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May 17, 2010

Mali: Shea production vital to women's incomes

by Soumaïla T. Diarra

Across the semi-arid Sahel region of West Africa, the shea tree prized by women, who produce a butter from its nuts that is a key ingredient in food and cosmetics. However, drought and diseases threaten this source of income.

"Shea represents 80 percent of rural women's income," says Fatoumata Coulibaly, explaining how women go out to collect the nuts and later process them to make shea butter. Coulibaly is a member of La Maison du karité ("the House of Shea"), a women's group in Siby, a village in southern Mali. She was interviewed during Global Shea, an international forum on shea trade that took place in mid-March in Bamako, the Malian capital.

Shea trees grow wild in West Africa. According to experts, they take 25 years to reach maturity and their lifetime can span two centuries. In the rainy season, women pick the trees' fruit – a sweet pulp wrapped around an oily kernel. In the dry season, they sell a portion of their nuts to international companies and process the rest themselves for sale on the local market.

In West Africa, shea butter is used in cooking by nearly 80 percent of the rural population. Its also used in traditional medicine, and the wood from the tree is prized as fuel.

The trees many uses have assured its protection for centuries by local populations, some of whom even consider it sacred.

"We treat shea with respect. That is why we organise ceremonies when shea treas reach maturity," said Nayouma Coulibaly, a woman from Tioribougou, a village in southern Mali.

But now, according to the Albert Schweitzer Ecological Centre, a Swiss-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), shea trees face many threats such as drought, diseases and over-use as a source of firewood.

Not all observers agree that there is a problem.

"I don't think there's cause to worry. Actually, the number of shea trees is on the rise, because people have now started planting them. I've done so myself," said Seydou Kone.

Kone is a trade technician with AMEPROC, Mali's association of exporters of agricultural products, headquartered in Bamako. AMEPROC is combatting shea tree disappearance and disease by conducting public education in rural areas where shea trees are threatened, training local populations on shea planting and protection.

Among the roughly 16 countries where shea grows, Burkina Faso, Mali, Benin and Nigeria represent the bulk of world production. Mali occupies an important position in the market.

"With nearly 150 million shea treas, Mali is ranked second largest producer after Burkina Faso with an output of about 60,000 tonnes per year," Kadidiatou Lah said. Lah is a shea butter exporter based in Bamako. She's also the president of Mali's National Federation of Shea Exporters, which trains rural women in shea trea planting.

The growth of international demand for shea outside Africa is explained in part by its expanded use by the food industry in some developed countries. In 2000, a decree came into effect in Europe allowing chocolate manufacturers to use a limited amount of fat other than cocoa butter in their products, up to five percent.

This change in regulations, which had previously been the case in Japan, the United States and Eastern Europe, has opened up new opportunities for shea. "Today countries from all continents import shea butter or shea nuts to extract butter," confirmed Lah.

Local shea producers have no influence over the price fetched by shea nuts and butter internationally. "The prices change frequently on the international market, but at the moment a kilogramme of shea nuts costs between 500 and 600 CFA francs (just over one U.S. dollar)," said Kone.

Large companies prefer to buy their shea nuts from villages through local buyers who roam the countryside. However, these intermediaries make far more profit from the trade than rural women producers.

"The local market is different," Kone said. "In Mali, the current price of a kilogramme of shea nuts is 75 CFA francs (15 cents U.S.)."

Large firms are reluctant to buy shea butter produced by local rural women due to its strong smell. Industry professionals, explain that this smell can be avoided by following certain procedures during processing.

But the extraction method used by most Malian women is not very efficient, extracting roughly 27 percent of the oils from the nuts, compared to 40 to 50 percent achieved with industrial technology, experts say.

However, locally produced butter has seen improvements. In addition to serving the local market, fair trade schemes have allowed women to export valuable finished product to large markets in developed countries.


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