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Inside Nigeria’s Shea butter economy: Neglected, time consuming, labour intensive

This investigation examines the impact of Covid-19 on the Shea butter industry in Kaiama, a community in Kwara state. Shea butter is synonymous with health and well-being and many in Kaiama and outlying villages, believe it grants immunity and protects them from the virus. However, science has not confirmed this latter point. Its trees are felled for charcoal, and for the making of mortars and pestles. This threatens the Shea butter industry which is driven by women. If the industry declines the women will be impoverished. Reviving and modernising the industry is, for women, a major act of empowerment. The economy is seen as a ‘woman’s affair’, a ‘woman’s thing’, which may explain why it is undeveloped and why men earn all the profits, rather than the women. A revived Shea butter industry can lift millions of women out of poverty. Here is an investigation with environmental, agricultural, health, gender, economic, and cultural and development angles, emerging from one of the ‘poorest’ regions of West Africa.

“If you are given the vaccination against Covid-19, you will die within the following year.” A lady in Kaiama local government in Kwara state remembers the ominous information that began to circulate in the agrarian community when vaccinations against Covid-19 began sometime in April this year.

Kaiama market. Photos: Tafaferua Ujorha

The idea initially scared her, but she was reassured by a member of the local government health department. This is a form of myth making generated to control the mind as well as human behaviour. Its emphasis on death was bound to scare many in quiet Kaiama. It did.

Being forced

Abdullahi Yakub, Monitoring and Evaluation officer, department of health of the local government, opens up on the challenges his office went through in the effort to get locals tested “We visited institutions. It is as if they were being forced to release samples. They were coming forward reluctantly. One problem we had here is that we don’t have people who will voluntarily go to the hospital and say they want to be tested. We go to institutions and speak with the officials, who compel them to allow samples to be collected and taken for tests.”

Between June and August 2021 one thousand persons were vaccinated in Kaiama, according to statistics provided by the health department during my second visit. In addition there were only five confirmed cases of the coronavirus in the community. One hundred and fifty seven individuals were tested for Covid -19 between 2020 and August 2021.

Royal wisdom

Ahmed ibn Mohammed explains that there are people today in Kaiama who have never received an injection in their lives.

Ahmad Ibn Mohammed, the Kiwazi of Wazibe, opens up on how he fought stigma and vaccine hesitancy to get his people vaccinated “I gathered people in my palace. I didn’t tell them we were going to be given the vaccine. I simply told them we had visitors, and they came around. Very soon I was vaccinated. Then I asked the group to give the vaccine to all of them. That was the tactic I used. If I had told them about the vaccination in advance, they wouldn’t have accepted because of the traditional way of doing things here. More than forty persons were vaccinated on that day. We still need to do a lot of orientation among the people.”

“The old people here do not believe in taking injections. Even in my palace some of my council members told me that they have never taken injections in their lives,” says Mohammed during an interview in Kaiama.

‘Strange belief’

Many women fend for their families through proceeds from the industry.

“People had the strange belief that if you take the vaccine, then in the following year you will die. That’s the pandemic of lies that scared most of the women, including the Shea butter producers, and prevented them from coming forward for testing and vaccination,” adds Bashir Muhammad, Head of Health department.
He continues “Some people here don’t believe that Coronavirus exists. They don’t believe it exists. When the pandemic started, there was a testing ground in Kaiama. Later, the government sent medical personnel to the general hospital, and began obtaining samples at the hospital. They trained our laboratory technicians on how to take samples and convey same to Ilorin. Now, all the staff at the primary health care centres have been taught on how to take samples.”

Impact of lockdown

Last year’s Lockdown had varying impact on the Shea butter producers of Kaiama. Zainab Musa, a Shea butter producer in Kaiama, adds “Lockdown did not affect our work. The main problem was the moment when we wanted to sell the product. We would send a message to the buyers. They will transfer the cost to our accounts, and then they will travel down to collect the Shea butter.” She explains that because of the required protocols which Covid-19 demands, the Shea butter producers had to separate themselves while they worked.

Most women use a stick to break the shell of the nuts- another instance of the great work behind the cream coloured butter.

