Shea Butter  Production In Ghana – Ghanaian Women’s Gold

Making Shea Butter in Ghana

Shea butter is one of the most important local products in Northern Ghana and also few other African countries. The shea butter comes from the nuts of the shea trees that grow in savannah region from West Africa to East Africa.

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In almost every village in Northern Ghana, women are involved in shea butter process. I stayed around Tamale city in Northern Region for longer time and as soon I reached rural areas, I could smell the pleasant scent of this, as I call it, miraculous substance. I stayed with few local families where women made shea butter so I could see from up close and learned all about the shea butter manufacturing process.

The Use of Shea Butter

In Africa, manufacture of shea butter is an ancient practice. In this part of the world, it has been mostly used as cooking oil and for skin care.

Nowadays, in Western world, shea butter is one of the most common used organic ingredient in cosmetics. It can be used as lotion or moisturizer as well as raw butter without any other ingredients. It can be used for any skin types and for every body part – from scalp to feet. But it is used especially for dry, itchy and problematic skin and hair, for healing wounds and burns, for preventing stretch-marks, for child’s sensitive skin, as UV protector, for tanning etc. It is rich with vitamins A, D, E and F. The importance of these mysterious butter in cosmetics is not surprising since it has numerous healing characteristics.

Shea Tree

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Shea tree is also widely known as karité tree (in French). Karité originally means tree of life. Shea trees are indigenous for Africa and grow in savannah region from Senegal in the west to Southern Sudan and Northern Uganda in the east. Shea butter is derived from the nuts – inner part of the shea fruits.

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From May to August, harvest of shea fruits occurs. After collecting fruits, the fruit skin is removed and nuts have to be well dried before they are taken to the manufacturing process. One shea tree can produce around 40 kilos of fresh fruits, depends on a tree size and weather conditions.

Shea Butter Manufacturing Process

The process of shea butter production is very long and difficult.  Ghanian women are using traditional methods and almost the whole shea butter process is made solely with hands, just like centuries ago. Women usually work together and help each other, which makes the work easier, more interesting and relaxed. Women in Ghana gather under a big tree outside compounds, where they can be protected from the merciless sun and work from the early morning to the late afternoon.

When shea nuts are dry, shells have to be removed.

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The only way of removing shells is to crack them with stones or other hard materials. Shea nuts are then washed again and dried under the sun. Afterwards, nuts are broken into small pieces. In past, women used to grind nuts with their hands, using mortar and pestle. Nowadays, they mostly take them to the grinding machine which really facilitates and speed up the process.

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Once nuts or flesh are crushed, they are roasted on fire. That is why final product has a pleasant roasting scent. Roasted fragments are then taken to the grinding machine again, where with a special process, thick paste is obtained. After this process phase, the most difficult part follows. Women put paste in big basins, sit in shadow and churn the paste with one hand. Water is added gradually, most often by small children who are supposed to help their mothers.

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Women churn the heavy paste for at least an hour, until butter oil separates from water. Afterwards, butter oil is carefully removed and put into a bowl of boiling water under low fire. When butter oil melts under the high temperature, women scoop off oil that floats to the top of the bowl. Liquid is then strain in order to remove all the unwanted impurities and put into big basins. These basins have to be saved in a cool and dark place for minimum half a day, so that oil becomes thick and ready to use and sell.

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Refined and Unrefined (raw) Shea Butter

From this point, additional processing of the shea butter may occur, but out of women’s shea butter cooperatives. Shea butter is sometimes filtered in order to remove possible impurities. Also, with the further purification, like cleaning and bleaching, its smell, composition and colour are abolished. This kind of butter is called refined shea butter and has no smell and typical white snowy colour.

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When shea butter is not filtered in any way, but sold directly from the point when women finish the process, it is called raw or unrefined shea butter. It has nutty and roasted smell and ivory or deep yellow colour.

Types of Shea Butter – Ivory Coloured and Yellow Coloured Shea Butter

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In Ghana, women make yellow and ivory coloured shea butter. The only difference is in colour. Although the yellow coloured shea butter is very bright which makes it unnatural on the first sight, it does not mean it is not natural. Contrary, to make yellow shea butter type, women add roots of the African borotutu tree that adds colour  to the butter into deep yellow, as curcuma.

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Which one is thus better? There is no point in guessing. Some people prefer ivory one, others find yellow shea butter more attractive. Women in Northern Ghana told me that there are specific costumers that want solely yellow  shea butter and then on the other hand  there are customers that prefer ivory coloured shea butter.

Shea Butter Production as Empowerment for Ghanaian Women

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Ghana and Burkina Faso are most likely the leading in shea butter production. In rural areas in Northern Ghana, women in every family are involved into shea butter process. Not only women, even small kids and young girls help their mothers.

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When shea nuts are ready to collect, women and their children go to pick as much nuts as they can. Later on, during the process itself, children, even very small ones, are also present to help their mothers and learn from them. Young girls, from age of twelve are supposed to know how to make shea butter from the beginning to the end of the process. In short, women and children are responsible to harvest, process and sell shea butter.

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In Northern Ghana the processing of shea butter is reserved for women. It gives them the opportunity to generate an income, or more likely, it presents women’s only income source and that is why shea butter is often referred as women’s gold.

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Women gather in groups and cooperatives and men never interfere with shea butter business. Therefore, selling shea butter insures economic independence for many women not only in Northern Ghana, but also in other rural parts of Africa, where shea butter is made. Shea butter production is a good way for women empowerment and it at least a little bit, contributes to a better life standard of women who make it day by day.

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