Trees, Tribes & Technology
How the digital and technological revolution have shaped the shea sector
South of the Sahara, forest resources have been a lifeline for approximately sixty-five percent of the population.
Benefits such as timber, climate regulation, watershed protection, and ecotourism have supported local communities and contributed significantly to development on the continent; fetching up to ten (10) percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for least 19 African countries. And whereas timber production is the number one use for many high-value tree species, exploitation for non-timber forest products (NTFP) such as gum, oils, resins, fruit, medicines, and fodder commercially benefits even more individuals.
NTFP provides between 29 and 39 percent of the food, medicine, and income for a staggering 80 percent of the population living in forested areas in Central Africa. Products such as the cola nut, bush mangoes, mushrooms, Djansang, and shea fruits are not only viewed as sources of supplementary income among forest-dependent communities but also as hunger foods, providing safety nets in times of food scarcity.
The shea tree, scientifically known as Vitellaria paradoxa, supports livelihoods across a 3.41 million square kilometer belt in sub-Saharan Africa. In terms of oil production, the once ‘underutilized crop presently comes second only to the palm nut tree among valuable oil crops on the continent.
Rich in stearic acid, what was once a simple additive for traditional cuisine among the Lango in Northern Uganda and the Waala in Northern Ghana, has now transformed into a staple for upscale cosmetic brands like The Body Shop and L’Occitane in Europe, the Americas, and Asia.
From confectionary use to pharmaceutical application as an anti-inflammatory, the market potential for shea butter seems endless. A 2020 report from a Global Shea Alliance and FAO project claims shea exports have increased from 50,000 metric tons (MT) to over 300,000 MT, in the last 20 years.
Shea butter has, at one point in time, provided income for more than 16 million women in Africa.
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In Uganda, the shea story begins in the Sudano — Sahelian parkland communities, in districts like Lira, Kitgum, and Pader. Similar to their counterparts in West Africa, upstream producers in Uganda (mainly women’s associations) undertake labour — intensive tasks that include walking several miles to collect shea fruits from scanty tree populations; roasting the nuts over open fires; de-husking them using mortars and pestles, and kneading/boiling the paste to finally produce the yellow-gold butter.
Progress has been made in mechanizing operations in a few producer communities, but in areas where traditional techniques and production tools are still utilized, the urge to utilize shea trees for fuelwood, instead of butter, is tenacious; so much so that bans have been imposed to protect the vulnerable species in Uganda.
New trends and emerging markets have increased dependence on the mostly-aging shea tree populations. Additionally, threats such as land-use change, demand for wood fuel, and climate change continue to rapidly diminish shea tree populations, across the shea belt. Sustainably managing shea resources, while boosting the sector calls for innovative approaches.
It is this balance that technology has attempted to provide: an equilibrium between utilization and conservation.
Producers downstream employ diverse technologies in their operations. With biotechnology and advanced production equipment, these stakeholders are not only facilitating product diversification but also indirectly supporting tree conservation when fewer quantities of shea butter are utilized in product formulations; they are reducing shea waste with more efficient production tools and averting carbon emission when renewable energy sources or solvent extraction methods are utilized.
ICT, especially e-marketing has expanded the reach of shea butter, beyond the African continent. While this may have increased pressure on shea trees, the export of unrefined butter ensures that it does not go to waste when underutilized on the African continent.
Quality control through initiatives like fair trade and eco-certification makes use of product testing technologies; and in addition to providing compensation for best practices, it supports species’ conservation through commitments to ecological integrity.
Many are the benefits of technology in the shea sector, but equally, many are the pits falls. Appropriate policies and legislations need to be crafted if only to safeguard against over-harvesting of shea fruits, which interferes with natural tree regeneration.
Processes should be facilitated to inform stakeholders, under different socio-economic settings, of the opportunities and challenges of the shea sector, beyond their local borders. Shea refining and value addition could be better facilitated upstream through skilling players and supporting producer communities with appropriate production technology. For one, this would reduce the carbon footprint associated with exporting tonnes of unrefined shea butter and shea kernels across the globe.
And while significant investment has gone into product innovation and process mechanization, a lot more could be done to ensure that tree populations are increased through R&D in tree reproduction technologies.
Today, it may be difficult to imagine how a tree species that once stretched across a continent could be vulnerable to extinction. But for a species that takes 15 years to fruit, and one that’s prone to irregular fruit-bearing, relying on natural regeneration — as is the case in most shea producing countries, leaves the sustainability of the shea sector questionable.