“Covid-19 affected the business because we were asked not to go to the market, and that we should abide by the Covid-19 protocols. We are not used to wearing face masks, and some of us found it difficult to wear it. Before lockdown there were many women involved in the Shea butter industry. The little capital they had was used up during the lockdown. So there was no money left to continue with the trade. There are fewer women today participating in the industry,” says Adama Umar, Vice President of the Kibefandi Shea Producers Cooperative. The lockdown brought a level of impoverishment to the Shea butter producers.

Umar explains that she uses the earnings from the trade to fund the education of her children, and to buy foodstuff for the house. Umar mentions that she has not gone for testing, and that Shea butter alone is enough protection for her from the virus.

Buyers not coming

Happy Shea butter producer arriving the market.

At Gwetekuta village lying some distance away from Kaiama, Adama Ibrahim mentions “during the lockdown the marketers were no longer coming. We could not sell and were therefore not earning any money.” This meant that the women were to an extent forced to rely on their husbands and families for the running of their households. There are about a hundred Shea butter producers in the community, and there are several open spots within where Shea butter is processed.

She laments “The business is too hard. However, we cannot sit idle, and there is no profit. If we had money, we will buy machines. Several machines here in Gwetekuta will make the work easier.”

Adama Mudashir, a resident of Kugizi village opens up “During the lockdown those coming from the big cities such as Ilorin, Ogbomoso and Ibadan to buy Shea butter were no longer coming. The economy declined, but after the lockdown we experienced a revival in the industry.”

Economy flattened

Mariam Zakari of Kugizi adds that her economy collapsed during the lockdown.

“I didn’t have money during the lockdown. Our economy was completely flattened. If there’s another lockdown we will suffer,” says Mariam Zakari, a housewife and Shea butter producer at Kugizi. She adds that there are no good roads leading to the village, which also lacks pipe borne water.

Aisha Usman comments “During the lockdown we didn’t have any money. The buyers were no longer coming.”

“We began to apply the Shea butter around our nostrils since they said the virus is an airborne disease,” exclaims Hadiza Ibrahim at Banisunlla, another community in the local government.

Ibrahim Igbeki, a farmer comments “If somebody is infected with Covid-19 they will use Shea butter to treat that person. They will mix Shea oil with some herbs and hot water. Even those who go to the city are protected from the Coronavirus. They return safely without being infected.”

It is common to dry nuts on any flat and open space within Nigeria’s Shea nut belt.

Maryam Adamu hails from Bezira village. Hear her “Lockdown affected our business. The price of Shea butter fell because visitors from outside were not coming. Before the lockdown one mould of Shea butter was sold for eight hundred Naira (N800). During the lockdown the cost declined to six hundred Naira (N600). It remained like this for a period of nine months.” One large mould of Shea butter is today sold for N1,200.

Terrible event

Aisha Ibrahim, Head Education and Social Services, Kaiama local government, recalls “Most of the customers at the market had the contact numbers of the Shea butter producers, and they used to call them. Some of them sent money through their bank accounts, and then they will travel down from Ilorin, go to their houses and buy the Shea butter. Covid-19 did not affect the business much, except that the women could not go to the Kibefandi centre to process Shea butter.”

“Last year’s lockdown was a terrible event for our market women, especially the Shea butter sellers. It paralysed the whole business. There was no market to go to. Most of us depend on farming.The market women depend on Shea butter for their daily earnings. It was not possible for them to go to the site where they process the nut. The market was closed, and the usual gathering of the women at the market was not taking place. The women couldn’t even make Shea butter. So the overall effect was negative,” adds Mohammed, HOD Health.

One of the final stages in the industry

Poorest regions in West Africa’

Anthony Asiwaju in his foreword to Hussaini Abdu’s Partitioned Borgu describes Borgu of which Kaiama is a part, as a ‘deplorable, infrastructurally deficit region’(XVIII). Hussaini Abdu writes in the conclusion to the work “Borgu typifies exclusion, neglect and underdevelopment. It is an example of how colonial devastation and balkanisation have combined with post-colonial state failures and neglect, to produce one of the poorest regions in West Africa” (p.348). The three federal roads that converge on Kaiama illustrate this point. They are all in bad shape with many failed or failing portions, and this has implications for life, livelihoods, the Shea butter trade and economy as a whole.

