News Update

Shea Butter Good for Skin and Economy

Posted September 3rd 2009

By Zack Gross Featured in The Brandon Sun, August 22, 2009

It would seem that consumer appetite for new fair trade products runs more than skin deep! A new and revolutionary product, at least in terms of community livelihood in West and East Africa, is shea (pronounced shay) butter, produced by crushing the fruit (nuts) of the shea tree. The tree is called “African women’s gold” as it often represents the main source of income for its harvesters and processors. And, by following fair trade principals, shea butter is helping marginalized communities to grow economically and improve their health and education programs.

Shea butter is also known as “Women’s Gold” due to its skin care properties. Those promoting the sale of shea butter argue that it protects us from the sun’s UV rays, moisturizes dry skin, melts away skin discolorations, fights wrinkles and stretch marks, relaxes stiff muscles, relieves eczema and psoriasis, soothes the effects of breastfeeding, helps to heal bruises, improves damaged hair and relieves joint pain. Even men can use it, after they shave, to fight razor burn! Shea butter can be found in products sold in pharmacies, “green” stores and cosmetics shops, such as lip gloss, skin creams and soaps. A large portion of shea butter production also goes into chocolate, confections and margarine, sometimes as a substitute for cocoa butter or vegetable oils.

As with many natural resources and foods that we receive from the developing world, in this case countries such as Ghana, Togo and Nigeria, producers are rarely compensated fairly for their labour. The majority of the more than 600,000 metric tons of shea nuts collected in Africa annually are purchased and controlled by European and Asian corporations, such as Unilever. “Middlemen” buy from remote communities, offering less than a fair market price, but the women who have performed the backbreaking work of gathering and transporting shea nuts have little choice. As well, the nuts are taken out of the country for processing, rather than employment being created locally via a value-added activity.

Shea butter production is very labour-intensive. Nuts are picked, sun dried, hand-shelled and then boiled over a fire until the butter rises to the surface. The product is then scooped into gourds to cool. Some new small-scale technologies are beginning to be used, such as mills to crush the nuts. In corporate production settings outside of Africa, even faster processes are in use that include adding chemicals, bleaches and solvents to dissolve the nuts, make the colour uniform, and so on. These chemicals are then removed but, it is argued, have already dissipated the healing properties of natural shea butter. Twenty to thirty hours go into ultimately yielding one kilogram and this amount trades on the world market for about one dollar’s earning to a producer. With fair trade controls, shea butter is still not a big money-maker but the payment to producers per kilo more than doubles. Without labour standards, the women involved in production will remain abjectly poor.

The Global Alliance for Community Empowerment and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) have advocated that the greatest potential for women’s emancipation and community economic development comes from shea butter production remaining in the hands of African villagers. Along with earning some money, women pick up organizational skills, environmental knowledge and improve their standing in their own communities. Fair trade also mandates that businesses and organizations here purchase the shea butter directly from the women’s producer organizations, that women receive an equitable share of the income earned, and that the “fair trade premium” (10% beyond the price paid) goes to community projects such as clinics and schools.

Many Canadian non-governmental organizations support the development of the village-based African shea butter industry with project grants or by ordering product directly from communities. They warn the interested consumer to beware of the non-natural and non-fair trade varieties when they are shopping. Fair trade and organic certification logos are stamped on the products we want to buy. Poverty is a complex issue, but purchasing fair trade shea butter will change the complexion of global economic relationships, bettering the lives of African women.

Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of over 40 international development organizations active in the province. For more articles by Zack Gross visit

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This program was made possible with financial support of the Government of Manitoba,
and was undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada (GAC)

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