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Shea Butter: A Niche Commodity

Updated on July 15, 2010

Traditional Usage and Globalization

The transformation of shea butter from an indigenous staple to the upscale-market salve we know today is a relatively recent anomaly that has transformed the way the world looks at the Sudanian Savanna native, the shea tree. It is intrinsic to the culture and livelihood of women who live in the savanna “an inextricable feature of the female domain” as Brenda Chaflin puts it. Globalization has provided countries in the savanna (Ghana, Burkina Faso, Mali, etc.) a niche export market for shea butter—primarily affluent western consumers. There is a certain sense of independence within the domestic shea market—the particular traditions of how shea resources participates in savanna societies, and how it is traded between those persons. Although the domestic and international markets (and the hands that are involved) are different, neither market is dominant over the other (Chaflin, 7). Why hasn’t this occurred? After all, doesn’t globalization as we know it generally turn developing nations in to export-dependent quasi-colonies with reliance on international aid and “developed countries”? Shea butter as a cosmetic commodity shows defiance towards this cyclical process and stands out as a niche, sustainable and culturally positive value-added product.

Chaflin states “The domestic market for shea operates as a much more autonomous realm, with its own expansive dynamic and own capacity to shape—even initiate—the terms of interface with the export market”, this quote makes an important distinction—the domestic market is essentially in charge of the show. Most shea nuts collected each season serve domestic purposes and local demand—not as an export commodity (Masters, et al).

Location of Shea Trees

The area surrounded in orange highlight (below the blue highlight) is where Shea Trees naturally grow. They cannot be cultivated in other regions on Earth.
The area surrounded in orange highlight (below the blue highlight) is where Shea Trees naturally grow. They cannot be cultivated in other regions on Earth.

The Shea Tree and Gender Hierarchy

The shea tree and the nuts in which shea butter is extracted from is a sustainable agro-forestry resource. It occurs naturally within the savanna and is “resistant to plantation cultivation” (Chaflin, 1). Shea trees take fifteen to twenty years after germination produce its first fruit. Shea trees are preserved even when a farming operation occupies the land; this is a doubly good thing since the quality of weeding & soil management directly correlates with the health of shea trees present—which are highly prized (Masters, et al).

In this area where shea trees natively grow, only women may participate in shea processing (e.g. nut gathering, crushing and extraction, etc.). Every process involves three or four generations, and is a female hierarchy—the elder are the knowledge holders, the young are the hard laborers (Chaflin, 10). The use of shea butter as a topical treatment is not new—it is used by women in the savanna as a traditional salve for pregnancy (during and after) and for use on the newborn(s). Shea fruit & shea butter are also an essential food, and a common gift to other women in the community (Chaflin, 7). Shea nuts are handled by women at each stage in the formation of shea butter for the domestic market, but the process is different for the international market. Women simply gather the shea nuts and then they are usually sent to Europe or Asia for extraction and manufacturing, although some manufacturing does occur within the country and/or locality.

Modern Usage: A Chocolate Substitute

Shea butter originally gained popularity in the first half of the 20th century as an inexpensive vegetable fat and cheap raw material (Masters, et al). Shea butter met its current era of globalization in the 1980’s through the 1990’s. In this time frame global access to shea products varied from country to country depending on: state control of the product, then-pending negotiations with the World Bank & IMF for reasonable financial aid, and varying levels of political pressure applied to West African countries to liberalize their economies (Chaflin, 15: Elias, 7). The primary pressure to liberalize shea as a commodity was as a chocolate substitute. On a mass-industrial scale shea butter extract is cheaper than cocoa—which appealed to American and European chocolate conglomerates. It seems shea butter as a cosmetic obtained access to world markets as a fortunate consequence of western lust for an inexpensive cocoa substitute.


I feel neither the domestic market nor the international market for shea butter as a cosmetic will become dominant over the other in most West African countries in the near future due to three observations: The inherent resistance shea trees pose as a plantation crop, the respect of women as the cultural proprietors of shea tree / nut knowledge, and the continuing resolve of the domestic market to support itself before the international market.


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    • NubianGoddess profile image

      NubianGoddess 5 years ago from James Island

      shea nut can be Africa comeback product if marketed right and placed in the hands of the people not the corrupted government. It is way more powerful that other moisture nut. I KNOW CAUSE I SELL IT .

    • profile image

      motaiye 6 years ago

      its grows in nigeria too...

    • profile image

      Ionut 6 years ago

      Interesting! :)

      Do you know if there are Shea Trees in Sierra Leone?

      I read some articles that mention Sierra Leone, but there are no concrete specifications about it existence.

      Thank you very much!

    • LoopyGem profile image

      LoopyGem 6 years ago from Canada

      Wow, I never realized that Shea trees cannot grow anywhere else on earth except those regions...that's a pretty cool fact! I love shea butter, it's ability to transform pasty, uneven skin tone into something more eye catching is remarkable. Thanks for sharing! :)

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Fascinating! I always find myself wondering about various ingredients I see in foods, soaps, lotions, and the like. It's nice to finally read more background... especially because I'm too lazy to look it up myself. Excellent hub!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 7 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Good information. I learn much from you. Thank you very much.