Skip Navigation
African Women, Shea Butter, and Globalization

African Women, Shea Butter, and Globalization

Developed by Dr. Judith Carney and Marlene Elias: Department of Geography, with the support of the GRCA

What does a Beverly Hills make-up counter have in common with West African women?

Many exclusive lines of cosmetics use products made from African shea butter, or karit, for natural skin moisturizers, lip balms, and eye creams. The nut of shea butter comes from trees found solely in the West African savanna. For centuries African women have collected the nuts and turned them into shea butter to help their bodies endure the harsh, dry Sahelian climate. In recent years the benefits of shea have become more widely known. It now forms a crucial ingredient of the natural products cosmetics marketed by brands such as The Body Shop. The growing demand for shea butter in the West is evident in the West African country, Burkina Faso, where karit now ranks third in exports.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United-Nations affiliates have stepped in to help Burkinas female producers improve their economic returns from shea butter. Their efforts focus on strengthening womens access rights to the valuable nuts while sustaining the trees from over-exploitation. Will the shea butter trade bring these types of transformations to the Sahels destitute? A focus on the commodity chains that link women in Beverly Hills with those in Burkina Faso will reveal the capability of development projects to effect gender equity and fair trade in this period of contemporary globalization.

Globalization of Karit

Burkina Faso is one of the worlds poorest countries, where most people are forced to survive on about a dollar a day. Economic opportunities are especially meager for women, who produce most of the food needed for subsistence.

The burgeoning international interest in the environment and natural products provides Burkinas female growers an opportunity to improve their incomes and thus, the well being of their children. Global market forces are thus reshaping rural womens livelihood patterns.

Traditional Uses of Shea Butter

Rural women have been gathering and processing shea butter in West Africa since at least the mid-fourteenth century. Muslim scholars reported on the value of shea in the regional economy, drawing attention to its use as a moisturizer, ointment, cooking and lamp oil, and for making soap. The collection and processing of shea nuts is central to womens household responsibilities. The nut, which contains 50% fat, remains an essential source of nutrition for Burkinab families.

The Ecology of the Shea Butter Nut Tree

Butyrospermum parkii is found exclusively in the African Sahel, the semi-arid region that lies south of the Sahara Desert. It requires approximately 1000 mm of annual rainfall and a long dry season to produce the valued nuts that females have collected for centuries.

As a profitable non-timber forest product (NTFP), the shea nut tree has sparked the interest of agroforestry and environmental organizations concerned with potential desertification and land degradation in the Sahel. Several programs in Burkina Faso have been implemented to promote sustainability of the shea butter nut tree.

Women and Karit Production

The making of shea butter is exclusively a female activity. The transformation of shea nuts into butter is a marathon task. The process involves intensive physical labor as well as considerable amounts of water and firewood during the rainy season when women are already burdened with agricultural tasks. Preparation takes several days and involves several stages: After collection, the nuts are boiled, sun-dried and shelled by hand. They are crushed, roasted, and then pounded in a mortar with a pestle.

The addition of water creates a paste, which requires kneading. Two to three women at a time reach into the thick shea batter to beat the paste so the caramel-colored foam floats to the surface. This foam is transferred to a bucket of water, where subsequent washings eliminate unwanted residues. The cleansing processrepeated as many as four timesyields progressively whiter foam, which is then boiled for many hours. The top layer is skimmed and upon cooling becomes the white shea butter so desired in international markets.

Burkinabe store run by womens cooperative selling shea butter products


Market Demand for Karit

In Europe, North America, and Japan, shea butter is now prized for its superb healing and moisturizing properties. It is an important ingredient in creams, sunscreens, conditioners, and in the treatment of burns and muscle pains. Commercial interest in shea also centers on its use as a substitute for cocoa butter in the chocolate industry.

Gender Equity and Fair Trade

Karit is one of the few economic commodities under womens control in Sahelian Africa. To meet international demands for shea butter, NGOs are organizing Burkinab producers into cooperatives to strengthen womens bargaining position and economic returns from their labor. Such initiatives increase womens ability to benefit from global trade opportunities. Throughout poor countries of the world, female participation in the formal economy is positively correlated with improved educational levels and social status, reduced fertility rates, a prolonged life span, and overall economic development.

* The copyright to the poster on this page and its images rests with Marlene Elias, and use of these images is prohibited without her permission.

(Back to Top)

Globalization Research Center - Africa