One of the roads to Kaiama leads from Ilorin, capital of Kwara state. Upon leaving Ilorin, a fairly good road gets the traveller to Igbeti in Oyo state, a town famous for its marble. On the way to Igbeti we pass a colonial style iron bridge. A fellow traveller mentions that the bridge is even better ‘than the so-called bridges being built today all over Nigeria.’

As soon as we pass Kisi, also in Oyo state, the nightmare journey begins. The road is untarred and has numerous potholes and ‘craters’, some of which are filled with rain water at this time of the year making the journey difficult. Very soon the car breaks down.

Shea butter is in demand today in the confectionary and pharmaceutical sectors.

Shea butter fair

Every Saturday morning a section of the Kaiama market awakens. It may be called a Shea butter fair. The women sit in the open and there is not much of a shade or cover. Neglect has also caught up with the market. Neatly dressed women of various ages but without face masks, gather in the market as early as 6.30 am, with hundreds of multi-coloured moulds of Shea butter – in basins of varying sizes and colours – to sell to the eager buyers. They are borne on motor cycles from all the outlying villages which make up the local government. It is a swift convoy of rural women.

Saturday morning is always a time of brisk business for the transporters of Kaiama. If business was slow during the week, dawn on Saturday is the time to wake up and make good gains. It is important for the women to get to the market early enough, for the heat of the sun means that the butter may melt and this will not make for good sales. There are no storage facilities for Shea butter, and this is common throughout Nigeria’s Shea butter belt, a major challenge facing the industry.

Also, there is no facility to properly store the nuts after they have been picked. A lot of the work is done by hand, a slow laborious process lasting many hours. There are no proper concrete slabs to dry the nuts, and bad in country roads worsen matters. To the people the Shea nut tree is not just a tree that is found everywhere, it is a special gift from nature’s green, leafy and generous pharmacy.

‘Butter on babies’

“Immediately a baby is born and they bath the child, the first thing rubbed on it is Shea butter. Some communities rub Shea butter on the baby, before bathing the child,” explains Dr. Amina Ahamad, a lecturer at the Kwara state University, who hails from Kaiama in Kwara state.

Dr. Amina Ahamad says ‘you will pity the women if you see how they work.’

Dr. Ahamad grew up learning the basic elements of the trade, and received quality guidance from her grandmother who was active in the industry. Her words “I was fortunate to be in this sector with my grandmother who used to sell Shea butter, not only within Kaiama, but also in places as far afield as Abeokuta and Onitsha.”

Maanikuu and Peker describe the Shea nut tree in a recent article in the Journal of Biology, Agriculture and Health Care, (2017) as the ‘Tree of Life,’ a powerful spiritual concept which has been given an earthly dimension. ‘Tree of Life’ is a reference to the numerous uses of the Shea nut tree which make it useful to the human being, as well as the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries where it is much sought after today. It also possesses anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-aging and anti-microbial elements. This means that Shea butter is effective in eliminating germs and in promoting health.

‘Increases immunity’

Professor Zainab Mohammed, a professor of Pharmacognosy at the department of Pharmacognosy and Drug Development, Ahmadu bello University, Zaria, opens up on the culture of applying Shea butter on the newly born “The new baby is quickly rubbed all over with the Shea butter, and then cleaned up with a towel or cloth. This helps to clean up the dirt that a baby is born with and also promotes warmth for the baby. Above all, using Shea butter to rub on new born babies helps to increase their immunity to infections, thereby improving quality of health.”

On market day buyers arrive from distant towns and cities to buy the butter.

“I know that most knowledge of science from the aspect of medicine comes from the plants we know locally. If you read the history of malaria treatment, it’s from a plant in South America. Chloroquine treatment is derived from a tree. They tested the bark and the roots, and found out if it is useful for the treatment of diseases, and that’s how Chloroquine came into being. It’s not surprising that a lot of their knowledge of medicine comes from traditional knowledge,” explains Dr. Aminu Raji, former Executive Director, Fisheries Research Institute, New Bussa, Niger state, making appoint about traditional knowledge and modern knowledge.

‘I am not aware of it’

Aminat Abdullahi was taught how to produce Shea butter by her grandmother at the age of eleven. She asks “Why must I go for vaccination. I have not gone for vaccination. I am not even aware of it.” She has not been tested for the virus.

Abdullahi compares the old and new methods of processing Shea butter “In the past we used our hands to do everything. Nowadays, the processing is easier than in the past. This is because of the use of machines.”

