Nigeria’s shea butter industry is taking a new shape, empowering millions of women and their households owing to its extensive uses in cosmetics, confectionary and pharmaceutical, writes Josephine Okojie
At the centre of Kolonji village in Agaie Local Government Area of Niger State is a shea butter production cluster filled to the brim with women processing raw shea nuts into fine butter.
The cluster comprises 50 women organised into cooperatives, who use traditional methods to extract nuts from shea fruits found in karité trees that grow in the wild. The nuts are then washed and sun-dried to sort for quality.
The outer skins are removed through a parboiling process before grinding starts. Afterwards, the ground nuts are roasted outside, over an open flame before going through a simple milling processing machine that squeezes the oil from the shea residues. This produces dark-brownish paste kneaded by hand for up to two hours to get excellent quality shea butter.
Then, the oil is left to cool, and the result is the creamy white, solid shea butter, which is ready to be weighed and packaged to sell at local markets or exported.
Among these women in the cluster carrying out this daily task is Aisha Abubakar, a 35-year-old mother of five whose husband is plagued by stroke.
Challenged by harsh economic situation in the country and the medical condition of her husband, Aisha who had no education could barely feed her family.
Inspired by the women at the shea butter cluster in Kolonji village who were making money from shea nuts processing, she was prompted to venture into the business to fend for her family.
Now, she produces and sells shea butter to exporters who supply to markets in Europe, the United States of America and Asia.
“Last year, we at the cluster supplied about 500 metric tons of shea butter to our buyers and we were able to support our individual families with the money made from sales,” Aisha says.
In 2018, the average price of a metric ton of shea butter produced at the cluster was sold for as low as N350,000 owing to quality issues. But premium grades, sought by traders, sold for an average of N750,000 the same year.
This implies that the women at the cluster made about N175million from shea butter with each of them earning an average income of about N3.5million in 2018.
“With the money I made, my children were able to go back to school and my husband is now able to see a doctor for his medical condition,” she adds.
Aisha’s case gives an insight into how shea butter production is empowering millions of women and their households as well as improving their livelihood and impacting communities.
Despite that the whole process of making shea butter is highly labour intensive, physically demanding and fairly time-consuming, the women entrepreneurs show high level of courage— and get rewards for their hard work.
“I have been producing shea butter for over 15 years now and I used the proceeds in supporting my husband for my children’s education,” Falilat Kazeem, a shea producer at a cluster in Saki West Local Government of Oyo state, says.
“Now, we have a son who just graduated and waiting for the National Youth Service Corps,” she notes.
For centuries shea butter has been called ‘women’s gold’ not only for its rich golden colour but also because it primarily provides employment and income to millions of women across the African continent.
Now, not only are the rural women taking advantage of the business opportunity in its production, urban female entrepreneurs are also in the party, using the butter as raw material for the production of various skincare products.
“We use organic shea butter as a key ingredient in the manufacturing of our skincare products owing to its rich nourishing, protecting and moisturising properties,” says Tomilola Awanebi, founder of Sheabuttersheen Nigeria Enterprises, a start-up that produces range of organic skincare products.
Awanebi, who started her business in her residential apartment four years ago, now has two major factories in Lokoja (Kogi State) and Akure (Ondo State) with over 20 employees.
Her products have reached over 18 states in Nigeria with two major export countries of focus.
She says shea butter is suitable for all skin types, including sensitive and eczema-prone ones, as it absorbs easily into the skin.
The United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) in 2015 estimated that about three million African women are directly or indirectly involved in the shea butter value chain.
Experts suggest that the number of women involved in the value chains may have risen by 10 to 15 percent since 2015.
Wunmi Asholake, director of sustainability, Global Shea Alliance, says it is a female dominated industry, because without them the industry might sink.
From poverty to wealth
Nigeria is the poverty capital of the world, with 98 million living in multidimensional or extreme poverty, according to the World Poverty Index.
Extreme poverty occurs when a person lives below $1.90 (N684) daily. Unemployment is 23.1 percent while misery index is nearly 45 percent.
These numbers alone can disillusion anyone, but not the women who have chosen shea processing as their profession.
The business is lifting many of them out of poverty, shifting them gradually to the middle-class.
“Many of us could not feed ourselves before, but we can now do so,” says Hauwa Mohammed also from the same cluster in Kolonji.
“Some of us can now have good homes, send our children to school and even have TVs at home,” she adds.
Many uses, wonder tree
From chocolate, ice cream and margarine, to face cream, lipstick, medicines and soap, shea butter is increasingly in demand as a luxury ingredient for edible and personal care products globally.
