shea tree

The Shea tree is a small tropical African tree which bears oily nuts from which Shea butter is obtained. The tree grows naturally in the wild only in Africa in the dry savannah belt from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands.
We call it the “Green Gold”, not only because of the Shea butter it produces, but because it is a treasure of Mother Nature. Indeed, from its leaves to its bark, everything is used traditionally for its:

Healing properties

Shea leaves: when boiled the leaves and resulting water can be used as eye drops and for digestion problems.

Shea bark: the bark can be cut and boiled to be used against stomach sores.

Shea butter: the butter can be used as ointment in different medicinal recipes as well as for disinfectant, healing and massage products.

Nutritional properties:

Shea fruits: The fruits are eaten by the local population and the animals. Nowadays, some women’s cooperatives produce jams out of it.

Shea flowers: Bees appreciate the nectar of the Shea flowers they gather and transform into honey for the pleasure of their larvae. Humans enjoy it as well!

Shea caterpillar: The shea caterpillar (Cirina butyrospermi), also called “chitoumou” in the Dioula language, feeds himself only on Shea leaves! Rich in protein, he is renowned for his exceptional nutritional potential and is consumed in Burkina Faso and even in some neighbouring countries such as Mali and Côte d’Ivoire.

Shea butter: The butter is used as edible oil for cooking

Environmental benefits:

The shea tree also makes it possible to maintain an environmental and socio-economic balance that is as complex as it is fragile. Helping to fight against desertification, the Shea tree creates a microclimate for both humans and animals.

Socio-economic benefits:

Enhancing the value of Shea allowas the creation of many jobs, in particular through the establishment of women’s cooperatives selling Shea butter; its wood is used to produce furniture (mortar, house). This situation also often happens due to the lack of awareness of younger generation about its importance.

Did you know
the shea tree…:

  • grows only in Africa
  • grows mainly wildly
  • grows only in the savanna, in a belt that stretches from West- to Central-East Africa, called the “Shea Belt”: Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Guinea Conakry, Ethiopia, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, DRC, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo, Uganda.
  • has 2 species: Butyrospermum Parkii (West Africa) and Niloticum (East-Central Africa)
  • can live up to 200 years (some even say 300 years)
  • produces its first fruits after 15 to 20 years,
  • but doesn’t reach full production (20kg) until it reaches 20-25 years in order to give the first Shea butter
  • bears only around 20 kg fruits per year which only gives around 1,5 kg Shea butter per tree per year

Once again, because of all these elements we call it the Shea Tree the “Green Gold”. It should be valued and cherished, it’s a treasure of Mother Nature!

shea butter

Shea Butter is a plant-based butter made from the Shea Nuts.
As translated by the below quote of Brenda Chalfin, Shea butter is used in cosmetics, for cooking, and healing. Shea Butter is used by all in Africa.

“(…) shea was the primary source of edible oil throughout the West African savanna zone and a long-standing staple of the regional economy, with myriad uses outside of food production.”

What is shea butter?

The green Gold

“The base for most soups, a condiment, and a light frying fat, shea the most desired oil for food preparation. It is widely used in both industrial and artisanal soap-making. Predating kerosene, it continues to serve as an illuminant in rural villages where cash is short and electrification non-existent. Shea is applied to the calabash bulbs of the locally made xylophone and guitar and used to anoint a corpse before burial. It is the prime ingredient in human and veterinary medicines, both as a vehicle for other substances and because of its own anti-bacterial properties. It is applied topically as a beauty aid, to combat the harsh climes of the savanna, heal the cracks of hard work, and draw out a smooth and shiny complexion. In the dry savanna environment, children’s skin and hair glisten with shea on the early morning walk to school and after the evening bath. The scent of shea is an undercurrent of women’s space, whether the market, kitchen, bedroom or bath. Women cover their abdomens with shea butter during and after pregnancy and massage it over their infants from head to toe. Whether to celebrate marriage or childbirth, shea is what one woman gives another. In northern Ghana, when pregnant woman comes to market to buy a large pot of butter, you know her time is near. No woman’s kitchen is complete without a store of shea butter tucked in the larder, at least a few butter balls wrapped in greasy paper, if not a calabash full. Even in West Africa’s forest zone, the cosmetic properties of shea are well-appreciated. Among the Beng of Côte d’Ivoire, mothers ‘rub shea butter all over their babies’ skin after the bath’ in order to make ‘the skin glow and show off the baby to great advantage’.”

