Improving the Shelf life of Shea Butter in West Africa – Part 1

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

We arrived in Accra, Ghana one week ago via Amsterdam. Sandy, my life partner, Harry, my 18 year old nephew, Bob, a new friend and USDA Organic Inspector, and myself had managed to schedule three nights in this lovely city. There is something to be said about zoning building heights; the 7th story of our hotel had a magnificent view of the rooftops of the city. The city is set out in a roughly circular arrangement, and a healthy person can walk the diameter in three hours or less. We saw the artwork of the Dutch Masters, toured romantic canals (I am told they smell awful in the Summertime), and enjoyed many a lively conversation in the local coffeehouses. If you are planning to visit Amsterdam and need a good, no frills Hotel, I recommend the IBIS chain. There are about 400 throughout Europe, where you can get a smallish room at a reasonable price. We made our reservations online. If you like a good country breakfast, as we do in Vermont, look out! This is British breakfast land. Those hard boiled eggs are cooked just long enough to keep them from hatching….

It was a short hop to Frankfurt, Germany, and then 7 hours due South to Lagos, then less than an hour to Accra, Ghana. It saved a bunch of money to travel this way, but the stops added time and hassle to the task of transporting our bodies across so many miles. We zoomed through Customs. I have learned to project a certain confident “I am here on Official Business” aura going through Customs in West Africa, and they never looked at our bags. Ghanaians are WAY more polite than Americans, and a smile and a greeting, can get you a bit of extra mileage with Security. They are more concerned with collecting the Import Tax from locals with huge bags tagged as personal items, than slowing down visitors bringing American dollars into the nation. The dollar is strong here, and the preferred currency of many business people in West Africa.

Business runs on credit, and here, there is little. Credit cards are close to useless, and we quickly find ourselves guarding our dwindling supply of hard cash. Lack of credit hinders the growth of these developing nations, and banks make more money on bank fees than interest here. Colonialism never fully died, it just became more subtle. In the cities of Ghana, EVERYONE is an entrepreneur, and we quickly become tired of being hustled and overcharged. Visitors pay 3 to 5 times more in taxis, and with small vendors (hawkers). I pretend to become stern with them no matter the opening price, “What? Is too much! Was wrong you?”; and typically save 30 to 40%, still more than the locals or ex-pats pay, but Hey! A Guinness or very large bottle of Club lager is about a buck, and a full restaurant meal is under $10. Smaller, Western style hotels with A/C start at $50 in Accra. We had spied out one of these on our last trip, and were very happy to get out of the grip of the upscale hotel scene. If you are really stuck, the big hotels will take your credit card. We occasionally took lunch at the upscale establishments, and, walking around like we owned the place, were able to use the amenities (read the pool) freely.

All of us attended a 2 day shea butter conference at a very fancy resort. Bob and I had PowerPoint presentations on our respective areas of expertise. His was on Organic Certification to USDA standards. Mine was on what NOT to do when Exporting shea to the US. Experience can be a bitch, but it was turned into a lively interaction and lesson on Western business practices and skills. Other presenters added greatly to my technical knowledge of shea, and the networking was terrific. We then put together a mock up trade show booth to prepare 5 shea producers for Expo West. USAID is helping to sponsor a booth for them, and had put together this conference in part to help them attend the show. Please visit the West Africa Trade Hub booth at Expo and send our regards. These guys really know their shea butter, but the basic issues of shelf life and transport logistics remain. These are intelligent, educated people, though the English is “small small”.

My personal goal is to get the bugs (literally and figuratively) out of the shea butter transformation process; to create a medicinal quality shea butter with OG Certification, white color, no odor, and a solid 2 to 3 year shelf life. Having spent the last 13 years working to perfect the handmade soap, castile soap, and castile gel soap processes, my brain is now gnawing at the technical issues surrounding shea butter production. In local terms I am a “Shea Nut”. Maybe a hobby would be cheaper…..

Shea has only really been studied for 12 years, and then mostly by my friend and associate Dr. Peter Lovett. We fly North to Tamale with Peter to build experimental solar driers. The idea is to make inexpensive greenhouse driers to kill the fungus that infects the nut, and to heat the nuts in order to denature the lipase enzyme that the nut itself produces inside the kernels. In a small, previous test, solar drying eliminated the autoperoxidation rancification of the oil, which produces the odor and color changes that plagues the natural shea we see in the US. It is our hope that this dryer, along with a speedier, refrigerated transport system, will make artesianal shea a viable commodity in the West.

Shea is the business of women in West Africa, and here, in the lands with 3 months of cool rain and 9 months of heat, life is hard and opportunity slim. We return to Nasia, near Gambaga, where I had purchased last years entire production of 4 drums of the precious butter. One co-op can make up about a drum a day, if they have a grinder, storage buildings, access to open top drums, and a preordered buyer who can arrange transport (ouch!) The devil is in the details, as they say.

To extract the nut there is a roasting process (one of 23 steps in the artesianal process), and that creates free fatty acids, the second cause of rancidity in shea. Theoretically, this can be eliminated by a modern, cold process oil press, modified for shea. This is very exciting to me, and we visit a friend of Peter’s who is doing just that. Cold pressing solar dried nuts will produce a medicinal quality shea, high in botanicals, and comparable to hexane refined in terms of shelf life, color and odor. Cold pressed product WOULD be eligible for OG Certification. Cold Pressing with Solar Drying is the process that will produce the OG Cosmetic Grade Shea Butter we all are waiting for

And so, I envision three distinct shea manufacturing routes emerging: Traditional Artesianal, Cold Process Solar Dried, and Hexane Refined. Hexane refining eliminates the need for solar driers (they use the black, fungus nuts, and will remain a cheap mass market source for European chocolates (up to 5% of the formula so yes – you may have already eaten shea butter), and for the “Better Living through Chemistry” L’oreal and Oil of Olay set. Traditional Artesianal allows the value of processing to go directly to the Women’s Co-Ops, and is the most Fair Trade and PC route, when shelf life is not always the primary concern. Smaller quantities, sent by air will ensure up to an 18 month shelf life. With careful nut selection and ROE preservative (like the shea that I brought in), it may be longer. Cold Processing their oils, along with Solar Dried shea nuts is the method that I believe is ideal for the Natural and Organic Cosmetics market. Quality at Quantity, as Peter likes to say.

Dawn is coming in a couple of hours, tomorrow is another adventure. I sure hope my stomach settles down.

Soapman (and Bona fide Shea Nut),
Larry Plesent

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