Bitoreci Omara rests in the shade of one of her family’s shea trees in Otuke District in northern Uganda. She holds out a handful of dried shea nuts.
These nuts make women beautiful and strong, she says and laughs.
Omara, 70, is a shea nut collector. Since she was a little girl, she has gathered shea nuts when they ripened and fell off the trees in June and July. Together with the other women in her village, she has crushed the nuts and extracted shea butter from them. The thick oily butter she has used in her cooking for nutrition and taste. As long as she can remember she has smeared herself and her children, with the golden butter.
Especially the babies enjoy it when the soothing shea oil is applied on their skin. They calm down, stop crying and fall asleep, she explains and laughs again.
Besides making use of the shea nuts at home, Omara used to sell a few baskets of the raw nuts on the local market to earn some extra shillings.
But recently buyers from other regions in Uganda and from abroad have come to Otuke and the requests for the nuts have increased. These days Omara and her family get an annual income of approximately Shs500,000 from selling the nuts.
“I spend the money I earn on food for the family, and clothes and school fee for my grandchildren,” says Omara.
African women’s gold
Omara is not the only African woman who gets an income from the shea nuts.
Shea trees only exist in Africa where they grow wild in 19 countries in a belt stretching across the continent from West to East Africa.
For thousands of years - reports say as far back as the 14th Century – African women have extracted shea butter from shea nuts and in some areas even called it their gold because of the butter’s golden colour and the income the nuts have given them.
According to the UN development organisation, UNDP, three million African women work directly or indirectly with shea; drying, splitting, cleaning and grinding the nuts to powder, extracting the precious butter, packaging and selling it – mainly at the local markets, but increasingly also for export.
The reason is that international demand for shea butter has risen. Especially from the food industry, which use it for margarine and chocolate manufacturing but also from the cosmetics.
Shea butter has basically become a popular commodity used in everything from lotions and soaps, to shampoos, conditioners, lipsticks and creams. Shea contains nourishing fatty acids, it is wound-healing and rich in vitamins A and E. In addition, shea moisturises the skin, is said to have anti-aging effects and is processed without the use of chemical additives.
In an era where the global beauty ideal is a young and natural look, shea contains everything that women go for as their first choice of cosmetics.
Already in 2007 Euromonitor International, which analyses world consumer trends, wrote that the global market for natural cosmetics were growing at a rate of about 20 per cent a year. In 2008, the anti-aging and skin-nourishing subset was the fastest growing segment of cosmetic sales in the US accounting for 23 per cent of the total market at $17.7 billion (Shs47.7 trillion) and expected to reach to $22.1 (Shs59.9 trillion) billion by last year.
This craze only seems to continue. Natural cosmetics are in fashion and there is no indication that this trend is changing, says Sarah Piraz, marketing manager for the global brand L’Occitane, one of the pioneers of natural cosmetics.
L’Occitane started to use shea butter from Burkina Faso in their product line in 1987 and today the brand offers 100 L’Occitane shea products. The company’s most sought product altogether is shea butter hand cream. It comes in a small silver tube, which, according to Sarah Piraz sells every three seconds in stores worldwide.
But the shea butter success is not L’Occitane’s solo success story.
The list of brands that make use of shea butter is long and includes international giants such as Clarins, Yves Rocher, Jergens and the L’Oreal, the world’s largest cosmetics company.
Nearly 1,200 L’Oreal products contain shea butter, and on the company’s website L’Oreal calls shea butter for a flagship among the ingredients in the product portfolio.
In 2006, L’Oreal bought Body Shop, a cosmetic company known for its use of natural products from around the world and its support of sustainable production. Many feared that the purchase would derail Body Shops traditional policies. But it seems rather as if the acquisition has rubbed off on L’Oreal that has entered into an agreement with the Burkina Faso government to assist in the sustainable development of shea butter processing.
A good story
All in all the processing of shea butter in Africa has grown steadily in recent years.
West Africa stands for the greater part of the continents exports and where 90 per cent of the total export from West Africa until a few years ago was the raw shea nuts, which were subsequently processed outside the continent, it is now 50 per cent.
The primary responsibility for this development lies with the food industry that enters into partnership agreements with West African shea butter countries about streamlining and standardising larger scale shea butter production, explains British Dr Peter Lovett, an adviser on sustainable shea production in Africa.
But the cosmetics industry has also played a crucial role - especially to push for more sustainable development and to enter into partnerships with the women, who traditionally collects the nuts and produce the butter.
For the cosmetics industry, it only makes sense to build on the traditional processing methods that have been known and used for centuries, and to make sure that it happens in partnerships with African women in a way where the women benefits. It is simply a good marketing story that fits well with the consumers demand for natural products and natural beauty, says Peter Lovett.
Returns for the collectors
While the selling price of the raw nuts in West Africa has increased by 100 per cent – from $1 to $2 per kilo since the mid-1990s – the African producers have begun to call for improved working conditions and returns.
In May 2013, New York housed the first conference for stakeholders in the shea butter industry in North America ever. The conference, organised by the Global Shea Alliance, a trade association established in 2011, gave African producers the opportunity to mingle with the industry giants like L’Oreal and Body Shop.
Talks started on reaching a set of common standards for the shea industry worldwide, including improvements of the living and working conditions for rural African women and their communities.
In March 2014, when the alliance held its annual shea conference, this time in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the theme was “The Industry Unites”. Again discussions centred on reaching common standards benefitting all stakeholders in the industry.
Back in Otuke, only time will tell what the impact may be. Also if Omara at any point may add “rich” to “strong and beautiful” while she describes what a shea nut collector like herself gains at the very beginning of the gigantic global cosmetic value chain.
Facts about the shea tree
Shea tree grows only in Africa in a belt of 3.7 million km2 from West to East Africa including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Southern Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Guinea.
There are two main varieties of the trees; Vitellaria Paradoxa in West Africa and Vitellaria Nilotica in Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda.
Shea tress blooms in December, bears fruits with nuts in June-July and carry ripe nuts in August and September. Shea trees start bearing fruits after 10-15 years and produces nuts for up to 200 years.