Sunday, June 22, 2008

Shea Nut Madness!

Walking around the Busunu in the morning is like walking through a ghost town, taken over by packs of 2 year olds and the occasional granny watching over. Why? Because of Shea Nuts! All of the women in Busunu (and most of those in the West Gonja District) are out in the Bush before the sun rises to collect shea nuts.

Do you happen to have, or know of someone who has, any skin care products that contain shea butter? I sure do, and how much do we know about this ingredient that is so desired in skin care and makes our skin smooth and supple? Here is some info on shea butter, where it comes from and the hard work that goes collecting it.

So why are the shea nuts such a big deal? Because for the majority of those living in Busunu, this seasonal work will generate their income for the entire year. This year women are particularly serious about it because the price is high for selling and the fruits are growing well. So when it is shea nut season (it has been going on for maybe 3 weeks now, and will last for maybe 1 to 2 months still) everything else stops, and collecting and processing the shea nuts become the priority. Learning about how women (who are REPs main target beneficiaries) spend their time was amazing as I am beginning to better understand about the daily struggles and challenges they face, and how the intervention by the REP could potentially impact their lives.

So let me take you through the process:

1. Shea fruits grow on trees in the ‘bush’. They kind of remind me of avocadoes; they are green and have a pasty fruit on the inside with a large nut in the middle. They can be very sweet…but take care when they are that sweet (as you will see soon)…but mostly they taste like plain yogurt to me. The bush is the wilderness that exists outside of town. Since we are further north, it’s not as dense as a rainforest, but is just as green…check the picture:

2. Shea nuts fall from trees. This is where the women come in with their sacks and basins to come and collect them. I accompanied some of the women one day into the bush and what an adventure we had! It was HARD work! Cutting off the road and heading into the bush some times along paths, sometimes just cutting through randomly (I don’t know how we didn’t get lost) moving to one area, stopping and bending over to pick the fruits through the grass, putting them in the bin and moving on…again and again, hard work!

Furthermore, when I say fruit, you may think of a pleasant, firm, sweet smelling thing, but the majority of what we picked were hidden under grass and shrubs, rotting and covered in bugs. Another special treat was using your hand to push off the fruit before collecting the nut (because you only want the nut, expect for a few fresh fruits that you eat as you go, or take back to the house), and the fruit is being eaten by many maggots, which feel awful on your hand, squirming around, trying to bore into your skin! Ah! There are also hoards of fruit flies around the fruits…its all very natural, so you get over the bug factor pretty quick, but I just want to give you a sense of the work that goes into this, its not like picking apples.
Along our adventure we faced many challenges (personally my legs, oh god! African women are used to bending over and working, but I am not! The backs of my legs are still killing me, days later, from all that bending!), the rain…the rain came swiftly and viciously and made us finish our work early, and the forest cows, which apparently are mean and are very big with large horns and must be kept at bay with large sticks.

3. Once you have collected all that you can carry, you put it on your head, and take the long walk back into town. For me, my neck would break if I tried to carry that weight, but instead I carried my backpack wrapped up in a rubber bag on my head, emerging from the bush a little bit more African, but still very much a silly white girl.

4. Boiling. The shea nuts are covered in rotten fruit and flies, so all that gunk is boiled off in a big cauldron.

5. Drying. The nuts are spread out on the ground to be dried by the heat of the African sun. They are spread out and quite frequently have to be protected from hungry and relentless goats and pigs.

6. Cracking. The shea nuts are covered in a shell that needs to be cracked to extract the seed/nut that contains the precious oil. So women grab a stick or paddle and wack the nuts on the ground to crack the shells open.

7. Removing the shells. Now that the shells are cracked, the task of removing all the bits of shell is next. This requires taking one shea nut at a time, taking off the bits of shell (kind of like a boiled egg…sometimes it comes nicely, and sometimes you need to pick at little pieces). There are a few tricks to remove the shells, but one is not really that much easier than the next. You can sit for hours and pick through them, or you can combine it with dumping them from a height from one basin to another and letting the wind carry away some of the chaff, both methods are time consuming and hard work.