“When a grandmother can no longer knead the gradually forming Shea butter, it is a form of retirement. Children will then take over and another will supervise the work. Even pregnant women can do the work,” she explains showing the approved levels of transition within the industry.

She places a mould of Shea butter on her head, and walks about the market. The lady is advertising the product.

Abdullahi mentions that the proceeds from the trade have come in useful over the years. Gains have been used to buy foodstuff for the house, to treat the sick, and to purchase items for the occasional wedding ceremony.

Musa has been vaccinated. Her words “I went for testing because it’s good to be tested. The result was negative and I have also been vaccinated.” She is the exception rather than the rule.

She has an interesting story. She used the earnings from the Shea butter trade to fund her education at the School of Legal Education, Ilorin.

Unaware of Covid-19

Rahamat Yusuf of Gbanagizin village says that she has heard of Coronavirus, but believes that “Shea butter can protect one from the disease. The oil is a medicine and it protects one. It is very good for the body. This explains why in this community nobody has come down with Coronavirus.” Like many before her, she has not been tested and has also not been vaccinated.

Aisha Usman of Kugizi village stuns the visitors when she adds that she is unaware of Covid -19. Her words “I have not heard of Covid-19, and I have not heard of anyone developing Covid -19 in our community.”

“Shea butter can protect people from Covid-19. I have been using Shea butter for a long time now. Since nobody in our village is infected, it means that Shea butter is working for us,” says Zuliat Mohammed, a resident of Banisunlla, shedding light on the local reaction to Coronavirus in her community.

A woman gets set for the days business.

Hand sanitiser

Some of the locals refer to Shea butter as a traditional ‘hand sanitiser’, and so they turned to it in droves with the advent of Covid-19, rubbing it daily on their faces and nostrils. The inhabitants of Kaiama seem to have independently discovered certain truths about the butter, centuries before science reached conclusions about it. In this case science has come to validate a people’s intuitions or traditional knowledge.

“Shea butter is our local hand sanitizer. The main thing with Coronavirus is catarrh. That’s why we rub ourselves with Shea butter. We put it in hot water, mix it and drink it and we are okay. It works for us,” says Musa.

Professor Mohammed, who is also a qualified herbalist, states “Shea butter has scientific validation for use in the treatment of colds related ailments. Because of the anti-inflammatory effects of the butter, it helps alleviate nasal congestion and mucosal damage. For allergic reaction, common cold or sinusitis, the use of Shea butter is significant.”

On Shea butter as a ‘hand sanitizer’, she comments “It is not surprising that Shea butter is considered a hand sanitizer by the locals in Kaiama. In fact, it is a component of many commercially available sanitizers where as much as 99.9% protection against the most common bacteria responsible for infections is obtained. Shea butter, because of the anti-bacterial and anti-fungal effects is capable of reducing germs significantly.”

From sunrise to sunset, women are busy picking, cleaning, washing, drying, breaking, boiling, and kneading the paste.

Professor Rukayat Oyi, of the department of Pharmaceutics and Pharmaceutical Microbiology, at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, adds “In one of our research findings, Shea butter was discovered to have anti-bacterial and anti-fungal activities, though mild.”

Not proven by science

Yakub responds “We believe that Shea butter is medicinal, but not to the level of protection against Covid-19, not to that extent. No one has ever been infected and cured as a result of ingesting Shea butter. Science has not proven it but we believe Shea butter is medicinal. Majority of those that use it say that it makes their skin smooth, and we believe that it boosts immunity.”

“Shea butter is obtained from the seeds of Vitelleria paradoxa , the Shea butter tree. It is indigenous to Africa and has many natural healing properties. In some parts of Nigeria, like Kaiama in Kwara state, new born babies are immediately cleaned up with Shea butter. This is due to the natural healing properties of Shea butter. Unrefined Shea butter is non-toxic or harsh and has moisturizing and healing benefits,” explains Professor Mohammed.

500-year-old Shea nut tree

This industry requires clean water, but many women have to get water from nearby streams in many rural communities.

“In those days anyone in a house who is not involved in producing Shea butter, is regarded as a lazy person. It’s a tradition and a business among our people. When we were growing up, we used Shea butter to eat our yams, to prepare stews and to eat. It’s an ancient tradition among our people, and shows how our people have promoted health in their communities,” says the Kiwazi of Wazibe, who plans to set up a one kilometre long plantation of Shea nut trees in his community.

