30 Jun 2016

Shea butter nourishes more than dry skin

Sweep-netting to identify shea pollinators. Photo © J Stout
Sweep-netting to identify shea pollinators. Photo © J Stout
By Djamila le Pair

The benefits of shea butter are plenty, but the future of this valuable oil may not be as smooth. The shea tree’s surrounding habitat is steadily being stripped of diversely flowering trees and shrubs, impacting pollinators and diminishing yields. This loss of habitat also lowers numbers of insect-hungry migratory birds. A new BirdLife project, funded by the Darwin Initiative, aims to help crack this tough nut. Education, replanting, research, and collaboration with Industry form part of a pilot project aiming to soften the rough areas of Burkina Faso’s shea butter production.

Inside Kaboré Tambi National Park elephants and antelope browse the varied, native vegetation in this part of the Sub-Saharan shea belt. Less varied are the park’s edges, where local farmers labour for their survival. Though shea trees stay rooted, other trees, shrubs and flowers are cleared for consumable and cash crops.

Shea butter is more than a moisturiser. A staple food for locals, shea butter is said to have anti-inflammatory capacities and generously provides fatty acids and vitamins A and E, while shea fruit pulp, consumed during the hungry-season, is rich in vitamin C. Primarily collected and harvested by women, shea is an important boost for household budgets.

Unfortunately, it takes almost 8 kilos of valuable firewood to produce 1 kilo of shea butter, contributing to the loss of on-farm trees. In tough farming conditions it is hard work to grow enough maize, millet and sorghum to feed your family and in southern Burkina Faso families often live on less than $0.41 per day. The reality of this hand-to-mouth existence is that both shea nut harvesters and farmers are not always aware of, or able to address, the necessity of plant diversity for insects and pollination.

Shea trees dominant the landscape in the parklands of Southern Burkina Faso. Photo © J Stout

What communities have become aware of, however, is that shea production is not as abundant as it used to be. Yield has declined around 40% over the last 20 years. With both the local and global demand for shea butter growing, this trend is not ideal.

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Neither is the dramatic reduction of Afro-Palearctic migratory birds, which hope to stock up on insects when they take refuge in the Sahel region from harsh northern winters. That’s why, BirdLife and its Partners the RSPB, Vogelbescherming Nederland and Burkina Faso’s Naturama, together with Trinity College Dublin, the Global Shea Alliance and the University of Ouagadougou and armed with Darwin Initiative funding, are urgently implementing measures to turn the tide.   

Re-diversifying vegetation, while securing a better standard of living for shea agricultural communities, is expected to trigger a buzz of activity. Selected “pollination” ambassadors will be trained and educated and will help disseminate knowledge amongst 10 villages. Tree and shrub planting and regeneration, will create foraging and nesting sites for pollinators and birds. Collaboration with government and industry, assessing knowledge and amending policies, will help to stimulate a speedy recovery and improved overall health for the shea parkland ecosystem, creating a nourished landscape.

The ‘Trees, bees & birds’ project is funded by the UK Government’s Darwin Initiative. More information about the project can be found on their website