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Women’s Gold: The Making of Shea Butter

The creation of shea butter is an activity traditionally assigned to African women – a physically demanding process involving techniques passed down from generation to generation. Called the “African woman’s gold” because it often represents the only source of income for economically marginalized women, the shea tree truly offers the promise of a better future for many producers.

From Nut to Butter

Extraction of wholly natural shea butter from the pit (or nut) of the shea tree fruit is a marathon task. These trees – growing naturally in 20 countries, mainly across the wide band of the Savannah from Senegal to Uganda – can live for two centuries and only become active producers of fruit after 20 years of growth! The shea tree is extremely difficult to cultivate, making the creation of shea butter a physically demanding, labour-intensive process involving hard work and expertise.

African women produce shea butter according to the traditional method of manually crushing and churning the nuts. Once a year, from June to September, the nuts are ready to be harvested by hardworking women. Women pick the fruits that have fallen from the trees, remove their pulp, and clean the nuts. These nuts are then boiled and shelled, and the seeds are extracted. After being dried in the sun, the seeds are crushed, roasted, and pounded. The addition of water creates a thick paste, which is repeatedly kneaded and beaten until caramel-coloured foam floats to the surface. This foam is then washed repeatedly to eliminate impurities. After a final boiling, the top layer is skimmed off to create the precious vegetable butter that is used in cooking, cosmetics, and various medicinal ointments.

Discover the Benefits of Unrefined, Fair Trade Shea Butter

With the extraordinary products being created, the world is beginning to truly appreciate the medicinal, healing, and natural values of unrefined, traditionally-made shea butter. Useful for everything from keeping babies moisturized and relieving aching joints, to treating skin disorders (eczema, burns, shingles, hives etc), dressing women's hair, and even cooking, shea butter's healing and regenerative properties have long been a treasured protection against the dry, harsh sub-Saharan climate.

Unlike chemically-extracted shea oils, when produced using traditional African techniques shea butter retains all of its natural properties. Natural shea butter is recognizable by its beige colour, smooth texture, and unique scent. If the shea butter is white and odorless, this often means that it has been industrially extracted either using solvents (such as hexane) or clay and, as a result, may have lost some of its beneficial properties.

Pure shea butter, however, is naturally rich in fatty acids and Vitamins A, D, E, F, and K, and has many wonderful benefits. Shea butter…

  • Moisturizes the epidermis;
  • Helps relieve minor wounds (minor burns, for example) and some skin problems such as eczema and psoriasis;
  • Nourishes dry and broken hair;
  • Protects lips and skin from the cold;
  • Provides relief after sun exposure;
  • Helps relax and soothe aching muscles before and after physical activities;
  • Lessens the effect of skin aging because it stimulates cell regeneration;
  • Helps maintain natural skin tone, elasticity and smoothness;
  • Can be used as a breastfeeding ointment. It is edible and natural, and it helps to prevent cracking;
  • Can be used as massage oil for the prevention of stretch marks on the stomach for expectant mothers.

To make it easier to apply on the skin, it is best to warm a small quantity of shea butter in the palm of your hand. You can also add one tablespoon in the bathtub to soften and hydrate your skin!

Thanks to the Center for International Studies and Cooperation (CECI) for information about shea butter.  CECI, through the Uniterra programme implemented with its partner World University Service of Canada (WUSC), has been supporting shea butter women producer organizations for almost fifteen years in West Africa. Thanks also to Cindy D'Auteuil for the photos, taken during the summer of 2008 that allows us to more easily imagine the producers' reality.