Hear him “We grew up to see Shea nut trees that are up to five hundred years old. They grew up naturally, and were not planted by anybody. Our Shea butter is quite different. We have the best quality of Shea nuts in Africa.”

‘The Lord has given us more than enough’

“We also rub Shea butter on the newly born here. It makes the skin smooth and produces good strong bones,” says Ibrahim, a housewife in Gwetekuta village. The women stand in a circle beneath numerous trees, at a spot where Shea butter is produced in the community. A little fire burns beneath a large pot in a corner, and women arrive bearing water in buckets from a nearby stream.

According to Rahamat Yusuf, who lives in Gbanagizin village “Shea butter can provide an individual with immunity. If it is rubbed on the body, it can protect the individual from the disease. The oil is a medicine. It protects one, and it is very good for the body. That’s why nobody in this community came down with Corona Virus. We rub it on our hands as well as all over the body.”

Ibrahim, HOD Education and Social Services adds that Shea nut trees are more numerous than the mango trees in Kaiama “The Lord has given us more than enough, so nobody cares to plant Shea nut trees.”

Illegal logging

Women engage in much physical labour on account of the rudimentary stage of the industry.

Meanwhile, Shea nut trees are being felled within Kaiama for fire wood, to make mortars and pestles, as well as for charcoal. This is a huge threat to the Shea butter industry, with trees being cut down, and no effort being made to replace them. It is also a huge threat to the environment for the reduction in the number of trees can trigger climate chaos even at the local level, as the world has clearly seen.

Jacob Shekarau, USAID trained Technical Consultant on Shea Products, speaking on Shea butter, says “The major problem we have along the line is the fact that most of the trees are being cut for charcoal that will be exported. Most of the trees are being cut down, because people don’t know the economic value. It is unfortunate that we are not enjoying the export potential of the nut. A lot of its potential has not been utilised. What we utilise is not up to 10% of the 100% deposits that we have in the country.”

“Unfortunately, the Shea trees are being felled. They are being felled anyhow. These are part of the challenges facing the Shea nut tree,” explains Mohammed Kontagora, President, National Shea Producers Association of Nigeria (NASPAN).

Giwa Mukaila, Secretary, Shea Nut Buyers Association, Kaiama, insists “Loggers and makers of charcoal fell the Shea nut trees in the forests. Some farmers wish to expand their farms, and so they cut down the trees as well. Some farmers actually burn the Shea nut trees.”

Form of advertisement

Rudimentary tools are used in the industry, and it is labour intensive activity which lasts many hours from sunrise to sunset. Young girls, middle aged women, as well as grandmothers are involved in the economy. Shea butter holds a very important place in the lives of the people of Kaiama. Many young girls are present at the market selling the Shea butter, or under supervision, learning the ropes of the trade.

Within the vicinity of the Kibefandi Shea processing centre can be found numerous houses where Shea nuts are being dried. This is done at the very front of the houses, with the nuts placed on large cement slabs, or put on empty grain bags and spread out on the ground.

Adama Umar, Vice president Kibefandi Shea butter Cooperative.

During the regular Saturday market, it is common to see a young girl or an elderly lady who will put a single mould of Shea butter on her head, and walk around the busy market. It is recognised as an ancient form of advertisement for the product done mainly by females. The ability to balance the vertically placed mould on her head and calmly walk about advertising the product without it falling off is impressive.

Soap, Lamps

Shekarau, who is also a Consultant to UNDP and NEPC, says “Shea butter is mostly found in the rural areas. Rural people know the advantages of Shea butter. The grandparents used it as a source of vegetable oil. They use it for soaps, and they use it to light a traditional lamp. It has multiple uses.”

He states “Nigeria accounts for 50% of the Shea nut deposits in the entire world, according to a recent FAO document. Nigeria produces five hundred thousand (500,000) metric tonnes of Shea nuts a year.”

Home based savings

Abdullahi now refers to Kolo, a savings scheme indigenous to the people which looks like a form of empowerment. It refers to a little pot made from clay with an opening at its top into which the locals insert money from time to time. “When they sell Shea butter, the gains made are kept in the Kolo, which is a home grown savings scheme. The Kolo is made of clay and it is circular in shape. When it is full, the women break the Kolo and count the amount saved within. They now plan what to do with the amount saved,” she explains.

