AgricultureShea Butter – “Women’s Gold”.

Selina LiyengwaFebruary 4, 2023294948 min

Shea butter comes from the nuts of karité trees that grow within the Sahel region extending from West Africa to East Africa, from Guinea and Senegal to Uganda and South Sudan. Although the shea tree takes a considerable amount of time, 11 to 15 years, to bear fruit, it can remain productive for up to 200 years. For centuries, shea butter has been called “women’s gold” not only for its deep gold or ivory color but also because it provides a source of employment and income for many women in Africa. The harvesting and production of shea butter has traditionally remained firmly in the hands of African women. The women often harvest the karité fruits, crush the nuts to extract the butter which is then boiled, cleaned, and packaged. The butter is then sold at the local markets or exported. An average of three million African women work directly or indirectly with shea butter according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). In Africa, the West African region is known to be the top producer of the shea nut. Specifically, Nigeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Benin, Togo and Ghana.

As claimed by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), the shea crop which is unique to sub-Saharan Africa is in high demand from several world markets. Statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization suggest that from the estimated 600,000 tons of shea nuts harvested in West Africa, about 350,000 tons are exported, mostly as raw nuts. The remaining 250,000 tons are processed and consumed locally and effectively left out of the traded market.

The majority of the shea demand not only comes from the confectionary industry but also from the natural cosmetics sectors. As stated in The New York Times, shea butter exports from West Africa alone are estimated to amass between 90 million USD and 200 million USD a year. The demand not only comes from major corporations but also from millions of entrepreneurs who hope to make a fortune by distributing the shea butter. The 6th African Conference of Agricultural Economist held on September 2019 in Abuja, Nigeria, concluded that the shea industry has potential for growth in the coming years, especially for shea butter used in cosmetics.

A study carried out by the Central Bureau of Investigation on behalf of Ecovia Intelligence acknowledged that the most attractive countries for shea butter exporters are France, Netherlands, Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy. These countries have large markets for conventional and natural cosmetics. In particular, France has one of the largest cosmetic market in Europe. In addition to this, it has the second-largest market for natural and organic cosmetics. This can be attributed to the fact that the country has a strong cosmetics manufacturing sector, hence the demand for shea butter in the French market is expected to continue. The growing demand for shea butter in European countries has increased the importance of sustainability standards and ethical standards. The European buyers strive to ensure the shea butter has come from verified sources.

With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, exporters of shea butter in developing countries have faced multiple setbacks. These challenges are likely to prevail for the foreseeable future as governments attempt to tackle the problem by implementing various public health measures. These include import and export restrictions on goods and imposition of lockdown and quarantine measures. Although these measures put in place have made a great contribution in reducing the spread of Covid, they have disrupted global supply chains creating challenges for exporters. Flight cancellations have also increased the cost of air freight and consequentially the price of exporting goods.

It is unclear how long the pandemic will impact supply chains for products such as shea butter. Nonetheless, the challenges faced by exporters due to the pandemic can be scaled down. Exporters are advised to check government and trade ministries websites regularly so as to be up to date with the latest guidance and rules. In addition to this, the exporters can get in direct contact with them to get information on emergency measures put in place due to the pandemic. Being up to date with transportation and freight procedures will also prove to be beneficial. Staying in regular contact with customers is advisable so as to communicate possible delays and delivery times to customers.

All in all, shea butter trade seems to be a credible source of income for West African countries through local and global trade. The revenue generated from its exportation contributes to the economy and it is a source of revenue for the women who harvest and process the shea nuts.


Selina Liyengwa

Content writer at Cue Africa. Email: LinkedIn: Selina Liyengwa.

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