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Shea Butter, Women’s Gold

July 12, 2016

Shea butter, a cosmetic industry staple that many of us have come to rely on for its rich, creamy texture and skin-kind chemistry. But how often do we think about the story behind the ingredient, the treasure and wisdom that lies beneath Shea Butters glossy, rich veneer?

Shea Tree

The Shea Butter journey begins in Sub Saharan Africa, spanning 21 countries,  4 million square kilometres of land and some 2 billion trees. It has been said  the Shea Tree can live for over two hundred years producing its first batch of oil-rich fruit sometime after its fifth birthday. The trees reach their maximum productive capacity after around 50 years at which point the average  yield is between 15-20Kg of fresh fruit per tree, per year.  Once processed this fruit translates into around 1.5Kg of butter per tree giving us a total market of around 600,000 tonnes of butter per year. 

Shea Nuts

 Fruit collection is traditional women’s business and estimates give the number of women involved as somewhere in the region of 16 million.  Harvesting is carried out in the rainy season from May to September when the ripe fruits fall to the ground with the best quality fruit collected within a week of it falling.  The fruit is then (mostly) dried by the women (some women are too poor to participate in this step and sell collected fruits straight away) before being further processed into butter.

shea butter process

Of all the Shea Butter produced only around 10-15% is destined for the Cosmetic Industry with the bulk of the rest used either domestically or sold to the global food market.  Of the cosmetics portion only 1/10th of that is what we would classify as ‘hand crafted’ again by local women who by this stage are often working via organised co-operatives and that is where I want to take this story next.

I often sit here, in my Blue Mountains home and try to imagine myself walking in the steps of the people whose ‘hand crafted’ rustic and fair trade goods I wish to procure.  Are they happy?  Is it really fair out there?  I wonder.  I also wonder if my industries insatiable appetite for this particular type of natural moral high ground is actually helping or hindering things on the ground.   The Shea Tree is wild grown, not farmed. I wonder about the pressures on the tree, the pressure to keep up with the demands of a market,  the pressure for land, for water for progress?  I wonder if these women we hold up, that we disconnectedly pay to support are feeling supported and empowered after all?  And as I wonder I hope that my shea butter is more than just ‘cosmetic’……..

Shea fruit collection has long been the work of women, long before it was a trendy or marketable concept sell.  I’m not trying to be overly cynical here, more that I wish for us all to take a step back and contemplate these things more deeply. That’s all.  But the picking up of the fruit from the ground is only the first step of many and while important,  it is not the money-making step.  It has become obvious to those on the ground in Shea processing regions that the winds of change have been blowing and that women have not been invited into that conversation.

As far as the cosmetic industry is concerned we have brands such as L’Occitane and the Body Shop to thank for drawing our attention to the hand-crafted segment of this fascinating market.  Back in the 1980’s when the afore-mentioned brands first ventured into the Shea processing world  butter production was very much a cottage industry producing butter of varying quality and availability.  These issues seemed minor to the Body Shop who could see a large opportunity in selling this ‘global adventurer’ type procurement policy to a world of hungry and adventurous consumers.  The door was opened and we all rushed in.   Not that any of this was inherently bad of course,  the demand for product increased and local women who were able, jumped at the opportunity to increase their earnings as anybody would.  But there was and still is another side to this story.

In 2015 a paper entitled ‘The Evolution of Shea Butter’s “Paradox of paradoxa” ‘ was written by the Centre for African Studies et al.  This paper highlighted the fact that while Shea Butter is often sold on the back of it being ‘Women’s Gold’ the women involved have often been locked out of the global market through a lack of representation, education and information.

While the global demand for Shea Butter has grown, the role for women has become more marginal and segmented.  Africa is no different to anywhere else in the world when it comes to globalisation and ‘progress’ and land pressures, increasing populations and urbanisation have all contributed to adding pressure and focus on the Shea Butter industry. In some places Shea Butter production has become one of only a handful of viable income streams which has also led to more men taking on the role of fruit collection and where men step in, women have often been the first to lose out.

In addition, as the market for cosmetic grade Shea butter has developed so have industry quality requirements and this knowledge has typically not been passed down the chain to the women participating in the first, crucial steps.  Like all natural products, the quality of Shea Fruit varies depending on how it has been handled and processed.  Fruit spoils and rots when it becomes damp and that can impact on butter quality, as can some traditional drying processes, especially when the fruit is heated too much or cooked for too long.   While many of the larger companies have, over the last thirty or so years invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in researching optimal processing methods for the butter, this knowledge has all too often failed to be passed on to the women, denying them the opportunity to participate in the development of an industry that they are the practical and aspirational heart of.  Ironically, this failure to engage has also helped to fuel the case for large multinationals to come in and take over the processing as ‘locals just can’t produce the quality we need’.  A self-perpetuated breakdown if you ask me!

