About Karite  
   Many exclusive lines of cosmetics use products made from African shea butter, or karite. The nut of shea butter comes from trees found solely in the West African savanna. Butyrospermum parkii is found exclusively in the African Sahel, the semi-arid region that lies south of the Sahara Desert. It requires approximately 1000 mm of annual rainfall and a long dry season to produce the valued nuts. For centuries African women have collected the nuts and turned them into shea butter to help their bodies endure the harsh, dry Sahelian climate.

   In recent years the benefits of shea have become more widely known. In Europe, North America, and Japan, shea butter is now prized for its superb healing and moisturizing properties. It is an important ingredient in creams, sunscreens, conditioners, and in the treatment of burns and muscle pains. Commercial interest in shea also centers on its use as a substitute for cocoa butter in the chocolate industry. The growing demand for shea butter in the West is evident in the West African country, Burkina Faso, where karite now ranks third in exports.

Women and Karite Production

   Shea butter is a solid fatty oil made from the nuts of karite nut trees The making of shea butter is exclusively a female activity. Shea butter is sometimes called "women's gold," because extracting the butter from the nuts gives employment and income to hundreds of thousands of rural African village women.

   The transformation of shea nuts into butter is a marathon task. The process involves intensive physical labor as well as considerable amounts of water and firewood during the rainy season when women are already burdened with agricultural tasks. Preparation takes several days and involves several stages: After collection, the nuts are boiled, sun-dried and shelled by hand. They are crushed, roasted, and then pounded in a mortar with a pestle. 

Traditional Uses and Benefits of Shea Butter

   Rural women have been gathering and processing shea butter in West Africa since at least the mid-fourteenth century. Muslim scholars reported on the value of shea in the regional economy, drawing attention to its use as a moisturizer, ointment, cooking and lamp oil, and for making soap. The collection and processing of shea nuts is central to women’s household responsibilities. The nut, which contains 50% fat, remains an essential source of nutrition for Burkinab families.

   African healers have known about shea butter for thousands of years. The substance is almost magical in its healing effects on burns, skin conditions, ulcerated skin, stretch marks, and dryness. It contains beneficial vegetable fats that promote cell regeneration and circulation, making it a wonderful healer and rejuvenator for troubled or aging skin. It also contains natural sun-protectants.

Fair Trade and Protection of the Shea Butter Nut Tree
     Burkina Faso is one of the world’s poorest countries, where most people are forced to survive on about a dollar a day. Economic opportunities are especially meager for women, who produce most of the food needed for subsistence. The burgeoning international interest in the environment and natural products provides Burkina female growers an opportunity to improve their incomes and thus, the well being of their children. Global market forces are thus reshaping rural women’s livelihood patterns.

   Karite is one of the few economic commodities under women’s control in Sahelian Africa. To meet international demands for shea butter, NGOs are organizing Burkinab producers into cooperatives to strengthen women’s bargaining position and economic returns from their labor. Such initiatives increase women’s ability to benefit from global trade opportunities. Throughout poor countries of the world, female participation in the formal economy is positively correlated with improved educational levels and social status, reduced fertility rates, a prolonged life span, and overall economic development.

   As a profitable non-timber forest product (NTFP), the shea nut tree has sparked the interest of agro-forestry and environmental organizations concerned with potential desertification and land degradation in the Sahel. Several programs in Burkina Faso have been implemented to promote sustainability of the shea butter nut tree. The shea tree is a protected species. It is illegal to even pick un-ripened nuts (mature nuts fall to the ground), but the scarcity of cheap sources of energy often leads to abusive cutting of the trees for firewood, while farmers sometimes burn them to clear land for farming. The shea tree flourishes best in the wild and is not easily cultivated. Generally, planted seedlings, even if grown into trees, tend to produce useless nuts.

   Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and United Nations affiliates have stepped in to help Burkina female producers improve their economic returns from shea butter. Their efforts focus on strengthening women’s access rights to the valuable nuts while sustaining the trees from over-exploitation. The most immediate challenge, however, is to protect the existing trees. The Shea tree is one of the country's greatest natural resources.



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