Shea butter: a small nut with a big impact
It's rare to find an ingredient that can be used to make both chocolate and moisturiser - apart from the esteemed cacao bean, of course - but the useful little shea nut is, quite amazingly, an ingredient of both. And its uses don't end there either: the shell of this super nut helps to repel mosquitoes and has anti-bacterial properties; the butter made from the kernels is used in cooking in West Africa; and it's a wonder product for wind-ravaged skin, hair and nails. All of which make it easy to understand why, in the local Dioula language, shea is named 'karité', meaning 'life'.
Despite shea butter's many uses, it's easy to overlook it amongst rows of gleaming new beauty products and the latest scientific technologies. But this shiny brown nut has a much more interesting story than simply being processed in a high-tech lab. From women harvesting the nuts of the leafy wild shea tree in Burkina Faso to the hours spent boiling, crushing and processing the kernels, here's the story of its transformation from a large, plum-sized green fruit to a super moisturiser.
'Women's gold': processing the shea nuts
Although the shea tree grows in 16 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the largest concentration is found in Burkina Faso and this is where natural beauty brands L'Occitane, Melvita and Burt's Bees source their shea butter from. Most of the trees grow in the wild and the fruit is collected by hand, as the mature fruit falls from the tree. Harvesting the nuts and making the shea butter is a woman's role and, as such, it allows the Burkinabe women to generate an income, giving shea butter its nickname of 'women's gold'.
Shea butter has been used by local villages for generations but it's an extremely labour intensive process, with the younger women carrying out the more manual work and the elders passing down their knowledge. The job begins with removing the kernel from the fruit (which has a fleshy centre with a shiny brown nut inside, a bit like an avocado) and grinding it into a paste, mixing it with water and boiling it until the fat can be siphoned off for churning, and sold.
Presses, bicycles and schools: women's cooperatives
Funding from beauty brands such as L'Occitane has had a huge impact on local communities where Burkinabe women in rural areas have little economic opportunity and high illiteracy rates.
L'Occitane's fair trade partnership with women's cooperatives began in 1982, when their founder Olivier Bussan set up a co-development programme to ensure the women were paid a fair price for their work. L'Occitane's Foundation also funds literacy centres to educate the workers and their children, and they've recently bought bicycles to help the women travel in a region where they would often journey by foot, with heavy loads.
Similarly, Melvita, whose shea butter is certified organic and fair trade by ECOCERT, helps local cooperatives by pre-financing the harvest, which enables the women to manage their costs, and buy simple mechanised presses which crush the nuts and save on time. And through the purchase of multifunctional platforms - machines which provide energy for other shelling and grinding machines, as well as running power generators to produce electricity and run water pumps - in a project run by Burt's Bees' partner in conjunction with the United Nations Development Program, the women can reorganise their time, attend school to learn reading, writing and maths, and begin new projects to help earn more money.
And this is why, although shea butter may seem like an ordinary ingredient amongst the latest products, it's actually much more than that.