It is a product found in most homes across the world, either in its raw butter form or in cosmetics products as women heavily rely on it because of its emollient properties that help solve skin problems such as wrinkles and dryness.
Experts say that about 85 percent traded shea goes to the confectionery industry, mostly as cocoa butter equivalent (CBE) and other confectionary products, while 15 percent goes to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Shea butter also offers UV-protection and has strong anti-inflammatory properties. It comes from the nuts of Karité trees that grow in the Sahel region and can be found in the dry savannah belt of Nigeria.
The tree starts to bear fruit when it is 15 years and reaches full production at 20 years. It can then continue to produce nuts for the next 200 years.
The tree produces average of 15-20 kg of fruit a year, yielding 6-8 kg of fruit a year, according to a research by the Global Shea Alliance.
Strong export potential
Nigeria literarily sits on a shea butter goldmine as the crop, which is grown in the wild in 20 of Nigeria’s 36 states, with Niger, Kwara and Oyo states having the largest production areas, according to Nigeria Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR).
“The opportunity to create wealth in the shea industry is enormous in Nigeria and Africa at large,” says Jubril Bokani, national president National Shea Producers Association of Nigeria (NASPAN).
“The conversion of 100,000 metric tonnes of shea nuts into about 48,000 metric tonnes of shea butter for export can generate about $72 million and economically sustain about 600,000 rural women,” Bokani explains.
“This shows that there exists a clear opportunity for Nigeria to create to wealth and employment to be driven by value addition and export of shea butter and cake,” he further says.
According to the Nigerian Export Promotion Council (NEPC), global demand for shea butter is estimated at $10 billion and projected to surpass $30billion by 2020.
Currently, Nigeria is world’s largest producer of shea butter, producing 361,017 MT, according to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FOA)’s 2017 figures.
Ghana is the largest exporter in Africa, although most of the country’s exports are from Nigeria, experts say.
According to experts, Nigeria can double its shea butter production to 650,000MT for export with the domestication of the crop.
In 2016, the Nigeria Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) said it had been able to reduce the long gestation period of the Karite tree from 20 to between five and seven years. But Nigeria is yet to develop a technology that will enable the domestication of the crop to further boost production.
“Nigeria can now boast of having shea trees that are flowering and fruiting after five years. What we need now is to focus on domesticating the crop,” Loius Inabule, researcher at NIFOR, tells BusinessDay.
Nigeria’s shea butter market is largely untapped and can yield about $2billion annually, according to a Global Shea Alliance (GSA) briefing at the 6th International Shea Industry Conference in Abuja.
Despite the huge opportunities in shea butter production, Nigeria is yet to fully harness the potential in the production of the crop.
Women who process shea nuts into butter still make use of traditional methods which are time- and energy-consuming in extracting the butter, thus leading to quality issues.
As a result, they do not get fair price for their labour as the product does not attract good pricing owing to issues around poor quality.
“The shea butter of women at the cluster is of lower grade that attracts a lesser price. It sells for almost half the price of the premium Grade A,” says Jummai Abubakar, chief executive officer, Jummy Shea Cosmetics.
Experts say with innovation and use of modern technology by women shea producers, more volumes and consistently higher quality butter will be produced, resulting in better reward for their hard labour as well as grow the industry.
“We need to support these women by educating and training them on the use of modern machines and proper handling techniques. We also need to improve rural infrastructure, especially road infrastructures,” says Abubakar.
Some of the clusters in the rural communities now have kneading machines that make the job of the women easier.
Apart from using traditional methods that are cumbersome, infrastructural deficit across the country is also a challenge to the women’s income, as it has continued to erode their profits and impact their capacity to expand production negatively.
Roads such as Kayama- Okuta, Bida-Kolonji and Saki – Shikanda leading to the forest where the shea trees are found are in bad conditions and totally become impassable during the raining seasons.
These women who go by foot must cope with the poor and rocky soil daily to pick the shea fruits from the wild.
“We trek for more than 30 minutes to pick the shea fruits from the forest,” Halima Hassan, a member of the Nanbaba Co-operative in Niger State, says.
“At time, some of us are bitten by snakes and the roads leading to the forest are totally impassable when it rains,” she adds.
To ensure that the country maximise benefit from shea butter production and lift millions of households out of poverty, experts say government at all levels must invest in key infrastructures such as roads to aid businesses otherwise.
They add that the country will continue to lose foreign exchange if the status quo does not change.
“The problem with agriculture is infrastructure and without heavy investments in it we would not adequately harness the potential in the sector,” says Abiodun Olonrundero, operation manager, Aquashoots Limited.