For generations, women in West Africa have produced shea butter for home consumption and to sell for use in cosmetics and cuisine domestically and abroad. But now their way of life is undergoing a transformation as the ancient trees that produce the nut from which the oil is extracted disappear, jeopardizing their earning power.
The ripple effect is far reaching, with consequences not only for the health of the parklands in which they grow, but with implications for local ecosystem services, global warming, regional and international trade and commodities markets.
“Changes in women’s rights of access to and use of shea trees have resulted in theft becoming one of the main strategies used by women to collect shea kernels as the relevance of customary norms, practices and institutions has declined,” said Andrew Wardell, a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF).
“Growth of global trade in shea butter and kernels has been accompanied by significant land cover and land use changes, which has led to progressive loss of trees, biodiversity and other ecosystem services such as pollination and carbon sequestration,” he added. “If the shea industry does not act now to restore the parklands, supply may not be able to meet demand by 2034.”
Wardell has produced two new journal articles published in International Forestry Review, providing a survey of the shea trade from the latter part of the 19th century until today. An analysis of pre-colonial, colonial and post-independence trade in the commodity describes the gendered nature of the contemporary shea economy in Burkina Faso.
The country is one of the main exporters of shea in West Africa, which accounts for almost all bulk exports. Growing global demand for shea oil as an ingredient in cocoa butter equivalents (CBE), personal care products and niche edible products coupled with pressures to intensify local agricultural production of food and energy needs pose new threats to the sustainability of shea parklands and women and community livelihoods.
Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 17.5 percent decline in forest and tree cover in Burkina Faso was observed, he said. Parkland flagship tree species populations — particularly shea trees — declined from an estimated 230 trees per hectare in the early 1940s to fewer than 11 trees per hectare by 2011.
“Landscape degradation in the parklands is due to demographic pressures, growing demand for food and unsustainable farming and grazing practices, shorter fallow periods, increased mechanization, fires, felling of trees for firewood and charcoal and changes in the functioning of local governance customary institutions,” Wardell said.
An analysis produced by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Global Shea Alliance (GSA), which was formed in 2011, estimates that approximately 8 million shea trees across West and Central Africa are lost every year due to tree removal for firewood, increasing populations, loss of fallows and areas for shea regeneration and land clearing for commercial agriculture.
The restoration of shea parklands remains a critical challenge in Burkina Faso as current efforts are only meeting 2 percent of national targets to be achieved by 2030, Wardell said.
In recent times, the commodity has gained popularity with consumers drawn to the product by cosmetics companies promoting a connection between women who like to buy niche products produced in a “green” manner in the Global North, and women entrepreneurs in the Global South who are seen to benefit.
Women have dominated shea production and sales for centuries in West Africa, managing trees, gathering nuts, roasting and crushing kernels to create rich butter used in cooking, cosmetics and medicines.
But the research papers demonstrate how the parklands have dwindled as international demand has grown exponentially since the European Union began to allow 5 percent non-cocoa butter derived fats to replace cocoa butter in products legally defined as chocolate.
This sector — the Cocoa Butter Equivalent (CBE) market — is also largely driven by Brazil, Russia, India and China, the so-called BRICS nations projected to be the top suppliers of manufactured products, services and raw materials worldwide by 2050.
The specialty fats market and agri-food industries – dominated for 200 years by an oligarchy of shea nut exporters who control the world’s largest manufactuers of CBEs — now absorb 90 percent of total shea nut exports from Burkina Faso. This reflects a marked contrast to the shea butter value chain supplying the cosmetics and edible niche markets, which represent only 10 percent of the export trade from the country.
An estimated 50 percent of total annual shea nut production is still consumed locally, although empirical data is scarce as the local edible consumption of this staple edible oil is still largely ignored by government, donor organizations and non-governmental organizations, Wardell said.
This increase in trade marks the second major wave of globalization of the commodity – the first in the 1960s — a fact overlooked by some pundits who recommend globalized free trade as a mechanism to improve agricultural production in West Africa, he added.
“While it is generally assumed that global markets are a more viable alternative to reliance on local, domestic or regional markets, detrimental land cover and land use changes, prove otherwise.”
The papers trace the history of the industry in French Upper Volta — known as Burkina Faso since 1984. Most exports to Europe wound up in margarine prior to independence in 1960 when CBEs were first introduced by Aarhus United, Unilever, Fuji Itoh and Mitsu Bishu, firms based outside the country.
After independence, the country’s first state-led forestry activities initially focused on establishing large scale forest plantations for wood-fuel production using exotic species. The government tried to control the shea nut value train, creating a marketing board, followed by a shea price stabilization initiative intended for Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands.
By 1984, government-led land tenure reforms sparked a growing awareness of the critical need to understand customary land and resource tenure arrangements and the central role of women in shea processing. By the 1990s, the system remained pyramidal, controlled by wholesalers.
Until 2008, non-state actors supported capacity building of women shea producers, the emergence of new associations and federated structures, technological improvements in shea processing and access to new markets including organic and fair trade niche markets, with better quality products.
By 2010 there were 10,000 women producer shea groups designed to increase the revenues and reduce the workloads of rural women, while providing improved processing technologies to produce better quality shea kernels and butter.
Yet the attention given to shea processing and marketing during this period as a means of enhancing rural women’s incomes may, inadvertently have resulted in the comparative neglect of questions related to the regeneration of the parklands, Wardell said.
“Despite to the massive growth in CBE markets since the early 21st century, farmers didn’t benefit — the increased price didn’t reach them and there was no incentive until mobile phone technology provided the biggest breakthrough for shea collectors by enabling them to have instant access to market prices.”
In 2011, Burkina Faso had an estimated 305 million shea trees with an average density of 11 trees per hectare. Despite the adoption of a National Shea Strategy from 2015 to 2019, due to lack of funding and poor execution only 300,000 seedlings were planted.
“Greater efforts are needed to combat this poor showing and to tackle the difficulties encountered during landscape restoration efforts,” Wardell said, adding that fiscal incentives must be improved to support the crop, which is the country’s fourth most important source of foreign exchange earnings.
Not only does the shea tree support the livelihoods among rural women who have few other opportunities to generate income, but it is a crucial ingredient in local climate smart agriculture approaches.
“As agriculture becomes increasingly unpredictable under changing climatic conditions, non-timber forest products such as shea – produced by the most important revenue generating tree species in rural Burkinabe, gain in relative importance.”
This research was supported by Burkina Faso’s Institute of Environment and Agricultural Research and Department of Environment and Forests, France’s Agency for International Development (CIRAD), Bioversity and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, and the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agriculture.
We want you to share Forests News content, which is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0). This means you are free to redistribute our material for non-commercial purposes. All we ask is that you give Forests News appropriate credit and link to the original Forests News content, indicate if changes were made, and distribute your contributions under the same Creative Commons license. You must notify Forests News if you repost, reprint or reuse our materials by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org.