Around the world, people enjoy the wonders of shea butter. Most of us take it for granted that this extremely moisturizing fruit oil is abundantly available in skin and hair care products. Less known is the story of where shea butter comes from and how it impacts the lives of the people who cultivate it.
Understanding the roots (pun intended!) of the shea butter market makes it clear that a fair trade market is essential to properly honour the people who make it possible for the rest of the world to have access to shea butter.
Shea Tree Biology & Community Economies
The shea tree is indigenous to savannah ecosystems across northern Africa. Because the shea tree is evolutionarily well adapted to dry ecosystems, it’s less vulnerable to drought than other plants and this makes it extremely valuable as a source of food and income.
The shea tree is the second most important oil crop plant in all of Africa, exceeded only by oil palm trees. In regions where oil palms cannot grow, shea butter is of primary importance. It provides economic, nutritional, medicinal, dermatological, agricultural and domestic uses for local communities.
Economic: It’s the major source of foreign exchange in some countries and the sole or primary source of income for some communities.
Nutritional: The flesh of the shea fruit is edible and a dietary staple for northern Africans. The pulp is a good source of vitamin Bs and C, iron, potassium, calcium, zinc, and amino acids. The butter is used for cooking. Conveniently, shea fruits mature at the end of the dry season and therefore provide nutrition during the wet season, which is characterized by food scarcity.
Medicinal: Shea fruit flesh, butter, bark, and leaves are used as traditional medicines for helping to treat and prevent a variety of ailments.
Dermatological: Shea butter helps protect skin from the extreme dryness of the hot climate in the regions that the tree naturally grows.
Agricultural: She trees are large and long lived. They play a significant role in the ecosystem in which they grow and they affect the growth of surrounding plants.
Domestic: Shea tree trunk and leaves are used for fuel, fodder, and building material.
Despite and because of peoples’ dependence on the shea butter tree, it faces many ecological challenges and local communities are vulnerable to the resulting economic market for its products. Most notably:
1. Stewardship of shea trees is declining.
2. Shea trees in agroforestry parklands are aging and young saplings are not being cultivated.
3. Natural regeneration of tree populations is limited by habitat fragmentation and loss of pollinators.
4. Local and regional savannah ecosystems are degrading due to erosion and land conversion.
5. Socioeconomic pressures promote shea fruit harvest that may exceed sustainability of regional shea tree populations.
6. Shea butter is often used as a substitute for cacao butter in various confections and as a result market prices for shea butter tend to reflect and fluctuate concurrently with market prices and demand for cacao butter. As cacao prices rise, so do prices and demand for shea butter. Market prices for cacao are volatile due to the ecological and socioeconomic challenges intrinsic to cacao agriculture.
7. The market for high-oleic shea butter is different than that for high-stearic shea butter (primarily because of the differences in their commercial use), and this further segments and complicates the mechanics of the global shea market.
8. Shea trees are large (reaching heights of 15 to > 20 metres and growing to diameters of up to 1 m) and mature slowly. Although a single tree can bear high quality fruit for up to 30 years and yield 15 to 30 kg of fruit per year, trees only start to fruit at 15 years of age.
9. Pollination of shea trees is declining for at least two reasons:
a. Shea trees are not self-compatible pollinators—that is, they require an external agent to fertilize flowers so the tree can bear fruit. The trees are pollinated primarily by bees, which have labile species preference and whose foraging activity is significantly affected by environmental conditions such as temperature and precipitation.
b. Hand-pollination by humans is also effective, but it’s time consuming, not all flowers in the crown of the tree are accessible, and there is an increasing loss of interest and incentive among farmers and community members for continuing this practice.
Possible solutions for these challenges include a resurgence of tree stewardship by encouraging:
- sustainable harvest
- planting of saplings
- proper application of agricultural methods such as companion planting, pruning, and grafting to maximize fruit offset without compromising long term tree health or production.
Although these solutions may be effective, farmers currently lack incentives for investing in shea trees. Most farmers don’t own the land on which trees grow, they have little influence on local and international markets that tend to offer low prices for shea, and current methods of automating shea butter production remain expensive with high maintenance costs.
The story is even more dire for women, and they are the primary reason that fair trade for shea products is essential.
Fair Trade & Empowering Women with Shea Butter Cooperatives
Women are particularly affected by the shea butter economy because they comprise the primary labour that gathers the fruits, processes the kernels into butter and then sells the final product at local markets. Extracting shea butter from the fruit seeds is a time-intensive and arduous process that requires large amounts of firewood and water—both of which are scarce resources in xeric African regions.
However, the financial return on a long day of hard labour works out to be very little, especially because many women must pay their husbands or other farmers for access to the shea trees. Because shea fruit serves many functions, women partition approximately 60 % of shea butter for their personal consumption and sell the remaining 40 % directly to consumers and/or middlemen.
Although women invest all the hard labour in producing shea butter, men dominate the distribution, marketing, and export of the primary product as well as value-added shea commodities.
Creating a fair trade market for shea butter is therefore critical for supporting and empowering women, who are too often the unsung heroes of society. Giving fair exchange for the hard work that women invest in producing shea butter helps to:
- mitigate gender inequality
- alleviate poverty and improve the local standard of living
- empower women and, by extension, their children and the community at large
- encourage persistence and exchange of ethnobotanical knowledge and indigenous traditions across generations
- provide incentives for stewardship of shea trees
- promote regional sustainability and resource conservation
- stabilize market prices for shea butter
- unify communities by forming worker cooperatives run by women
- provide communities, and particularly women, with some degree of economic leverage over local shea butter market prices.
All of this may seem abstract to people who have been raised in economically developed and politically secure countries. Most of us have never known true scarcity or wanton lack of economic opportunity.
But imagine for a moment how it might feel to face daily uncertainty about your nutritional and financial welfare as well as the security of your children’s future. It’s a difficult burden to bear. Even more challenging is knowing that your hard work is undervalued while others who lead opulent and luxurious lives reap the benefits of your labour at a bargain price.
These are the circumstances that innumerable African women face every day.
We who live comfortably have the opportunity and resources to honour the contributions of others, especially those who are impoverished and less fortunate than we are. When you choose a shea butter product, reflect on the hours of investment by women in far-away lands that have made it possible for you to have access to this amazing fruit. By supporting fair trade shea butter, you can make an enormous difference in many peoples’ lives
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