Shea Nuts/Butter Profile
Extracted from the nuts of the African shea tree, shea butter has been used for cosmetic purposes for thousands of years, and is today widely used in the global cosmetics industry to make skin moisturisers and hair-care products.
Harvesting and processing shea nuts is a long, labour-intensive activity. Once processed and refined the shea nut is used for a variety of purposes; most commonly, a vitamin-enriched, butter-like substance is extracted from the nuts to use as cooking oil or lotion.
The extraction process that produces shea butter involves a number of steps from cracking the nut, to grinding, roasting and “cooking” a shea paste to separate the oil that eventually becomes shea butter.
Assistance is required in providing the requisite training and organisational structures needed to produce a higher quality, more profitable and consistent grade of shea butter.
West Africa produces 600,000 metric tonnes (MT) of the Shea nut traded annually, according to the Global Shea Alliance. Nigeria alone accounts for over 40 percent of this figure. However, the country is currently lagging its less endowed neighbours in the optimal harnessing of this resource as an export commodity.
Nigeria, which exports about 50,000 tons of shea butter annually, is believed to account for almost 60 per cent of the world’s supply of shea butter and allied derivatives valued at about $3.8 billion every year.
The Global Share Alliance, a multi-stakeholder association, committed to quality and sustainability of the shea industry, has estimated Nigeria’s yearly losses to smuggling of exportable Shea produce to the global market at about N345 billion (about $2.2 billion, a development which it says is undermining efforts to translate the benefits of Shea production to national advantage.
The nutritional importance of Shea
The fruit of the Shea tree ripens during the annual hunger season when food supplies are at their lowest ebb and agricultural labour requirements are at their peak. When the Shea fruits ripen, they fall under their own weight to the floor and are gathered by hand mostly by Nigerian women and children.
The fruit, which is green in colour, has a fleshy edible pulp, it is rich in vitamins and minerals and not lacking in protein too.
Shea butter has several industrial applications, but the majority of kernels (approximately 95 percent) provides an important raw material for Cocoa Butter Replacers (CBRs), and is used for manufacturing chocolate and other confectionery. Shea butter could be used as a pan releasing agent in bread baking.
The fruit pulp, being a valuable food source, is also taken for its slightly laxative properties. Although not wide spread minor uses include cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
The fruit is also an important source of food for many organisms, including birds and bats. Inside the fruit is a seed rich in the mixture of edible oils and fats known as Shea butter.
The mature kernel contains 61percent fat which when extracted is edible- a crucial nutritional resource for millions of Nigerian rural households and can serve as medicinal as well as industrial purposes.
The oil extracted from the kernel is important in the U.K as cocoa butter substitute in chocolate manufacture. Greater quality assurance of the Shea butter throughout the supply chain is a pre-requisite if the Shea tree is to reach its full nutritional resource for rural and urban households across the nation and for future generations.
Medicinal properties of Shea tree
Shea butter is one of the main edible oil for the rural people of northern Nigeria being the most important source of fatty acids and glycerol in their diet. It is an unguent for the skin. Other specific compounds identified in shea include triterpene alcohols, known to reduce inflammation; cinnamic acid esters, which have limited capacity to absorb ultraviolet (UV) radiation; and lupeol, which prevent the effect of skin aging by inhibiting enzymes that degrade skin proteins.
Shea butter also protects the skin by stimulating production of structural proteins by specialized skin cells. It also has anti-microbial properties, which gives it a place in herbal medicine.
It is also used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries as an important raw material and/or a precursor for the manufacture of soaps, candles, and cosmetics. Shea butter is used as a sedative or anodyne for the treatment of sprains, dislocations and the relief of minor aches and pains.
Other important uses include its use as an anti-microbial agent for promotion of rapid healing of wounds, and as a lubricant for donkey carts. The indigenous people trade with it, they eat it and rub their bodies with it; they also burn it to make light; they assure that it is a very beneficial remedy against aches and pains and sores and wounds for which it is applied as an unguent.
As a cosmetic, it is used as a moisturizer, for dressing hair and for protection against the weather and sun. It is used as a rub to relieve rheumatic and joint pains and is applied to activate healing in wounds and in cases of dislocation, swelling and bruising. It is widely used to treat skin problems such as dryness, sunburn, burns, ulcers and dermatitis and to massage pregnant women and small children.
Having a high melting point of between (32-45°C) and being close to body temperature are attributes that make it particularly suitable as a base for ointments and medicines. It is also used to treat horses internally and externally for girth galls and other sores. The healing properties of Shea butter are believed to be partly attributable to the presence of allantoin, a substance known to stimulate the growth of healthy tissue in ulcerous wounds.