Shea Butter – Uganda’s hidden treasure

Shea butter or as it is commonly known ‘Moo yao’ in Lango is an indigenous fruit tree that grows mostly in northern Uganda. Its fat containing kernels are sold both in the local and international market and its oil is second in importance to palm oil in Africa. Although it has great contributions to local economies, Shea butter has not been exploited in the country mostly because of lack of tradition to plant the trees as most of them occur naturally especially in parklands and farmers just protect them in case they are in their land.

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A shea butter tree needs an average of 7-8 years to produce the first harvest if it is not subjected to severe bush fires. However, those that have faced a lot of bush fires may become stunted and take up to 15 years to bear fruit. During harvest, a tree can yield up to 20kgs of fresh fruit which produces about 5kgs of dry kernel that are made up of 42-48% oil. The fruits resemble plums and take about 4-6 months to fully ripen.

How to plant

  • Clear an area of well drained soils preferably sandy/clay soils
  • It is best that seeds be sown towards the end of the rainy season so as to ensure proper drainage
  • Place the seeds in the soil, with eyes facing up and should be half buried in the soil (if the seeds are planted fully in the soil, they may not germinate).
  • The spacing between the seeds placed in the soil should be between 2-3 meters
  • Apply organic fertilizer to the soil. Organic fertilizer should be used because inorganic fertilizer destroys the soil quality
  • Water at early stages to help easy absorption of nutrients from the soil by the seeds and to protect it from other dry conditions
  • Regular removal of weeds around the seedlings should be done as weeds stimulate competition thus hindering growth and production rates
  • Smoke the trees frequently to protect them from bugs and insects (be sure not to make very big fires that can burn the trees)

Pests and diseases

  • Leaf spot
  • Larvae that develops inside the pulp of mature fruits

(All these can be managed by regular smoking)

Harvesting and production

The seeds fall by themselves to the ground and are collected in baskets and taken for processing.

  • De-pulping- this is done to get rid of the sweet fleshy fruit and is achieved by boiling the fruits which are left to ferment
  • The fermented fruits are then sun-dried for 5-10 days at temperatures below 50°C
  • The seeds are then de-husked through trampling or pounding them in a mortar to remove the hard brown cover to extract the kernel
  • The kernel is then baked/roasted over controlled heat to prevent it from burning-(burnt kernels produce low quality of shea by reducing the fat content. Roasting promotes fat concentration and prolongs the shelf of the nuts)
  • Extracting butter from the baked kernel involves grinding the nuts into fine powder which is then mixed with warm water
  • The semi-solid mixture is then kneaded continuously to form a paste
  • The paste is left standing and with time, oil begins to collect at the top. The oil is collected periodically until it is all exhausted leaving behind the brown residue

Uses of shea butter

  • It is used as a moisturizer as it is rich in vitamin A, E and F which soothes, balances and hydrates the skin
  • Shea butter speeds up healing of wounds
  • It promotes growth of healthy tissues in ulcerous wounds
  • It is used to treat baby circumcision wounds
  • For frying and making of stew
  • The residue left after oil extraction is used to decorate traditional mud houses and also to harden and make them stronger

Although Shea butter is on high demand in the international market, its production remains at a subsistence level in Uganda mainly earning domestic income for the rural northern woman as compared to Ghana and Senegal who export it and is contributing greatly to their economies. It is therefore important for the government and farmers equally to engage in the production of shea butter at a commercial level as this can greatly contribute to the growth of the country’s economy.