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March 06, 2007

International demand for West African shea booms

Shea butter’s skin-soothing properties have made it a star in the global cosmetic market, where it shows up in everything from lip balm to diaper wipes to shaving cream. Recent bans on trans (chemically modified) fats in U.S. cities and leading fast-food restaurant chains have opened up new potential for shea, a natural vegetable fat found only in West and Central Africa. And as the demand for chocolate grows in prospering countries, shea is assuming greater importance as a cheaper, partial substitute for cocoa butter.

The price of cocoa butter has stayed high in recent years, making it more economical to mix in a percentage of shea butter or a comparable vegetable fat. And now the chocolate market itself is expanding as consumers in Asia, South America and Eastern Europe are better able to afford it.

Recent publicity about harmful effects of trans fats to the heart is fueling interest in shea as a potential substitute in more than just chocolate. Chicago and New York City no longer allow trans fats in their restaurants, and fast-food chains McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken Taco Bell and Starbucks have reduced or banned trans fats from their products. Shea could fill the gap, buyers say, another reason it is suddenly getting so much attention. But cautioned another international buyer, “Right now I don’t see the benefit because it is too expensive. But if that changed, it could be workable for mainstream consumption.”

Though most shea is exported as kernels, efforts are underway to process more into butter near the source to guard quality and save money on transport : It takes about three tonnes of nuts to make one tonne of butter.

In late 2006 Reuters news service reported a $20 million joint venture in Ghana between agricultural processing giant Archer Daniels Midland and Wilmar Holdings of Singapore. This year that collaboration, Ghana Specialty Fats, will begin processing up to 25,000 tonnes of shea nuts a year into butter. In Togo, Nioto (Nouvelle Industrie de Oléagineux du Togo) processes unrefined butter in partnership with IOI Loders Croklaan of the Netherlands, currently the largest buyer of shea butter in Africa.

The $4 billion natural cosmetic market continues to grow at an estimated 9% a year, with shea an increasingly vital ingredient. Bath & Body Works, L’Occitane and the Body Shop, owned by cosmetic giant L’Oreal, all have shea butter “product lines” of lotions, balms and scrubs. This market prizes premium-quality butter, including organic and handcrafted, which are said to better preserve shea’s moisturizing and regenerative qualities.

The industry is booming," said Vanessa Adams, export business development director of West Africa Trade Hub. "Some large buyers still buy tens of thousands of tonnes of shea kernels. But more key international players are buying processed shea butter directly from Africa, and some are starting to process here. This is where we wanted to be.”

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