Umar explains “The money saved in the Kolo is used by the parents to buy clothes, jewellery and other items for the children. Then another cycle with the Kolo begins, and the makers of local clay pots will always be in business on this account. You cannot put your hand into the Kolo to take any amount. The opening at the top is so small that a human hand cannot retrieve any money.”

They come from distant villages to the Kaiama market on saturday. They traverse very bad roads and uneven territory to get there.

She recalls “When I break the Kolo I usually laugh because I never knew that I had saved such a huge amount. Kolo is part of our culture. Young children are trained to learn how to save using the Kolo. They are encouraged not to be extravagant.”

From an early age she was introduced to the various steps in the processing of Shea butter. “I started learning when I was five years old. My grandmother began to train me. This is a common story in most of the houses in Kaiama. It takes three years to become expert in the processing of Shea butter,” she says, as more women bring buckets of water to the Kibefandi Shea processing centre.

‘No fixed price’

“There are more than fifty (50) women working at the Kibefandi processing Centre. Owing to lack of funds to carry on with the business, some of them left. The lack of machines to process the nut is another problem”, says Umar.

She points out “If you have enough capital, something in the range of fifty thousand Naira (N50,000), within a month you can earn One hundred thousand Naira (N100, 000) from the Shea butter trade. It’s hard for us to fix the price of Shea butter. If we decide to sell at a particular price at Kibefandi, people from neighbouring villages may bring theirs and sell at a lower price. This is the reason why we don’t have a fixed price.”

According to her “This business is helping the households here in Kaiama. Most activities in the households are sponsored by the wives. Husbands do just a little. For instance, when children return from school, the fathers say they should go and meet their mother, if there is an item that needs to be purchased.”

Khadijat Ahmad, a grandmother, is already used to the rigours associated with the processing of Shea butter, so that pain has transformed to become something pleasurable to her. Hear her “I don’t see any challenge here as we work. I go to the stream to fetch water. This is not a challenge. I also fetch fire wood from the farm. The money I realise from the trade is used to buy foodstuff for the household. I keep some of the capital to buy Shea nuts.”

Nasiru Musa, President Kaiama Development Association (KDA).

If it is mechanised’

“When we were young we will see women going into the bush, picking Shea nuts and bringing them home. They will then spread them on flat rocks on the outskirts of the town, while some will take it home. The way they pick it and wash it, in fact the entire process of producing Shea butter is supposed to be mechanised by now. Once they gather the Shea nuts, they clean them and dry them in the sunlight. This can be mechanised. If it is mechanised, the women will be able to produce a lot more. Twenty bags can be done in a day,” says Nasiru Musa, President Kaiama Development Association (KDA).

He comments on the losses suffered by the women “Some people come here and buy the nuts at give-away prices, while some buy the processed ones. The people who actually put in their labour, that is, the women, do not benefit much. The men make a lot of money. They pay the women a paltry amount of money. When you export it what you get is impressive.”

Abdullahi Danbaba adds that the industry is functioning today at a rudimentary level.

Abdullahi Danbaba, represents Kaiama, Kimanji and Wajibe in the Kwara State House of Assembly. He goes down memory lane detailing various aspects of Shea butter processing “Our mothers basically go with us, and during the season of the Shea nut harvest, they pick it, and gather it at a point in the farm. When they have gathered a huge number, they fix a specific day when they boil the Shea nut and dry it. After serious boiling, the Shea butter will rise up. Three to four hours later it solidifies and becomes Shea butter. In those days it’s the major delicacy we use in cooking.”

‘You will pity them’

Dr. Ahamad describes the infrastructural challenges affecting the industry “The women do not have the facility to preserve the nuts. If they had a cemented place for drying, we would have better quality Shea butter. They use their hands to process the nut and this takes a lot of time. When you see them using their hands, you will pity them.

“I used to go there to watch them. I find it very interesting. It’s brownish in colour, but by the time they start stirring it with their bare hands, it turns white. The men exploit them. So this exploitation is also there as a challenge. There is no proper pricing, and so the men, rather than the women, make a lot of money.”

