The butter is made from the nuts of the shea tree, which grows in the Sahel region spanning from West to East Africa. The nuts, harvested during the months of June through August, are basically cracked, roasted, mixed and boiled into a liquid that cools into butter. It is this butter, natural and organic, that then becomes an ingredient in products for hair, skin and beauty, pharmaceuticals, as well as foods such as chocolate bars.
Shea butter is often referred to as ‘Women’s Gold’ because it is a female dominated field and it provides women the opportunity to earn a little bit of money from selling it. It is estimated that about 3 million African women work in the shea butter industry, with most of them being from West Africa. Despite their large number, many African women are unaware of just how valuable and in-demand shea butter is across the world.
For example, the beauty industry alone is a multi-billion dollar industry- and with the push towards using natural and organic ingredients, shea butter products could very well help fill that demand. However, all the shea butter exported out of Africa, about 150,000 tons, is only worth about $120 million in the market. The term ‘Women’s Gold’ could live up to its name if only Africans knew how much money they were losing by undervaluing shea butter and selling it for cheaper than it is truly worth.
Since 2000, the industry has been growing fast. There are, however, a few things to be cautious about as more and more shea butter is produced. First, basic economic principles state that when a commodity is seen as a money-maker, more people will want to join that industry so they can also make profit. This can lead to an over-saturated market, which means sellers will have to lower prices to attract customers. This will eventually lead to less profits overall for the sellers. (This is, however, great for customers as prices will be cheaper).
Another potential concern is that as more producers of shea butter enter the market, it is likely that many of them will be beginners and not really know how to properly harvest and process the nuts. This could result in lower quality shea butter, which might turn consumers away and hurt the industry.
Lastly, those in the African shea butter industry must look into doing more than just selling raw shea butter. Like most other natural resources in Africa, shea is mostly exported in its basic form. Meaning, either the butter is sold to international companies that turn it into sellable products (such as shampoo or makeup), or the nuts themselves are sold in bulk to Asian companies that process them and resell them at a higher price. Either way, most of the profit does not come back to Africa. Therefore, African producers of shea butter should export not only the shea butter, but also products made from shea butter. Some African companies already do this by selling soaps and lotion, but they are few in numbers. Manufacturing shea butter products in Africa, rather than abroad, will create local jobs, and provide much needed economic activity in the continent.