complete (Marlene Elias)
Shea butter is the result of a process that can take up to two days and 22 processing stages to complete
Marlene Elias

NGOs in Burkina Faso, such as those working with the UGPPK-S/Z, have successfully organised Burkinabé shea butter producers into cooperatives, strengthening their bargaining power, increasing the amount of butter that one cooperative can supply, and attracting large buyers. But the greatest advantage that cooperatives offer is access to the lucrative fairtrade market, by helping cooperatives acquire the correct certification.

The UGPPK-S/Z was the first association of shea producers in Burkina Faso to register with the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International (FLO). This was one of the reasons why Ms Elias decided to conduct her research with the group, studying the economic impact of products sold on the conventional markets compared to fairtrade. "There are complicated issues surrounding this", she says. "But generally, profitability doesn't compare - Fairtrade profits can be worth more than twice as much."

Producing shea nut butter can undoubtedly be a profitable business, and it can empower poor and marginalised groups. And, because the trees have a long lifecycle, the enterprise is currently environmentally sustainable. However, groups such as UGPPK-S/Z realise that growing demand will put pressure on natural resources, and inevitably, sustainable schemes will be required if processing shea nut butter is to remain a long-term option.

Ultimately, profitability depends on the market options available to processors and Ms Elias says that for shea nut butter to be a sustainable source of income, its price must reflect the labour involved in processing it. Cooperatives that are not certified for fairtrade, could even run at a loss. It is the fairtrade niche markets that make a profit, and shea nut butter producers need to ask themselves this question: "Who's buying?"

Date published: September 2007


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