Academic journal article Africa

African Shea Butter: A Feminized Subsidy from Nature

Academic journal article Africa

African Shea Butter: A Feminized Subsidy from Nature

Article excerpt


The shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) is indigenous to Africa's Sudano-Sahelian region and crucial to savanna ecosystems and peoples. African women have long collected, marketed and transformed shea nuts into a multipurpose butter. The growing global trade in shea butter destined for the Western food and cosmetics industries thus represents an opportunity to bolster impoverished female incomes. However, such international sales are also prompting changes in the west African shea landscape. This article examines the role of shea as a female heritage in Burkina Faso, West Africa's largest shea exporter. It focuses on the knowledge systems informing the management, conservation and processing of shea. It also considers the effects of global shea commercialization on the maintenance of traditional agroforestry practices, tenure rights, and butter-making techniques. In so doing, the article illuminates the cultural and botanical heritage of shea as well as the significance of this species in biodiversity protection, African natural heritages and female knowledge systems.


Le karite (Vitellaria paradoxa), arbre indigene de la region soudano-sahelienne, est crucial pour les ecosystemes et les peuples de la savane. Depuis longtemps, les femmes africaines ramassent, commercialisent et transforment la noix de karite en beurre multi-usage. L'essor du commerce mondial du beurre de karite destine aux industries alimentaires et cosmetiques occidentales represente donc une opportunite d'ameliorer les revenus des femmes appauvries. Or, ce commerce international entraine egalement des changements dans le paysage ouest-africain. Cet article examine le role du karite en tant qu'heritage feminin au Burkina Faso, premier pays exportateur de karite en Afrique de l'Ouest. Il examine les systemes de savoir qui sous-tendent la gestion, la conservation et la transformation du karite. Il etudie egalement les effets de la commercialisation mondiale du karite sur le maintien des pratiques agroforestieres traditionnelles, les droits fonciers et les techniques de fabrication du beurre. Ce faisant, l'article met en lumiere l'heritage culturel et botanique du karite, ainsi que l'importance de cette espece dans la protection de la biodiversite, les heritages naturels africains et les systemes de savoir feminins.


Biodiversity preservation is an age-old phenomenon. For millennia, peoples worldwide have selected for, managed and conserved species that fulfil nutritional, medicinal, cultural and spiritual functions. Amid the rapid global decline in fauna and flora, the urgency of preserving natural resources has increased. Environmentalists are now placing their hopes on traditional agro-forestry systems that can point the way towards the sustainable use and management of forest resources (Berkes 1999; Depommier and Ramakrishnan 2002).

Agro-forestry systems comprise biophysical features as well as the interrelated knowledges, meanings and social relations that mediate the ways societies and individuals relate to the physical landscape. These complex systems are an integral part of, and indeed reflect, the very cultures with which they co-evolved (Berkes et al. 2000). The tangible and immaterial features of agro-forestry systems represent a natural heritage that is passed down and even developed, from one generation to the next. In the African savanna the shea tree, as well as the expertise and conventions that accompany its use, represent one such natural heritage that is integral to cultural and biodiversity conservation.

African shea butter is becoming increasingly familiar in the West. This vegetal oil has emerged from obscurity to prominence as a favourite ingredient in natural lines of cosmetics. Over the past fifteen years, shea--or karite as it is known in French--has become the focus of many development initiatives because it is one of the few economic commodities in the region under the control of women. …

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