Meet Yinka Adesola. Yinka lives in Nigeria, and every year she processes shea butter to sell. Growing up, she learned how to make shea butter as her entire family was involved in the yearly tradition of gathering nuts and refining them. Nearly every person in her village knows how to make shea butter, and that knowledge is passed down through the generations. Often, it is only the women of the village who collect the nuts and process them into shea butter. In many places, the sale of shea butter gives 60 percent of a woman’s yearly income.
Vitellaria paradoxa, commonly referred to as the shea nut tree, is indigenous to west and central Africa. This tree thrives in the dry savannah. It grows primarily in the wild, but according to Yinka, Ghana is beginning to domesticate the African shea tree. The shea tree takes about 20 years to mature to full fruition, but then it can bear fruit for up to 200 years. The governments of the areas that can grow shea trees recognize its importance and have enacted laws protecting the trees from being cut down. The nuts become ripe in May to June and are allowed to fall to the ground before they are collected. The outer hull is oval-shaped and about the size of a large plum. Inside is a thin layer of edible pulp surrounding the seed. It is this seed that gets processed into the shea butter.
When Yinka collects the nuts from the shea tree to process into shea butter, she first boils the whole fruit within seven days of it falling from the tree. The fruit is then dried in the sun and can be stored for processing in the future. When she has gathered a sufficient amount of shea nuts and continues the processing, she breaks them open either with a stone or with mortar and pestle to remove the inner seed. (According to Yinka, the edible part of the fruit should be removed before the boiling if desired.) The inner seed is broken into pieces using a grinding machine then roasted on a fire to increase the oil extraction. The next step is to grind the broken seed using water into a smooth consistency then whisk it for several hours to help remove some of the shaft. The solution is then cooked for several more hours until the oil begins to separate from the black shaft. The liquid shea butter is gently scooped away from the black residue then put through a stirring process as it slowly solidifies. This entire process takes from four to seven days to complete.
Due to the varying fatty acid profiles that can occur between shea trees even in the same area, refined shea butter can be very hard and brittle or fairly soft with a lower melting point. This is due to the oleic acid content which can vary from 37-55% of the total fatty acid content. A higher percentage of oleic acid makes a softer butter that melts more quickly. While Ugandan shea nut trees consistently produce higher amounts of oleic acid, the trees in West Africa can vary by area and even between trees growing right next to each other. As nuts are usually gathered across a wide area, the shea butter will have a consistency average to the area. When you have a very high average oleic acid content, such as with the trees in Uganda, the shea butter may even be liquid at room temperature and is referred to as shea nut oil.
In the areas where the shea nut tree is indigenous, the people have been using shea butter benefits for thousands of years. Some traditional uses include applying unrefined shea butter to the umbilical stump of a newborn baby. Because shea butter has some antibacterial properties, this helps prevent infection. Often after the first bath, the new babies were massaged head to toe with shea butter to protect their delicate skin. It is also used as an anti-inflammatory rub for aching muscles and joints. In Africa, shea butter and shea nut oil are also used for cooking or in lamps. It is also a vital ingredient in African black soap. One very unique property of shea butter is that it is composed of 11 percent unsaponifiable fats. In comparison, olive oil used in making castile soap only has 1 percent unsaponifiable fat. These fats remain after the oils have been processed into soap and add extra moisture and protective barrier to the skin.
Shea butter is an amazing oil with many diverse uses. It can be used in cooking, cleaning (in shea butter soap), as a skin moisturizer, and as an ingredient in many beauty products. The people of west and central Africa learned how to make shea butter and have been harnessing its properties for thousands of years. As we enjoy the many shea butter benefits or learn how to make body butter, we can support those like Yinka who work hard to process it every year.
You can read more about entrepreneur, writer, and organic farmer Yinka Adesola on her blog: Farm Rite With Yinka