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Shea Butter History      

Shea Butter History
Introduction to Shea Butter

Shea butter is the oil from the seeds of the wild Shea trees (Vitellaria paradoxa or Butyrospermum parkii) found throughout the West African savanna. Shea butter has been used for centuries on the African continent and is completely enmeshed within the history and culture of the West African wooded savanna. Shea butter is mentioned in almost all African historical documents, including a reference as early as Cleopatra's Egypt, which mentions caravans bearing clay jars of shea butter for cosmetic use. Funeral beds of kings were carved in wood of old shea trees, and shea butter has always been a staple of African pharmacology.

Shea butter has many useful properties and has been used as a decongestant, an anti-inflammatory for sprains and arthritis, a healing salve for babies' umbilical cords, a lotion for hair and skin care, cooking oil, and lamp fuel. However, the protective and emollient properties of shea butter are most valued for skin and hair care. Shea butter is a main ingredient in local soap production, and is applied to the skin and hair directly to protect them from drying out in the harsh African environment.

Shea butter is an ivory colored butter that consists mostly of triglycerides and non-saponifiables, including Karisterols, Parkeol, Lupeol, Butryospermol, Katitene and cinnamic esters. Shea butter has excellent antioxidant, soothing and moisturizing properties. The extraction process and treatment following extraction ultimately determine the healing properties of shea butter. Handcrafted, traditionally extracted and unrefined shea butters are most effective.

Shea Butter Trade

Shea butter has a long history of commercialization. It has been traded within and outside West Africa for many centuries. Records from the Middle Ages document the trading of shea butter across the Sahel (the savanna regions of West & Central Africa) and into the coastal regions. There are even references to shea butter in Egyptian documents dating back to 50 B.C. In addition, the trading of shea butter was not limited to Africa. As early as the 1700s, shea butter was one of many tropical oils traded in European and even Brazilian markets.

The presence of shea butter in local and global markets has had an impact on the economy and society of the savanna regions. Not only is shea a major factor in the cultures of the people of this region, but it was also the impetus for foreign interest and interference in these regions. For example, the commercial potential of shea was a main motivation behind English colonial occupation of northern Ghana (Ferguson cited in Chalfin, 2004 see below). Chalfin (2004) also argues that patterns of government involvement in the savanna regions mirror their involvement in the international shea trade.

Almost all shea traded in the international markets ends up as a key ingredient in chocolate. Although it has also been used in a wide variety of goods, including soap, candles, animal feed, margarine and so on, its use as a cocoa butter substitute is by far the largest. Shea has only recently entered the cosmetics market, where it is "bought, sold, refined, and concocted by a spectrum of companies and concerns."

Shea butter has now become a buzz word and can be found in a range of personal care products - from large, multinational companies to home businesses. In any case, the marketing focuses not only on the curative and beneficial properties of shea butter, but also on its source, romanticizing the "village producer" and exaggerating the benefits they receive.

Shea butter is a wonderful natural resource and does have the potential to help alleviate poverty in the West African savanna regions. However, there is also great potential for exploitation, since most traditional shea butter producers do not have access to market information as to the appropriate value of their commodity. Therefore, it is important to know where the shea butter one purchases comes from and that those involved have received fair prices.


Shea Butter Republic: State power, global markets, and the making of an indigenous commodity by Brenda Chaffin (2004, published by Routledge).

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