The Shea Butter Story
The Shea Nut Tree
The Shea Nut Tree is native to tropical Africa. 12 to 20 meters high, its branches are short and thick with a grayish bark. It grows spontaneously throughout drier areas in much of the Sub-Saharan region. The Shea Tree takes about 15 years to produce its first fruit and only reaches full maturity after 25-50 years. It produces fruit once each year and is very resistant to bush fires. So far nobody has been able to successfully cultivate the Shea Tree.
Shea Fruit is delicious and enjoyed by everyone when it matures in June, the middle of the rainy season. People say the round greenish-yellow fruit is like a taste of heaven. When the heavy rains push the ripe fruits onto the ground people pick them up and eat them. Children, Elders, birds, animals, insects, everyone enjoys this gift from nature. The fruit is so abundant that there is plenty for everyone, and plenty left to rejuvenate the soil and carry on the cycle of life.
Gathering the Shea Nuts
Gathering the Shea Nuts is often just a part of eating the fruit. Children are taught from the earliest age that the gift of the Shea Tree is to be treasured. During Shea Fruit season every house has a basket where the Shea Nuts (which are at the centre of the fruit like a peach stone) are deposited after the fruit is eaten. Women will scour the savannah and bush, gathering basketfuls of Shea Nuts and then walking miles back to their villages, carrying them in baskets on their heads. Gathering the Shea Nuts, along with all the other steps of the process, is a social activity.
Drying the Shea Nuts
Separating and Cracking
When dry the inside kernel, which is where the Shea Butter comes from, must be separated from the shell. Traditionally this is done by women who sit on the ground and break the shells with a small rock. Often women or groups of Women Elders will work at this while socializing.
To make the Shea Nuts into butter they must be crushed. Traditionally this is done with a mortar and pestle. It is hard grueling work with the women spending hours lifting the heavy pestles and slamming them down into the mortar to crush the nuts so they can be roasted.
The crushed nuts are then roasted in huge pots over an open wood fire. The pots must be stirred constantly with a wooden paddle so they don’t burn. The butter is heavy and stirring them is hot, smoky work, done under a searing African sun. This is where the slight smoky smell of Baraka’s traditional Shea Butter originates. The smell tells you that the butter has been produced by local women using the same traditions and tools that have been used for hundreds of years.
The roasted shea nuts are ground into a smoother paste, water is gradually added and the paste is mixed well by hand. If there is no grinding machine the women would grind this on the grinding stone. If they have access to a grinding mill it is ground in the Mill to a paste.
Separating and Curing the Butter Oils
The paste is kneaded by hand in large basins and water is gradually added to help separate out the butter oils. As they float to the top the butter oils, which are in a curd state, are taken out and excess water squeezed out. The butter oil curds are then melted in large open pots over a slow fire. A period of slow boiling will remove any remaining water, which boils off as steam.