8. Drying. The exposed shea nut is laid out in the sun again to dry.
9. Extracting the oil. This part I was not able to witness. I am not sure how it is done, but I believe it involves boiling. I believe there is a press that can be used, but again, I am pretty sure that no machinery is used by the women in Busunu. Furthermore, the nuts can be stored this way for up to a year and can be traded and sold this way to those who will go on to process it for the oil.

I was excited to participate in all the steps of the process…but quickly learned it’s no game. Since everything is done by hand, and you have such large quantities of nuts to process…each task quickly becomes very tedious and blister inducing. I was fortunate to just have a taste of all the different steps, and I didn’t need to suffer every morning to get up and go into the bush if it had rained all night or if my muscles were aching. So I got a taste of it, but still I will never really know.

I have a better appreciation for rural livelihoods as a result of this trip for many reasons. First, the women had no choice but to be dragging their tough asses out to the bush every day and collecting these nuts. This isn’t a bonus income, this is it, the big deal, so if you don’t do it, you go hungry and your children suffer. There is no choice in the matter.

Everything is dependent on the weather. The reason the shea nuts are growing so well, is because of the weather, if it rains too much, it disturbs the picking, when it is sunny, you come back and spread your nuts out to dry. The weather dictates your schedule.

Everything is done painstakingly by manual labour. Each and every shea fruit that is produced passes through your hands many times before it is ready to be sold. There are no machines, nothing beyond a strainer and a stick to aid the process. But there is a sense of pride that I sensed among the women, a sense of camaraderie and respect that comes from sharing hardwork with someone else. They all understand the struggles they are facing, and for me, unlike what I warned before this village stay, I was not refused hard work, women were hassling me to come into the bush with them to get the nuts and disappointed on the days when I hadn’t gone! These women are so powerful, tough and hardworking, it blew my mind. The women I was collecting the shea nuts in the bush were maybe 50-60 years I think, and they were tough! They could carry more, bend over more and go on for hours like that…I felt pretty weak in comparison.

When I asked my shea nut picking partner whether she enjoyed it (I quickly knew it was a stupid question as soon as I asked it) she said no! she is old and if she had money to buy the shea nuts from someone else she would. All of the women who had received one of the three trainings were all out collecting shea nuts. When I asked what they do for income aside from the shea nuts, many of them said they were just in the house, or doing small selling of food in the market. For the most part the women were excited about having a new skill that could earn them money and give them something to do with their time. The biggest problem they faced was gathering enough money to start up. But they were all incredibly hard working and wanted to start up a business, not just because they had a passion for soap or tye and dye, but because it was a way to make money and be doing something productive with their time. Furthermore, it empowers them to have a skill and a means to be improving their lives that is mostly just dependent on themselves.

So, there has yet to be a positive outcome of the trainings that happened in Busunu, and there wont be more progress until this season is finished, and women will potentially have some income to contribute to their business groups (all the groups of people trained are working together to pool their money to buy resources). I hope that they are able to get started and get going. They are struggling now, but I can see their determination (and desperation) that will lead them to get these businesses started.

I think this village stay was very successful in helping me to better understand the clients, some of the struggles they face, and make that emotional connection, something to keep me working hard and accountable to those people I talked to, to bring about some change that will aid them in their first challenging steps in starting up.

Here’s a challenge for those of you in Canada who are eager to experience some of African life and investigate more into some of these matters.

1. take some time to investigate into the ingredients of some product that you use (whether it be from the Body Shop or otherwise) and try and find where the products come from. If it says a women’s group in Ghana, for instance. Think about what it means. What does it mean to be part of a women’s group. How does it impact their lives? Try and think about the work that goes into the product they are producing and take a moment to wonder at the crazy interconnections that exist in our world, so many of which we are unaware of.
2. do something really boring and tedious all day long. Feel the blisters that will form and the craziness you feel for lack of stimulation. Do this and appreciate the struggles people feel in undergoing work without the aid of machines to quicken the process.
3. take a bucket shower! Go ahead, its fun. Fill up a bucket and either use a cup or just your hands to splash the water up onto yourself. Its amazing how well you can clean yourself with less than 10 L, when the average person will take a 10 minute shower, having used about 100 L of water in the process.


