The mangifolia tree may not be as familiar as the elm or walnut, but what's inside the fruit of this slow-growing African tree might soon be. Shea butter, or karite butter, is becoming a popular ingredient in the natural cosmetics industry. Although Europeans have been savvy to shea butter for some time—it is dermatologist approved by the French Ministry of Health—the ingredient is just now receiving wide recognition in the United States. And shea butter has more than just skin-softening appeal; the export of this ingredient is giving new hope to Ugandan farmers.

Many formulators consider shea butter to be a superior emollient to cocoa butter and other vegetable oils. The butter contains more nonsaponifiable fats—parts of the plant oils that are not transformed into soap by alkali—than most other plant oils, including avocado. The butter's oils are rich in vitamins including A, E and essential fatty acids, making it an ideal ingredient for lotions and hair and lip care products.

Although Africans have traded and sold shea butter as a food source for thousands of years, the recent international market for its use in cosmetics has tremendous financial potential for farmers there. The export price for the butter is about five times that of its price on the local market.

The Cooperative Office for Voluntary Organizations, a nonprofit based in Lira, Uganda, and Santa Cruz, Calif., works to help farmers in Uganda realize the potential of the shea tree. In 1988, group members went to the region to find ways to help women farmers. "What we found was that there was this dominant resource in the area—the shea tree," says Alisa Puga, project officer for COVOL and president of Nilotica Botanicals, also based in Santa Cruz and Lira. "Back then we didn't know much about its cosmetic use. We knew the French were using it, but it wasn't as popular as it is right now," she says.

COVOL formed the Shea Project for Local Conservation and Development to work with the local farmers. At the time, most of the harvested nuts were being exported from West Africa to Europe for processing. "We realized that we could produce a cosmetic-grade [product] right in Africa," Puga says. "Like coffee, we could keep the economic benefits in the local area."

The project members worked with engineers to design a handpress to cold crush the oil, and what once took 11 hours, now takes only one. "Suddenly it was very lucrative to process shea," Puga says. As a result of the group's success, the Northern Uganda Shea Processors Association was formed. The association, which functions as a co-op, began exporting shea butter for cosmetics three years ago. "Right now, just small manufacturers have bought it," she says. "We sell it all over the world, but it's so new that it hasn't been bought by any major manufacturers yet."

Currently, there are about 1,500 members in the co-op and several thousand households that belong to the project. While most of the members are women, men are not discouraged from joining. "We want communities to work together and not compete," Puga says. When the project first began, men were cutting down the shea trees for charcoal. "We told them that if they didn't start to pay attention to how this resource was being used, they would lose it," Puga says. The project got the word out through environmental education in schools and over the radio. "We taught them that if you cut down a shea tree, you get money one time, but if you process the shea butter, you get a yearly harvest," she says.

COVOL is now working on making NUSPA self-sufficient so it can sell shea butter on its own. "Women selling shea butter can make equal to about a year's income in a week," Puga says. "It has a high perceived value. People know what it is now."

Better Butter
There are two sub species of the shea tree—Vittelaria paradoxa and V. nilotica. Nilotica grows in Uganda and Ethopia and is what NUSPA harvests. According to Puga, nilotica is the superior of the two sheas. "It has a higher level of unsaponifiables. It's a much softer and more fragrant product—it's just buttery soft," she says.

The NUSPA-produced shea butter is also sold under a line of natural shea butter-based products called Nilotica Botanicals. All proceeds from the line benefit the co-op. "We wanted to showcase the nilotica shea butter and show how different it was," Puga says. The line features hand and body lotions, face creams and pure shea butter. The company plans to add a small sodium lauryl sulfate-free hair-care line soon.

Formulators for Niliotica Botanicals use organic ingredients that are sourced fairly from producer groups whenever possible and do not use synthetic derivatives. "We get the highest quality essential oils from these little co-ops in Madagascar; what we're trying to do is link up with other projects."

In the United States, shea butter is beginning to receive recognition and is now the starring ingredient in several naturals lines and products. Dessert Essence in Hauppauge, N.Y., has five products featuring shea butter. "Shea butter is used because of its wonderful consistency; it penetrates the skin quickly, while leaving it feeling moisturized and smooth with no oily residue," says Mirka Cigan-Castaldo, associate brand manager.

The Dessert Essence shea line, which includes shampoo and conditioner, body scrub and lip balm, features shea butter from West Africa. Cigan-Castaldo says the products are selling well. "Awareness among consumers that shop in natural health foods stores is strong. This may be attributed to the many positive articles in natural consumer magazines and the knowledge of the benefits of shea butter at the retail level," she says.

Pré de Provence, a Seattle-based company, has been importing shea butter products from France for the past four years. Judy Wilson, vice president, says the products are doing well and that consumer awareness is good. The company's line includes a hand cream with 20 percent shea butter, a foot cream with 15 percent shea butter and 100 percent shea butter in a tin.

With its rich concentration of vitamins and emollients, retailers can be sure that more naturals manufacturers will be introducing shea butter products in the near future.

The butter, like many natural products, offers not only a healthy choice to consumers, but gives indigenous peoples a livelihood that sustains them and the earth.

For more information regarding COVOL, NUSPA or Nilotica Botanicals, contact Alisa Puga at Puga@niloticabotanicals.com or 831.465.1019.

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXII/number 9/p. 38, 40