For millennia in Africa, shea butter has been exploited as a
food, for skin pomade, medicinal uses, etc. Since the 19th century,
Africans have traded the tree crop and used shea as a source of
stearin (vegetable fat), particularly for the European chocolate
industry, and more recently as a highly valued and beneficial
component of personal care products. Total exports from Africa
are estimated at 150,000 t kernel, similar to the amount locally
used, with up to 10% of the total exports consumed in cosmetics.
Recently, consumer demand for traceability and certification in
terms of fair-trade, quality assurance and organic farming methods
The main importance of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) is
due to the oil or fat that can be extracted from the dried kernels
(often known in western countries as shea butter or beurre de
karité) which is traditionally utilised in large quantities
for cooking, as a moisturising cream, for illumination, for soap
making, as a herbal medicine, for fire-lighting and for waterproofing
houses. In areas where there have been few other sources of edible
oil, the magnitude of use of this oleaginous product is comparable
to olive oil in the Mediterranean areas or to palm oil in the
wetter regions of West Africa, and travellers have documented
the widespread use of shea and trade in the region for many centuries,
e.g., Ibn- Batutta in 1354, and Mungo Park in 17976.
Shea butter has been traditionally extracted by women from the
dried kernels of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) for many
millennia. This species grows extensively in the agroforestry
parklands of semi-arid Africa in a 6,000 km x 500+ km zone from
Senegal to Uganda, where it is protected and managed. Total production
potential reaches over 2.5 million metric tonnes (MT1) kernel.
People living in the semi-arid zone of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA),
who until recently,have had few native sources of edible oil or
fat, have traditionally used shea butter in large quantities.
It is estimate that at least 150,000 t kernel is consumed annually
for frying, adding to sauces, as a skin pomade, for medicinal
applications, to make soap, for lanterns, and for cultural purposes
at ceremonies, like births, weddings and funerals.
The demand for vegetable fat in the western marketplace grows,
and shea butter is now commonly used in the production of cocoa
butter equivalents or improvers (up to 5% content by weight is
allowed under European Union (EU) regulations on chocolate), other
confectionaries and margarines. Exports from Africa now total
an estimated 150,000 t of dry shea kernel with a current market
value of approximately US$30 million with prices around US$200
t f.o.b. West African port.
Producers use this for the preparation of ca. 18,000 t of stearin
(the solid 'fat' fraction) with an estimated value of US$36 million.
No one knows what volume is used in the United States (US) for
edible products, since the US does not permit noncocoa vegetable
in products labelled as chocolate.
Shea butter has important therapeutic properties, particularly
for the skin
- Ultra-violet (UV) protection, moisturizing, regenerative and
anti-wrinkle properties, as well as in personal care products,
like pomades, soaps, and pharmaceuticals.
This market uses as much as 5-10% of the total African exports,
which equates to an estimated 2,500 and 8,000 t shea butter used
worldwide. A significant portion (500+ MT) is now used in the
US market. Since we know that Africa exported less than 200 t
of traditionally processed shea butter in 1994, the growth rate
of this market shows growth of over 25% per annum.
Certification of shea kernel and butter has become increasingly
important for a number of reasons. Beginning January 1, 2005 the
EU will start to demand that all agricultural products, including
shea nuts, are traceable from source (Reg. 178, Jan. 2002).
A number of cosmetic companies are asking for organically certified
shea butter for the formulation of organically.
Source: Technical Report: Prepared by Dr. Peter Lovett, Shea
Butter Consultant for WATH.