It affected harvest

Mohammed explains the impact of the lockdown “It affected everybody. We believed that if the virus entered our community it will affect a lot of people, because the road network is not there. The question was how will we move the person to a hospital? The person may die before we get to the hospital because the roads are bad. We discouraged women going to pick Shea nuts.

Kaiama market scene

“They always go in groups to pick it. The women in the village pick it, boil it dry it, and remove the shell. They break it into pieces and fry it again. There are so many processes. But if you take it to a machine, within a day you will get your Shea butter. Up to this moment, the women, particularly the elderly women, still believe in the old system. I think that is where the government and traditional rulers need to intervene, to let them know about the advantages of the new system.”

He concludes “If you compare the quantity produced last year, compared to the one produced two years ago, you will see that Covid-19 affected the harvest.”

Most threatened tree

“The Shea nut tree is threatened. Shea tree is the tree which charcoal makers use most. They see it as the best tree to produce the best charcoal which makes the Shea tree the most threatened tree in the bush. The Shea tree as a threatened species is the main reason we have our Shea plantation in Kaiama. We observed that the Shea tree is declining in numbers, and no one is looking into it as a means of livelihood for some people.

“We felt that if this is not looked into now, there may be no Shea tree in Nigeria again. This is the reason we thought of having our own Shea plantation, where we can easily plant and see these trees grow to the stage of fruiting, and no one can just walk into the plantation to cut the trees,” says Oke Joseph Mayowa, Operation Supervisor, AmuGold Global Network. AmuGold is setting up an ultra-modern Shea butter collection and processing hub in Kaiama.

No plan, no budget

Shea nut seeds are spread out in the sun to dry -an important step as the women process the nut into butter.

Speaking on the state of the Shea sector today, he laments “We have noticed a lack of a deliberate effort by the federal government to ensure sustainability of the Shea sector. There is no specific plan in the national budget for Shea sector development and sustainability right now. There is no plan, no budget and no allocation. We need a deliberate effort in setting up Shea parklands across the Shea belt in Nigeria.”

He refers to the Save the Shea Initiative of his organisation “This initiative was incorporated in 2018 with a vision to save the Shea. The vision is to plant nothing less than two thousand trees within five years. On this plantation in Kaiama we have over two hundred trees planted already, apart from the grown trees that are already fruiting.”

AmuGold has extended support to the Kibefandi centre. According to him “We are the official investor and central coordinator appointed by the federal government, through the Nigeria Export Promotions Council (NEPC). After taking over the centre, we began to support the place technically, financially, also in terms of operations and market expansion. We brought in new machines. We empower the women to produce Shea butter. We buy the product directly from them, without the women taking it to the market.”

Part of the Kisi-Kaiama road.

Bad roads, snakes, water

Shekarau who is also a consultant to several state governments, comments on infrastructural challenges “There is the lack of good quality water in the villages. In the process of processing Shea nuts, the women need clean water to wash it. Also, there is the lack of access roads. The villages do not have storage facilities. After picking you don’t allow it to stay long, you need to process it. It is not supposed to stay more than three days after picking. We also need government to provide legislation against the cutting of Shea trees.”

‘Woman’s thing, woman’s affair’

Kontagora draws attention to the cynical indifference of many towards the industry, who see it as a woman’s thing “If you go to our communities you will find that the women trek a lot. They go picking with their bare hands and stand the risk of being bitten by snakes. When she takes the nuts home, there is no storage facility for her and no clean water. They process the nut under a tree, with no roof above them.”

He laments “We don’t see it as a dignified profession, and we see it as a woman’s thing. We see the activities of Shea butter as mainly a woman’s affair. The men come after all the labour to do the marketing, to collect all the money. The men go to all the villages, collect the nuts from the women. Some of them even advance money to the women, before they produce, before the processing. Thus the women live at the mercy of the local buying agent. The men determine the price, not the women.”

The local container used to retain the Shea oil as it solidifies to become tbutter

Kontagora reasons “So, if you have a common facility, for the women, things will be different. For instance, we established a Shea butter village in Niger state in 2011. It is working and the women are trained on group dynamics, how to manage themselves. They are doing value addition in that community. You cannot go to that community and decide the price for them. They are grouped into cooperatives.”

