In recent years, there has been a rise in demand for shea butter as an ingredient not only in skin products, but in confectionery and pharmaceuticals.
The gathering of shea nuts for processing into shea butter by women has been a main source of income for thousands of households in rural areas of northern Ghana where shea tree grows.
A study on the technological changes in shea butter production in some districts in the northern region and how processing could further be improved, showed that shea butter processors need improvement in the areas of cooking shea kernels, ‘beating’ of shea paste and packaging of shea butter.
It emerged that after the picking, crushing, roasting, grinding and cooking of the nut to produce shea butter, a woman (labourer) took home less than GHC20.
An estimated three million rural women in Ghana make a paltry income from shea butter.
The Ghana Trades and Livelihood Coalition (GTLC) has often called for a comprehensive policy on shea that would properly recognise the role of nut pickers and processors in the industry.
The GTLC, a trade and agriculture policy advocacy group, argues that the shea value chain realistically starts with women who gather shea fruits and process them into nuts for the market. Yet the value added is not given real value for the benefit of these women.
A policy brief developed by the coalition states that traditionally, women have carried on their backs the successes of the shea sector and that virtually all the 130,000 tonnes of nuts produced in Ghana are collected and processed by women.
It posits that the market might not get sustainable supply of nuts soon if the value added in picking was not well recognised.
“What value are we putting on the life of a picker who goes through unseen and lurking dangers to initiate the shea chain?
Unfortunately, they are given little recognition for their efforts. To sustain and grow the shea value chain, women must be given policy and institutional support that remunerates them fairly,” it stated.
Already, the presence of middlemen in the supply chain of shea nut is a challenge faced by people in the industry.
These middle men who act as a link between the producers and the final consumer, make the spread of their profits so thin that real people who go through the drudgery to process and sometimes package it do not earn the value of their labour.
More so, the prices offered for the shea nuts and subsequently, shea butter, are so low that one is worse off in the production and processing of shea butter.
“For the women involved in the shea nut and shea butter production, there is an issue of access to market. Although the shea nut industry has a potential, the women are not benefiting from it. It is important to assist them to access better markets and improve incomes and livelihoods,” the coalition said.
Evolution of shea butter
Shea butter is solid fatty oil made from the nuts of the shea tree which grows in the semi-savannah regions of West and Central Africa.
When crushed and processed, the nuts of the shea tree yield a vegetable fat known as shea butter which is used as cooking oil, a hair and body cream in the three northern regions, especially and is now commonly used by others throughout the country.
Shea butter is used as cooking oil for traditional dishes and is touted as a panacea for skin and inflammatory ailments.
The branches are used for the making of hoes, mortars, pestles and the handles of most household and farm tools such as knives, pick axe and mattocks.
Also globalisation, coupled with most people’s quest for a healthy lifestyle, has increased the patronage of shea butter for purposes such as soap making, shower gel production and can also be found in its refined stage on the shelves of cosmetic shops and is now recognised internationally for its medicinal and therapeutic functions.
The GTLC urged the government and other stakeholder to come out with an institutional arrangement that would have independent oversight over the shea sector.
The GTLC sees some solution to the challenge faced by pickers and processors through a shea cluster initiative that is hinged on collaboration between the government, research and the private sector.