Another point raised in the sustainability report was in regards to protecting and sustaining the Shea Nut Tree and its habitat, especially in light of the fact that for at least the last twenty years the Shea Tree has been listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCR) .  Again, much work has gone into researching how best to propagate new trees – either from seeds or from grafting of superior varieties,  how to protect saplings,  improve the soil and prevent over-felling – Shea Trees are also prized for their wood but once again, the people with the most to lose from failures in this regard are the last to be brought into the conversation and sadly, it is the women stand to lose the hardest.

So is it all bad news?  

Are we indeed being swept away by a romantic notion that we are helping our African sisters by buying Shea when in reality we are just maintaining their poverty for our vanity?

Well yes and no. This report gives a good idea of the status quo. 

Since 2000 fair trade and sustainable sourcing initiatives have stepped up like never before and are now starting to address issues such as those raised above.  While the Fair Trade certification program has, since its inception been focused on a fair deal for farmers the initiative had been plagued by some very real problems and deficits including deficiencies in providing continuous education and development of the industry from the ground up – the system should allow for and encourage progress and evolution rather than see the farmer as always locked in a traditional, subsistence model (not that the Fair Trade certification did that but there is a mindset that exists that perpetuates that).   In more recent times additional certification bodies such as the Union for Ethical BioTrade have sprung up to tackle ethical sourcing and biodiversity protection in addition to workers rights especially in the provision for ‘the fair and equitable sharing of benefits derived from the use of biodiversity’ . This has been particularly helpful in the Shea Butter market as it has placed an emphasis on the sustainable development of the industry as a whole including things like the use of chemical fertilisers,  GMO’s, waste handling, soil quality and erosion while maintaining a focus on education from the ground up so to speak.   So, in summary we now have both Fair Trade type certification bodies that are primarily focused on workers rights with environmental management as second AND Ethical Biotrade certification bodies primarily focused on sustainability and environmental protection with workers rights second.  Together, with both bases covered and with an increased focus on the equitable dissemination of information and education the future for hand-crafted, traditional processing and the women invested in it looks bright!

Shea Butter has, for many of us become one of those essential ‘no brainer’ ingredients we just pop into our balms, butters and creams without much thought.  What this research project has taught me is that we take these ingredients for granted at our peril and that if we do not participate in the conversations around sustainability, fair and equitable trade and the role of women in this quintessentially African product we become part of the problem and I doubt that any of us want that.

Amanda x

PS.  An Aside. 

Those of us who are entrenched in the cosmetic industry know Shea Butter by its INCI name of Butyrospermum parkii but that’s somewhat of a misnomer since the tree was given a new Bionomial name of Vitellaria Paradox a good few years ago. The tree is part of the Sapotacea botanical family, a family that also includes Argania Spinosa (Argan), Synsepalum Dulcificum (Miracle Fruit with a low sugar content that makes sour food such as lemon taste sweet) and Planchonia Careya (Billygoat Plum) native to Australia and renown for its high vitamin C content belong to the same family!  



11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2016 1:55 pm

    wonderful post

  2. July 12, 2016 2:16 pm

    Being from Sub Saharan Africa, Shea butter has always been a part of my life. It’s been clear for a while that there is a difference between the marketing tales and the realities of the industry. Same as argan, marula and baobab oil.
    Great piece!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      July 12, 2016 2:22 pm

      I suspected that might be the case. Once again, two tiered development favouring oppression by exclusion just to maintain a narrative. Well I say it’s time we challenged that.

  3. Egle permalink
    July 19, 2016 4:17 am

    great article! loved it

  4. March 3, 2017 7:17 am

    I have just fell in love with shea and am researching it with great zeal. Your article was so informative. What I would like now is for you to point the average consumer (me) to the right brands and sellers so that my purchases can make a difference. Do you have brand suggestions?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 3, 2017 8:57 am

      Thanks for that Abi but I can’t do what you requested and this is why. In order to recommend some fair trade shea brands to you I have to have access to as many brands as I choose to checks inventory either by making a call/ email to their purchasing team or by knowing something of their habits otherwise. Some brands might well use their fair trade shea status as a selling point and in that case would advertise it in their marketing. I could google that or hashtag it on instagram or twitter but in me doing it rather than you I might then come across as endorsing brands that I actually have no knowledge of other than what they say on their label and have to assume is right. As I am a solo business operator I don’t have time to do that and also feel that it is best done by the person wanting to use that info to make a purchasing choice as you might spot something else that interests you in a fair trade brand that I didn’t. Good luck with it all and thanks for reading 🙂

      • March 3, 2017 9:44 am

        So what are some key questions that I should ask the brands?

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        March 3, 2017 11:43 am

        What’s your sourcing policy on …..


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