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Agbanga Karite

Environmental Sustainability of Unrefined Shea Butter

Shea butter is one of the world's most sustainable natural resources. The shea trees grow naturally in the grasslands of west and central Africa and do not need any irrigation, fertilizer or pesticides. Shea trees produce an abundance of fruit without the need for fertilizers. Because they are native to the West African savanna and are not grown in dense plantations, pests are also not a problem. Thus, there is no need for toxic pesticides. Shea trees are adapted to the savanna environment and do not need to be irrigated. They are also resistant to the fires that sweep through the savannas every dry season. Shea trees are wild, and are not grown in plantations. Efforts to start shea plantations have failed for two reasons. First, shea trees do not germinate easily and have not been viable in plantation settings. Second, it takes at least 25 years for a shea tree to produce large numbers of fruits. For these reasons, there are no shea tree plantations, and shea butter remains a wild product. Purchasing unrefined shea butter helps keep this natural resource sustainable.

Economic Sustainability of Unrefined Shea Butter

As more people become aware of the healing power of unrefined shea butter, the demand for this natural product increases. It is important to purchase only shea butter that has been produced in Africa. The product is sustainable because it is hand harvested and hand produced. The shea nuts are not over-harvested, and local people are in control of their resources. Shea butter production has the potential to help poor African nations. Virtually anyone can gather and sell the shea nuts, since no equipment or capital is needed to take part. This does not mean that it is an easy task to gather shea nuts. In fact, gathering shea nuts is very labor intensive. Many women and children walk as much as 10 miles a day in searching for and collecting shea nuts. The gathering involves a lot of bending and almost all of the nuts are transported by the gatherers themselves - up to 100 lbs of shea nuts on the head. Then begins the laborious process of drying and cracking the nuts. This is why is so important to pay the gatherers a fair price for their efforts and hard work.

Exporting large quantities of shea nuts to Europe and other countries and extracting the oil with hexane is not environmentally or economically sustainable. There is the possibility of over-exploitation; in order for a shea nut dealer to make money, he must sell very large quantities, since the nuts are sold at a very low price. In this case, the people gathering the nuts are not paid a fair price, since their labor is never factored into the price. For example, a large shea nut buyer will pay as low as five cents for one kilogram of shea nuts.The labor that goes into producing one kilogram of shea nuts is immense. First, they are gathered from the ground around shea trees that are scattered over a large area. Second, they are boiled, dried, the outer fruit is removed, the kernels are dried again, the kernels are cracked, and finally, the nuts are removed and dried a final time.

The local price for nuts is much higher, and when the final product is sold rather than the raw resource, the local people receive a higher percentage of the final price. However, even in this case one has to be careful. In most cases, the people making the butter (usually poor women in villages and towns), sell their product to a middle man for a low price. The middle person then sells it abroad in large quantities - full container loads - at a low international price. The percentage of the price that the consumer pays - USD 1 or more per ounce - which the original producers receive is very small. As observer noted, "When shea butter is sold on the Northern markets, either in its natural form or reprocessed and incorporated into another product, the Southern producers are lost at the bottom of a long trade chain."

Agbanga Karite members are in control of the entire process - from gathering to selling the product to businesses around the world. Therefore, the people making the butter are receiving a much higher percentage of the final price.

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