Jim & Laurel said...

I just found your blog, and really appreciated this post.

My husband and I spent 6 weeks in Ghana, in Feb./March, while finalizing the adoption of 3 beautiful children (to add to our 10 bio. children).

We brought home Shea butter from the Bolgatanga region (where we visited the children's village and met their extended family). But, we had no idea how/where/what the shea butter is and how it is made.




I recently learnt that UNDP has teamed up with the Japanese to provide assistance to the Northern women in connection with sheanut processing. It seems the women at Busunu have not been included. I am wondering how that connection could be made to benefit them.

Anonymous said...

Quite a good exploration. Kim well done. As an African, I am learning from you the process of obtaining SHEA NUT.

Shea Nut is also available in Nigeria (North Central Region).

Noah Akinsibo

Rockson's thoughts said...

Kim, good work done

Anonymous said...

Wow what an adventure, i cant wait to go to africa, specifically west africa and take part in these experiances

epxyd said...

Thanks a million Kim for this excellent blog. I am a Ghanaian, studying all about the shea to concentrate on the drawbacks as a society's responsibility. I want to respond to Sylvia Whyte's posting; it is difficult for some of us to beleive these International Assistance often propagated by the media. I am sure they have the good intetion, but the Ghanaian society, very depressing, is such that the aid hardly gets to the people who need it most. Its been so for ages, so in my opinion, we need an attitudinal societal change which will encourage 'home grown' solutions.

Lauren said...

Very informative...Thank you. How much do you think a nut weighs before extracting the shea butter?

kotochi M. clement said...

good work done by every individual who posted a comment.but i just what to inform individuals and cooperate bodies that, am students of university for Development Studies in the department environmental management interested in researching on shea nut in any part of the northern part of therefore calling on cooperate organizations interested in reseach work on the shea to send me TOPICS and resources needed to do so via or call +233243715013.

Hon. Helen Mbema said...

Good work done Kim. I am an Assembly Woman of West Gonja District Assembly, (Kumbo Electoral Area) precisly. I must say well done but dont leave it here. Kim try to bring your idea to the outside world, so that our women can gain more ideas as how to benefit from picking shea nuts. Thank you. By Hon. Helem Mbema

sarah awuni said...

Sarah Awuni Nyaaba
well dome Kim for your exploration in the Busum village.Hope you'll try and explore other villages in Northern,upper East and West regions of Ghana when in Africa next time.I'm also a student at the university for development studies in Tamale and very much interested in researching in sheanuts and how to help these rural women increase their productivity through the collection and processing of these nuts in order to improve their livelihood.

Judy A said...

Great blog and description, Kim. The Calgary Zoo (in Alberta, Canada) has been partnering with the Wechiau community in Northern Ghana for many years and together we have created the Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary. Our most recent project in Wechiau is a shea factory to process the nuts the women are collecting. This will increase the value so the local people get more money and will also provide more local jobs. The Wechiau Community Hippo Sanctuary is a wonderful example of community based conservation that is helping the local people while also helping and conserving wildlife. Check it out!

Anonymous said...

Interesting blog, chanced upon it while researching market for Ugandan Shea Butter. Working with women groups in Northern Uganda who are trying to rebuild their livelihoods after the ravages of the Kony war and trade in this commodity is instrumental in this development. It's the ‘high Olein’ (mean St:O <0.6) Vitellaria Nilotica variety that produces softer, more spreadable and better absorbed butter relative to the Vitelleria Paradoxa variety from west Africa. Please email me on if interested in working with us and these women. Currently in Vancouver with some samples and shall be in London end of September.