You may never have heard of the shea tree, or of the products that Africa’s poorest countries make from the shea fruit. Shea butter is made from the nut of the tree; it is used to make chocolate, as well as margarine and cooking oil. Products that can become an important export product for African economies.
According to a Global Post report, About 600,000 tonnes of shea are produced each year in Africa. Over 60 percent of this is exported to Europe, which is more than double the amount shipped ten years ago. Part of the shea is used in food products, part is processed in cosmetics products for socially-conscious consumers. L'Oreal, The Body Shop and L'Occitane are using more and more shea as a natural moisturizer and anti-aging ingredient in their cosmetics.
Around 16 million people in Africa (from Ethiopia to Senegal and down to the Democratic Republic of Congo) are supported by the shea industry, according to the Global Shea Alliance (AGK). Ivory Coast is already the fifth-largest producer of shea in the world, harvesting around 40,000 tonnes a year, but the government wants to more than triple that to 150,000 tonnes.
The shea tree grows wild and untamed across almost 1.5 million square miles of the African savanna, and cannot be planted. It can survive fires and droughts and live hundreds of years. But it only bears fruit after 25 years, and even then only once every three seasons, according to AGK.