Throughout the Sahel, shea provides poor people cash. A survey in Burkina Faso indicated that the nuts provide 20 percent of family income, a figure that can be taken as generally representative of several neighboring nations and parts of nations. The Sahelian countries can hardly be called prosperous, of course, but without shea they would be much poorer. In Mali, field studies indicate that in areas where the shea is widespread 90 percent of the households engage in its processing, and that shea products contribute up to 60 percent of women’s income. In years of poor production local market activity in notably affected.
Women are the ones who collect shea nuts. Women also extract shea butter. And women selling the butter in local markets are a commonplace sight. According to estimates, the tree provides more than half women’s income in the rural Sahel. An observer has estimated that these nuts provide income to more than 2 million women, which is in all likelihood an underestimation.2
This tree also provides the Sahel with foreign exchange. Both the seed kernels and the butter are shipped to Europe and Japan, and now the United States, where they are processed into baking fat, margarine, cocoa-butter substitutes, and various beauty aids. Such exports have a long history. In Cleopatra’s time, for instance, caravans bore clay jars of shea butter across the Sahara to Egypt where it was used in cosmetics, probably including those the queen herself applied. Since at least those dynastic days, shea exports have been providing West Africa with revenue. Currently Burkina Faso and Mali, which together ship over 100,000 tons of dried kernels annually, are the principal exporters. But shea is also an important Ghanaian export. Indeed, it’s Ghana’s third ranking cash crop; only cocoa and coffee exceed it in foreign exchange earnings. It is Burkina Faso’s third largest export as well.
Although renowned for the food it provides, this tree’s non-food products are valuable too. Across West Africa, shea butter is applied to the skin and hair. Refined in modern factories, it is incorporated into soaps, ointments, and skincare products of numerous kinds. It is also used to waterproof the walls of houses, so as to stop the infrequent downpours from washing the mud away. Furthermore, it is a staple of West African medicine. For thousands of years local healers have used the pasty solid to protect small wounds, heal infections, and soothe the aches of sprains and strains. Moreover, they prescribe it as a decongestant and an arthritis treatment.
People are not shea’s only beneficiaries. This tree’s environmental contributions are hard to overstate. For one thing, shea and locust (Chapter 11) commonly provide the only tree-cover across an area that is vulnerable to desertification. (the main zone of areas threatened with desertification is