Improving the Shelf life of Shea Butter in West Africa – Part 2

This post was written from Tamale, Northern Region, Ghana.

We are now into our third week in Ghana. Sandy has run around Tamale getting the forms to make the Nasia Women’s Cooperative official. They gave her the forms, but then she had to go somewhere else to get them copied. Fees are paid everywhere. Then a long hours drive to meet with the inspector. He claims we must pay for his gas, time, and processing fee, so he will come to meet with the women and explain the requirements (this turns out to be completely false, he is hitting us up for “dash” or motivational money). Africa is pay as you go. There is nothing extra or for free, and this makes it difficult for Westerners, accustomed to getting price, quality and service. However, we get the sense that things are finally coming together here.

Sandy and I meet with the Co-ops new Executive Committee. I tell them; “You are not beggars standing on the corner asking for coins. You are strong and proud women.” They cheer and smile. 14 drums of shea have been sent to Accra, and I place an order for another 50. The money to form the co-op, and to build the storage building is a loan against what is owe them for the future 50 drums. Vermont Soap is donating the prototype solar drier, plus enough plastic for 2 more. My drier cost $225 to build (though I am hoping it will last over 10 years), and we make plans to build a $40 drier from local materials, though I will not be there to see it completed.

The group then enters into a long and lively discussion as to the causes of short shelf life. Here is a partial list:

  • Harvesting: Often nuts are 2 weeks old before they are picked up off the ground.
  • Accumulation: The nuts are piled up to rot off the skins
  • Boiling: Boiling stops the peroxides from forming, but seems to encourage the fungus to explode, if the nuts are not properly dried
  • Drying: Solar drying guarantees quality, but if it does not rain for a week or so after boiling, perfectly good quality kernels can be dried without it. However, this hardly ever happens.
  • Water: The women use water in some clarification processes, and also to roll the shea into balls for selling in the village. ANY water in the shea decreases shelf life dramatically. The minerals in the water have also been associated with degradation of the oil.
  • Storage: I found 7 drums of freshly made shea butter melting in the 109F heat. I give a man a few cidis to put a mat on some sticks and cover them. Storage in adobe/cob round houses with straw roofs will help keep them cool.
  • Shipping: Some places on the boat are cooler than others. The shea must be cared for every step of the way.

Our understanding of the shea process has increased dramatically this trip, thanks in part to the wealth of knowledge Dr. Peter Lovett has shared with us. Known as “Dr. Shea”, Peter is the world’s foremost technical expert in shea trees and shea butter.

Organic Certification: OG shea is popping up here and there in the US. Some is OG to Swiss or UK standards. None of it would fit the USDA definition if OG. Here’s why: The current Euro definition of a wild crafted plant one that was not planted by people. Shea is not planted, it is Silva cultured. Farmers eliminate the trees they cannot use, and cultivate the ones that are useful. Then they plant their crops between the trees. In Nasia, Maize (but not Guinea Maize interestingly) is hit with ammonia nitrate. One of the 2 bean cycles is sprayed with pesticides. Our hearts sink as we realize the difficulty in obtaining/creating truly OG shea butter from the villages. IF proper records and separation of nuts from different areas can be achieved, no sweat. But again, this is Africa.

A long and dusty trip into the bush reveals that, in the wild, the density of shea trees is not great. And harvesting challenges are many. Clearly, the vast shea parklands are the result of hundreds of years of cultivation by selection. Shea trees may well live to be 500 years old (or possibly several times that), and we all look forward to seeing more research done in this area. Truth is, we are still learning about the shea tree, and the miraculous oil (butter) it produces.

Note: I do have 14 drums ready for shipment to the US, and 50 more that should be made and ready to ship in September. The batch on it’s way will have an even better shelf life than the last one (many thanks to those who told me our last batch was the best they ever saw), and the September shipment will incorporate the many new things we taught the group. The idea is that each batch will be even better than the one before. Gradual, relentless improvement.

Many thanks to USAID (your tax dollars at work), for helping to fund some of our expenses through the Farmer to Farmer Program; OIC International, our on the ground support team (especially Eben); and to Tammie Espinosa of “AGardenersResource” www.GreenhouseSupplies.com for giving us a discount on the solar drier plastic. And special thanks to Aubrey Hampton, who asked me to keep an eye out for organic shea butter in West Africa, which started me on this journey.

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