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February 27, 2007

Burkinabé women benefit from beauty industry's interest in shea butter

Judith Carney and Marlene Elias of the University of California-Los Angeles' Globalization Research Center have looked at how despite the upheavals it is causing many farmers all over the world, globalization is also creating new opportunities for some groups of people previously largely marginalized from the world economy.

An example is how rural women in Burkina Faso and up-market purchasers of cosmetics in the West who had nothing to do with each other are now being linked in an unusual way:

Rural women have been gathering and processing karité (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 families in West Africa.

The butter comes from the nut of the shea nut tree (butyrospermum parkii), found solely in the West African savanna. Women collect the nuts and turn them into butter to help their bodies endure the harsh, dry Sahelian climate. In recent years the benefits of shea have become more widely known. It now forms a crucial ingredient of the "natural products" cosmetics marketed by brands such as The Body Shop. The growing demand for shea butter in the West is evident in Burkina Faso, where it now ranks third in exports.

The marathon task of making shea butter is exclusively a female activity. 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 stages: After collection, the nuts are boiled,sun-dried and shelled by hand. They are crushed, roasted, and pounded in a mortar with a pestle.

The addition of water creates a paste, which requires kneading. Two to three women at a time reach into the thick shea batter to beat the paste so the caramel-colored foam floats to the surface. This foam is transferred to a bucket of water, where subsequent washings eliminate unwanted residues. The cleansing process is repeated as many as four times and yields progressively whiter foam, which is then boiled for many hours. The top layer is skimmed and upon cooling becomes the white shea butter so desired in international markets.

NGOs and UN affiliates have stepped in to help Burkina Faso's female producers improve their economic returns from shea butter by organizing them into cooperatives to strengthen their access rights to the nuts, improve the economic returns from their labor and yet protect the trees from over-exploitation.

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