In most markets in Ghana, Nigeria and even Benin and Burkina Faso, you’d see women, mostly aged, sitting behind tables displaying an off-white butter-like substance.
The pale yellow fatty solid is called shea butter and has been an African woman’s best friend for centuries.
African women cover their pregnant bellies with shea butter to prevent pregnancy stretch marks. They apply it on the skin to make it soft and shiny. They use it on their hair to improve lustre and texture.
The high concentrations of fatty acids and vitamins in shea butter make it an excellent skin moisturizer. The butter’s healing and anti-inflammatory properties are perfect for reducing skin inflammation, treating burns, and preventing wrinkles and stretch marks.
Shea butter is also perfect for nourishing hair. The butter offers restorative properties to both damaged hair and scalp. A healthy scalp supports better hair growth.
How is shea butter made in Africa
Shea butter is gotten from nuts of the shea tree. But there is no one single process for this.
The first process is collecting the nuts, which is tedious enough on its own. The actual process of extracting the butter from shea nuts differs from family to family, community to community, and even tribe to tribe.
The technique represents an ancient knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation.
All shea butter production techniques do not lead to the same result. In fact, at every market, the buyers recognize the differences in quality that are associated with each shea-making method.
They may ask to know how a particular seller produced hers, or simply go on to say: “Give me shea butter that is produced this way.”
With time, the sellers realized the type of shea that sold well and always went for it.
The actual process of making shea butter
The collection and processing of shea nuts involve a great deal of work. Shea trees start bearing fruits at the onset of the rainy season. This continues throughout most of the agricultural period.
At this period, the locals are mostly occupied with farm work, so much of shea butter production take place in the dry season.
Asides from picking the nuts, the preparation of shea butter also requires large quantities of firewood and water.
Firewood is easier to collect in the dry season, but water (another important requirement in shea-butter production) becomes scarcer. Dry season production is tougher for African communities that rely on well water supply.
The butter-making process begins when the shea tree bears its fruits. This corresponds with the end of the dry season and continues for several months into the rains. Women and children collect fallen fruits. The nuts are carried (usually in baskets) to the household for processing.
The initial stage of butter production involves pulping the fruits to remove the nuts. In order to ferment the pulp and extract the nuts, shea fruits are sometimes buried in an underground pit for at least twelve days.
The nuts are then boiled (if it is raining) or left to dry in the sun for approximately two days (if it’s sunny enough). Either process would prevent the shea nuts from germinating.
The next stage is roasting or smoking the nuts over a fire for 3 to 4 days. After this, the nuts are stored in bags, sometimes for up to nine months, until a woman is ready to convert them into butter
Storing the nuts for many months actually helps to ensure that shea butter is available all year round. When the time for making shea butter finally comes, the nutshells are cracked and removed.
Nuts may then be roasted or smoked over a stove again for a day or two, depending on how well they stored.
Then, one by one, the nuts are crushed with a stone on the ground. They are thereafter warmed in a cauldron and pounded in a mortar with a pestle. This yields a coarse brown batter, which is placed on a large stone and ground, with a smaller stone, into a smoother paste.
All these steps usually happen as a coordinated shared labour. Water is added to the paste and the mixture is kneaded. Two or three women jointly reach into the thick shea batter to beat the paste so the foam floats to the surface.
As the kneading motion is rhythmic, those waiting their turn raise the spirits of the ones working by singing and clapping to the tempo of the kneading. For African women, the preparation of shea butter is a social process.
The foam is then transferred to a bucket of water, where it is ‘washed’ by hand, with women spinning the mixture in basins of water to eliminate unwanted residue.
Subsequent washings – repeated as many as four times – yield progressively whiter foam, which is then boiled for many hours.
The top layer is skimmed out and upon cooling becomes the off-white shea butter sold in markets.