Old Commodities in New Niches: The Shea Economy as Frontier, Brenda Chalfin, 1997

How is it processed?

Nowadays, there are three main methods to process Shea butter from the Shea kernel: hand-made, mechanical and solvent. These processes have different extraction efficiencies for obtaining Shea butter. SaWaShea obtains its Shea butter from the Wobeh women’s cooperative that produces it manually. The Shea butter is obtained after a long and arduous process mainly done by women.

Harvest: As the colour and the consistency do not change, the Shea fruits can only be harvested when they fall from the tree. When it is harvested, people eat it or give it to animals.
Storage: At this stage one should carefully pay attention that the nuts are not germinated, germination contributes significantly to quality-depreciation of the Shea Butter. To prevent this, depending on the region, the nuts are fermented, boiled or dried (in the sun or smoked) before storage in a dry and cool place.

  • Peeling: When Shea butter is needed, the nuts are crushed in a mortar to get first rid of the shell.
  • Crushing and crumbling: Then the women break the kernels into small pieces using again mortar and pestle.
  • Roasting: To start to get the oil slowly out of the kernels, they roast the pieces of the nuts.
  • Grinding: The roasted chocolate-coloured paste is then grinded traditionally with a grinding stone on a flat stone-surface. The Wobeh women’s cooperative with whom SaWaShea is working, because of the long and fastidious process of the grinding, brings the roasted nuts to Ferkéssédougou, the nearer city, to grind them mechanically.
  • Mixing: Warm water is then slowly added and mixed with the paste to get a desired consistency to bring the oil out.
  • Boiling: The creamy mass obtained is finally boiled in a cooking pot to extract the Green Gold Shea butter.

What are shea butter composition and properties?

Excellent emollient for dry skin, healing, anti-inflammatory and antibacterial, Shea butter:

  • naturally rich in vitamin A (antioxidant)
  • contains vitamin E (regenerative and antioxidant)
  • contains vitamin F (rich in essential fatty acids that are good for assimilating fats, lowering cholesterol levels, etc.).
  • is rich in unsaponifiables (substances that cannot be fully converted into soap)
  • contains cinnamic acid, sterols (giving the solid consistency), and fatty acids such as oleic (influencing the softness) and linolenic acid.

How to use and conserve it?

The Green Gold Shea butter is traditionally used from the head to the toe in all different regions where it grows in Africa. From the baby to the elderly, women to men, everybody uses it!

Before exploring the different usages listed below, please note that Shea butter should not be used by people allergic to latex as it contains it in its natural state. Besides, while there may be information about usages related to certain medical conditions and their treatment, should a medical condition exist, consult your doctor or pharmacist prior any use of Shea butter. The information presented are intended only as knowledge sharing about usages in the West African context.
Please also note that SaWaShea’s Green Gold is almost entirely handmade and is unrefined. The pure Shea butter can therefore vary in smell, colour and texture while the sole ingredient is always the shea nuts from wild trees.

For the skin:

  • Healing and hygienic: Shea butter is known in the regions where it grows to relieve sprains, strains, dislocation, aches and rheumatism.
    Shea butter disinfects and heals light burns and helps them to heal.
  • Moisturizing, preventing and reducing: Excellent emollient and humectant, it moisturizes all types of skin, notably dry skin.
  • For women: Shea is used for intimate hygiene, as a healing after delivery.
  • Anti-aging: Shea butter renders the skin flexible, perfect for slow skin-aging, against wrinkles.
  • Stretchmarks: Shea butter is used to prevent or lighten stretchmarks, especially by pregnant women.
  • For babies: It is used to accelerate the healing of the umbilical cord and later to prevent or treat nappy rash. Traditionally, grandmothers’ massages daily the baby in the first 2-3 months to render the muscle flexible and relax them.
  • Skin problems: Not yet medically proven but recognized by many, Shea is used to treat atopic dermatitis (eczema), psoriasis, etc. For such use, please always consult your doctor.
  • Relaxing: To relax and smoothen your sore muscles, use the Shea as massage butter/oil. You can use it pure or mix it with your favourite essential oils.
  • Cold or flu: by putting it on sore/raw noses during a cold or flu, it helps to relieve so that you can breathe better again.
  • Softening and Smoothing: To soften and smoothen cuticles and other body parts such as horns.
  • Protecting: Shea butter is a natural sun-screen, you can use it as UV Protection (SPF 6) and as well as as after sun.