Ten million trees

He opens up on the strategic plan to grow ten million Shea nut trees, a reaction to the depletion which the trees have suffered over the years “The Shea tree is such that it can take a minimum of fifteen years before it starts fruiting. Some can last up to thirty years before fruiting. This is a challenge, but happily, we are working on how to domesticate the Shea trees to reduce the gestation period to between five to seven years.

The Niger state government has given us the right to use some of its forests. We are looking at the future, targeting to plant ten million Shea trees in the next ten years. That’s our agenda to ensure that every year we plant at least one million Shea trees, which amounts to ten million trees in ten years. We are starting with Niger, but we want to do it across the Shea belt. “

Lack of data

Mother and child at Kaiama market.

The Shea butter industry is one fraught with challenges. Hear him “One of the major challenges is collecting data, but according to FAO, Nigeria accounts for 57 % of world Shea trees concentration. It means the larger percentage of the Shea nut in all the world comes from Nigeria. At a time we had a statistic of 3.8 billion dollars ($3.8b) as the worth of the Shea. Imagine 57% of that which is over $2b in a year coming out of Nigeria. We are not known in the international market, because we are not doing things the right way.”

He reasons “People come here take our Shea nuts, and go out and process it in their country. It is captured as their own, and you do not blame them. It is our fault, we do not regulate. The authorities concerned are not doing what they are supposed to do. Shea nut is not on the prohibited list. You can take it out, but is the export being done in the right way? Most of the export is taking place in an informal way. Nobody is capturing data, but we are taking it up.”

Way forward

Dr. Ahamad draws attention to the plight of the producers “Women suffer while processing Shea butter. The process followed is what makes them produce less. If we can have machines, if government can come in, we will have more Shea butter to produce. Every woman in the villages is involved in the business.”

She reasons “Kaiama can satisfy the Shea butter needs of the whole country. If the industry is supported with modern machines, the women Shea butter producers within the belt will earn more and have more time for themselves.”

The government is als [o making efforts to tackle some of the challenges faced in the Shea industry ‘8in Nigeria, in order to aid production with a view to repositioning the Shea industry and taking optimal advantage of Nigeria’s huge potential in production to achieving self-sufficiency in the Shea sub sector of the economy,” says Mr Niyi Adebayo, Minister of Industry, Trade and Investment, speaking in Abuja recently during a conference on Shea butter organised by the National Shea Producers Association of Nigeria (NASPAN).

Mariam Idris says that placing Shea butter on the head is an ancient way of advertising the product. She adds that men may advertise it in the same way.

He added “Shea is an agricultural commodity with application across virtually all aspects of our lives. The uniqueness and the amazing benefit of Shea have given it some features which stand the commodity tall among other agricultural commodities.”

Speaking in his palace, Mohammed points to contemporary developments in the industry “If the women see the modern way of processing Shea butter, they will be interested. The old way is time consuming and labour intensive. The women do it like a hobby. They don’t see it as work, because Nigeria doesn’t see it as work. ”

Danbaba speaks on an issue afflicting the industry, and suggests a way forward “The problem with the Shea butter industry is that it is primitive, and most of the educated women think it is a business they can no longer carry on with, because of the primitive or rudimentary way of doing it. There is only one processing site in the whole of Kaiama local government. Our plan is to have another site, that is, to have a modern way of processing Shea, so all categories of women will see it as attractive.”

Grandmothers are at the head of those who train the younger women in the art of producing Shea butter.

“Shea butter is a woman led activity, but if it is promoted and mechanised, it will be a general activity, not only for women, and everybody will be able to take part. By the time you establish a Shea nut plantation, everybody can go in. Government can encourage business men to go in and do the Shea butter business. We are talking about diversification of the economy. I think government should look at this area. Shea butter is one area where we can earn foreign exchange. The political economy of Kaiama will improve. It will reflect in the state and the national economy, and the GDP will improve,” says Umar, projecting into the future of the industry.

“Women in the Shea butter business need assistance from the government, either in form of a loan or for government to give them machines to make the processing of Shea nuts easier. The population of producers outnumber the engines present. A housewife uses her bare hands to produce fifty moulds of Shea butter, if she has an engine, she will be able to produce more than one thousand moulds in a day,” Yakub indicates during a discussion.

  • The report was made in partnership with PAGED Initiative as part of the Covid -19 Media response in Africa project funded by the EU.
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