Winds of change buffet a small-time industry, hitting women hardest

The West African shea oil industry is facing technological and economic disruption, threatening livelihoods.
A woman produces shea butter
Traditional shea butter processing in Burkina Faso is done by village women who gather, boil and sun-dry, and roast the nuts before they are pounded and ground into a fine paste. The paste is mixed with water to separate the fat, which is then manually churned into creamy butter. CIFOR/Ollivier Girard

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BOGOR, Indonesia—Trade in a key ingredient in skin-care products is being upended by new trends in technology and international markets—trends that are unwelcome news for an unlikely group: Women in West Africa.

The ingredient in question? Shea oil.

Shea nuts are at the core of significant economic activity for women throughout West Africa. In northern Ghana, for example, women have gathered and processed the oil-rich seeds into butter and skin-care products for at least the past 200 years.

Now their relationship to the traditional shea nut artisanal industry is changing due to technological advances, the emergence of a globalized commodity chain and the increasing use of shea as a cocoa butter equivalent in chocolate manufacture, according to an international forestry governance expert.

Although the full socio-economic impact of increasing commercialization and market integration at a global scale is not yet fully understood, such activities could put food security and women’s livelihoods at risk, said Andrew Wardell, who leads Research Capacity and Partnership Development for the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

“Historical evidence suggests the continuity, resilience and sovereignty of women’s shea production and trade in local and regional markets now face a risk of potential disintegration,” wrote Wardell in a recent research paper, pointing out that alternative employment opportunities are scarce in the harsh semi-arid Sudano-Sahelian region of West Africa where the shea nut  (Vitellaria paradoxa) tree flourishes.

“Governments are often influenced by endemic neo-liberal ideals that promote private for-profit production systems over public regulation for public use, illustrating that local food security concerns are often relegated to national and global trade and investment interests,” he said.

Shea nut oil—popularly known in various forms as shea butter—is used most often in skin-softening cosmetics and as an ingredient in medicine, cooking or for frying other foods, and in local soap manufacture when mixed with palm oil.


Northern Ghana is characterized by tropical dry forests, narrow strips of lush forests along the tributaries of the Volta River system, and — in more heavily populated areas — by agroforestry parklands dominated by shea nut and African locust bean (Parkia biglobosa) trees.

Women depend on sales of shea nuts and other local forest-based goods (non-timber forest products) as part of their subsistence economy while men tend to migrate for work periodically sending remittances to their families.

Surplus shea nuts are sold in local periodic markets to wholesalers who in turn sell them to other women who need them for production of shea butter or to agents of large-scale trading companies. Trades occur throughout Ghana and with neighboring countries such as Burkina Faso.

The process of transforming the nuts to butter is labor-intensive, requiring gathering the nuts, shelling them, grinding and mixing them until they turn to butter.

Before Ghana gained independence from Britain in 1957, the global shea nut trade had already been considered for its potential as a taxable commodity to help pay for colonial administration.

However, the industry was hampered due to difficulties in storing, refining and transporting the butter. Interest in an export trade was subsequently abandoned as Ghana’s cocoa industry developed.


After World War II, industrial demand for shea butter as a substitute for cocoa butter progressively increased. From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, the global demand for shea nuts grew in tandem with the increasing cost of cocoa butter. From the mid-1980s to the early 1990s a decline in cocoa prices led to a fall in demand for cocoa butter equivalents.

Since the early 1990s, the price of shea nuts has fallen, enabling manufacturers of cocoa butter equivalents to buy them at lower costs and organize new types of shea nut and butter supply chains in exporting countries as part of a broader transition from state to market governance.

A shea nut oligopoly among four main firms developed within countries where the use of cocoa butter equivalents is permitted in chocolate manufacture.  Unilever subsidiary Looders Crookland in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Aarhus Olie in Denmark and Karlshamm in Sweden (now merged), and Fuji Oil in Japan emerged to dominate the industry.

The resulting governance by a tight-knit oligopoly marks the failure of Ghana’s government to regulate the shea commodity trade, Wardell said.

Approval by the European Union for the use of cocoa butter equivalents to supplement cocoa content for use in chocolate manufacture is expected to lead to a further increase in demand for shea butter, according to Wardell’s paper.


Amid such trade struggles, it remains unclear whether local women will continue in the long term to be the main source of manually processed shea butter, Wardell said.

Non-governmental organizations and Looders have devised a structure whereby local women are involved in the manual processing of shea butter before it goes to a large-scale processing plant. The Body Shop, L’Occitane and other companies also buy shea butter for use in cosmetics directly from women who produce it by hand.

“The cumulative impact of increasing commercialization and world market integration at the local and national level on women’s livelihoods and incomes in Ghana is still unknown,” Wardell said, adding that whether existing gendered control over the sector will change remains an open question.

“There are risks that the long-established local shea processing and marketing systems will disintegrate and possibly result in social differentiation, changes in household consumption patterns and loss of livelihoods, particularly for women,” he said.

For further information on the topics discussed in this article, please contact Andrew Wardell at

This research forms part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry.

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Topic(s) :   Gender