For the hair
Shea butter can also be used as:

  • hair care or for irritated scalps.
  • mask before shampoo (pre-poo)
  • protector cream after shampoo or as a daily cream for hair (especially for 3c to 4b hair types)

For cooking
Shea butter can be used as:

  •  edible oil: In many African societies it is used to cook daily meals.
  • substitute: In the chocolate industry, Shea butter is used as equivalents or substitutes for cocoa butter. It is as well used for margarine and in the bakery industry for a natural, solid consistency.

Conservation and storage
By keeping Shea away from light and storing it in a dry and cool place, you can conserve it 2 to 3 years. If you mix it with other oils or essential oils, depending on the oils used, you can conserve it from few months up to 1 year.

Did you know?

  • Melting: Shea butter melts at body temperature, avoid direct heat! For small amounts, knead with warm hands and the firm Shea butter becomes softer. For bigger amounts, we recommend you to use a double boiler.
  • Old Shea: If your Shea butter is getting old, you can make a soap out of it. It is a real Green Gold, you can always recycle it!

Women cooperatives

In 2014, SaWaShea went on a fact-finding mission to northern Côte d’Ivoire. The idea was to meet different women’s cooperatives producing Shea butter, exchanging with them about their needs, exposing them to SaWaShea’s ideas and deciding how to follow-up. Of the five cooperatives visited, the Wobeh cooperative was chosen for the pilot project to start. Because the laboratory tests of 7 Shea butter samples showed that the Shea butter produced by the Wobeh cooperative was the best. Two of the samples were from a mechanical unit set in the city and from an intermediary whose profession is to collect Shea butter from different villages and sell them to different interested parties.

The BOKU University in Vienna, Austria, tested the Shea according to 3 quality parameters: acidity, saponification value and peroxide value. It was interesting that the best results came from the Wobeh cooperative as it was the smallest cooperative, located in the most remote area with a production almost only by hand.
The Wobeh women’s cooperative is composed of around 20 women, mainly elderly women who cannot work in the fields anymore. They are supported by younger women when they have time, especially in the last stage of Shea butter production. As most the women can’t read and write, only one woman can write and also fluently speak French, two men are supporting them with different administrative tasks and transportation of the Shea butter to the city when needed.

SaWaShea hopes that this cooperation can be extended to 4 more cooperatives met in 2014 in the near future. The cooperation with the Wobeh cooperative is first of all to improve their income to uplift their social and economic life. Then, if enough profit is made, the women would be able to buy few machines to ease the work process. SaWaShea hopes to further help them on standardizing the quality for export, keeping traditional knowledge, and building their capacity to engage in most of the Shea butter supply chain. The ultimate is to establish a production park in the region involving other cooperatives to work together for a better outreach.


As a child, you remember massaging the feet of your grandma with Shea in the evenings to help her relax from her long day and get some sleep. Years after, when you were grown, you would use Shea butter for your hair and skin, not paying much attention to its richness… until you came to Europe and saw how difficult it was to find it there (though less so nowadays). Then came the political crisis in Côte d’Ivoire, the death of the Mother due to insufficient care and no source of secured income. And then there was this article about women in the north of Côte d’Ivoire producing Shea butter, but not being able to sell their product ever since the political crisis. 

The article also mentioned difficulties faced in their daily lives. Although the Mother was not there anymore, other women were facing similar problems, and that is why you had to support them. After some years, an idea developed into a social business to give income generating opportunities to women who had no access to the market, notably the global market, to develop their capacity and improve their production process. The road was long and rocky, but as the saying goes, “Help yourself first, and God will help you.” You first have to find a way to sustain yourself before you can seriously and concretely support others, notably these women who are often mothers. It took some time, but here you are. The idea has matured. Through the years, you developed it and identified what was really needed: not just an initiative, but an initiative that can have a sustainable impact. Shea is not only for beauty, but something that can help heal and support your well-being and theirs as well. Give them the possibility to improve their production process while benefiting from quality Shea products yourself. Give them the opportunity to improve their lives and community while benefiting from the healing nature of Shea products yourself. It is not a Charity initiative, but a Sharity initiative: we share because we care! I am one of “You”…