In Uganda there is a saying, “He who swallows a seed of the ekungur [shea-butter] tree should know the size of his anus,” meaning, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew.” Objects of great significance to a people often make their way into aphorism.
In Black communities across the United States, shea butter has become part of beauty lore for its superlative moisturizing and anti-aging properties. The bright yellow label on the 8-oz. plastic tubs you buy on 125th Street in Harlem also tell you that 100 percent natural African shea butter can be used to treat eczema and minor burns; for pain relief from swelling and arthritis; to improve muscle relaxation and stiffness; as a sunscreen because of its rich content of vitamins A and D; to treat dark spots, stretch marks, skin discolorations, wrinkles and blemishes; for massages and diaper rash; and as a hair conditioner.
The shea tree grows wild in Africa. It begins to bear fruit after about 20 years, reaches maturity at 45 and may produce nuts for up to 200 years after that. The white to light-yellow fat [butter] extracted from the large seeds [nuts] embedded in the fruit is known as “women’s gold,” for women are the primary producers. Shea butter is cheap because supply far exceeds demand. Demand is growing, however, as its applications expand. In 2001, more than 800 metric tons, or $13 million worth, was imported into the United States, 11 percent more than the year before.
Most of the shea butter we use in the United States comes from nuts of the Vitellaria paradoxa variety found in the “shea belt” of west and central Africa. In addition to cosmetic products the nut’s butter and liquid oil are used in cooking oil, margarine, detergents and candles. It is even a substitute for cocoa butter in the chocolate and confectionery industry in Canada and Europe.
Shea butter is a nascent industry with vast consumer and industrial potential, says Samuel Hunter, an African-American physician—his specialty is internal medicine—and this country’s foremost expert on shea. Founder of the American Shea Butter Institute (www. sheainstitute.com) in Columbus, Ga., Hunter has studied shea butter for the last seven years, and is a consultant to companies interested in the industry. He has traveled to more than a dozen African countries to study its processing.
“All shea butter is not equal,” says Hunter. Its No. 1 microbial contaminant is mold, which has toxins that can exacerbate cuts or broken skin, and the top metal contaminants are lead and mercury. “The African earth is loaded with minerals of all kinds and types. [Shea butter] has to be tested to be proven lead free and mercury free,” says Hunter. It also can contain “all kinds of crazy, foreign stuff.” “If you saw some of the stuff we see when we filter shea butter, you’d never use it again,” he says. He calls the untested butter “Lotto butter.” “You may get hurt or you may survive. Where the wheel stops nobody knows,” he says.
Refined shea butter—its refined in Europe then re-exported—is chemically extracted for use in the chocolate and cosmetics industries. Unrefined shea butter, the kind you buy in the street and the kind Africans have used for millennia for all the yellow-label purposes, comes directly from Africa. Hunter’s institute tests, grades and certifies the purity of shea butter. “Whenever mold is found we stamp it ‘not for human use,’ “ says Hunter. The institute’s 2005 Shea Butter International Convention and Business Expo is scheduled for August in Atlanta.
I worry sometimes that Africa’s shea industry will suffer the same fate as cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producer. In the 1990s, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank strong-armed the Ivorian government into getting out of the cocoa exporting business, turning the local market upside down. In the confusion, international processors like Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Barry Callebaut snapped up the Ivorian companies and today they dominate the trade. Some countries, Israel and Germany included, are already trying to replicate the butter from the Vitellaria nilotica variety of shea nuts, the superior quality preferred by cosmetics firms. That variety is grown and processed in northern Uganda and southern Sudan, but civil strife in those areas has stymied the trade.
So I worry. Then I think about what they say in Uganda about he who swallows a seed of the ekungur tree. . . .
By Rosalind McLymont