What exactly is Shea Butter made of? The Shea tree, with the botanical names of Butyrospermum Parkii or Vitellaria Paradoxa, produces a seed when processed becomes what is commonly known as Shea Butter, a creamy, solid oil with many health and beauty benefits. The Shea tree indigenous to West and Central sub-Saharan Africa, is found in 18 countries including Ghana, Benin, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo and Guinea. The Shea fruit has a fleshy texture, similar to a berry, and is reported to be sweet and nutritious often used as a jelly spread.
Because many of the African countries that grow the Shea are French-speaking, it is also commonly known as Karité and the butter that comes from the seeds is called Beurre de Karité. Every part of the Shea tree has some health and social benefit to the traditional societies that have used it for centuries. For example, the hard shell nut is used recreationally in a children’s game in Ghana known as maranda. Also, the sap from the tree mixed with palm oil produces a gum texture used to make an adhesive, which is used to fill cracks in Bobo drums in Burkina Faso. Shea leaves are used as medicine to treat a variety of ailments including gripes in children as well as headaches and eye infections in various countries, including Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. In other areas like Nigeria, the branches are used to make traditional chewing stick called Miswak or Siwak reported to clean teeth and prevent gum disease equal to or greater than toothpaste. Also, in Senegal and Guinea, the bark of the tree is used in preparation for the treatment of conditions ranging from diarrhea to leprosy to diabetes. In numerous accounts, various parts of the Shea tree is used prior to, during and after child birth and rearing.
With a vast and diverse history, the Shea tree is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Because it takes the Shea tree close to 30 years to bear fruit, communities located in close proximity to the wild harvest tend to be protected for cultural and economic reasons. Overwhelmingly, those that go out in the dangerous conditions, plagued with the potential for snake bites and other animal encounters, are women and this has been the case for centuries. African women are the principle engineers for extracting many of the before mentioned health benefits. Of all its uses, Shea Butter (raw and unrefined) is the most popular product of the tree due to the plethora of skin ailments and conditions it helps to heal including eczema, burns, rashes, stretch marks, and dry skin. Yet, its production remains the most tedious and laborious, requiring skill, patience and a commitment to protecting the essential vitamin benefits easily lost through overheating and other poor practices.
Traditional production processes of Shea Butter are centuries old, and remain the best methods of making the butter. This process includes:
- The women crack the hard-covered shell to release the seed, then thoroughly wash them;
- The seeds are spread out and examined in the sun light, picking out the bad seeds that might compromise the quality of the butter (visible by trained eyes) and then let out to dry;
- After dried and roasted, the seeds are pounded in a mortar or ground in a millet to create a cocoa-looking paste;
- The paste is mixed with distilled water and vigorously whipped until it forms a thick paste. Authentic Shea Butter should have a light or beige color to it, all dependent on the quality and type of the shea seed;
- The paste is then heated in an open fire, with the oil rising to the
and eventually filtered through cheese cloth;
- The oil is left to cool and solidifies at room
temperature to the creamy, solid texture common to Shea Butter.
A key goal of Shea Yeleen is to ensure that the women who cultivate Shea Butter
are able to do so in safe and humane working environments. Additionally, the women earn 5 time above the average daily minimum wage in Ghana (earning more than $10 a day versus the average $2 daily). Other benefits include:
- The women are provided with training on seed sorting methods,
ensuring that the best quality Shea is used during the production phase;
- Explore safe technology to reduce the labor intensity and hazards common to production;
- Build facilities equipped with tools, electricity and running water that extends beyond usage for Shea Butter and is accessible to the entire community;
- In addition to ensuring the women are provided with an above average living wage, our partners are also able to access Ghana’s national health insurance program to provide the best care possible for their families
Known as “women’s gold” in a United Nation’s report, Shea Butter production is only a small portion of the close to $200 million a year industry that is also exported in bulk to various parts of Europe to be used in cosmetic products like lipstick and lotions as well as food products like ice cream and chocolate. Shea Yeleen is proud to be part of the movement to ensure that our Shea Butter is a fair trade product, whose market value is as beneficial to the women producers as it is to our consumers.