Revitalising Shea Butter Industry: Indigenous Technology As Catalyst For Economic Growth, Global Competitiveness

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Shea Butter
Shea Butter

Indigenous technology, defined as the knowledge and skills passed down from past generations, plays a crucial role in the development and processing of natural resources. Despite its traditionally low output, it harbours the potential to catalyse economic growth by providing employment opportunities, promoting self-reliance and fostering innovation and technological competitiveness.

Moreover, indigenous technology stimulates industrial development and domestic capacity building, contributing to the overall advancement of nations.

In today’s globalised world, economic activities have shifted from domestic affairs to complex international relationships, intensifying competition in global markets. Developing countries, despite possessing vast natural resources, often struggle with poverty due to insufficient appropriation and application of science, technology and innovation (STI) in resource development. To attain competitive advantages in natural resource development, indigenous technological upgrading becomes essential, especially in sectors like agriculture, preventive medicine, community development and poverty alleviation.

In a conversation with Science Nigeria, a farmer and shea butter processor in Kuje area council of Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory, Mr. Lawan Ali emphasised the need for indigenous technology upgrading in Nigeria, specifically in the development of the shea nut value chain.

The shea nut tree, a major agricultural resource, has been contributing to poverty alleviation in the country. However, the growth of this enterprise is hindered by the fact that over 98 per cent of processors use indigenous technology, coupled with the underdevelopment of the shea tree, limiting the competitiveness of the product in local and international markets.

According to Ali, the shea tree naturally grows in about 21 of the 36 states in Nigeria, with kernels containing approximately 42 to 48 per cent oil. This oil possesses significant skincare, healing and medicinal properties, making it highly sought after in various industries. Shea butter serves as a raw material in the food, pharmaceutical, and cosmetic sectors.

Ali highlighted its diverse applications, stating that: “It is used as cooking oil, in baking and the production of chocolate, margarine, cosmetics, soap, detergents, paints, lubricants and candles due to the presence of solid fat (stearin) and liquid oil (olein)”. Due to its low-fat content, it is a popular substitute for cocoa and palm oil. The demand for shea butter continues to rise globally, with the 2023 report of Custom Market Insights estimating the market to reach USD 5.2 billion by 2030, reflecting a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of roughly 8 per cent between 2022 and 2030.

Nigeria, with the largest ‘shea belt’ globally, is recognised as the leading producer of shea nuts, accounting for about 45 per cent of global production. However, out of the 800,000 metric tonnes of shea nuts produced annually in Nigeria, only 20,000 metric tonnes are processed into butter, with the rest exported to neighbouring West African countries due to the inability to meet international standards.

Currently, around 16 million rural women in Africa derive their livelihoods from collecting, processing, and selling shea kernels and butter, contributing an average of 15 per cent or more to their household income.

Efforts to upgrade indigenous technology in shea butter production are essential to enhance the competitiveness of the product in global markets, stimulate industrial development, and contribute to economic growth. The focus should be on deploying STI to areas where countries have comparative advantages in natural resource development, thereby promoting the development of small and medium enterprises. By addressing the technological gaps in shea butter production, nations can unlock the full potential of their natural resources and empower local communities economically.

In Nigeria, rural women process nuts into butter using traditional indigenous methods. The traditional method involves a series of operations; however, some of these methods are detrimental to product quality. For instance, storing the fruit for three days before processing negatively affects the resulting butter’s quality and quantity due to the sugar-rich pulp, which promotes fungal growth and reduces the oil content of the kernel. Similarly, drying shea nuts in sunlight for about 3 to 10 days leads to mould infestation, especially during the rainy season.

Both parboiling duration and drying methods significantly affect shea butter yield, quality and free fatty acid levels. During the drying period, the kernels detach from the shell wall. De-shelling is carried out using stones, hammers, and pestles. Winnowing involves holding a basket filled with a mixture of shells and kernels at arm’s length, allowing a gradual pour-out. After this, the remaining shell pieces are removed in a process referred to as sorting. At this stage, broken, mold-infected, or black-coloured shea kernels are removed to obtain clean, unbroken shea kernels. The shea kernels can be stored for several months without deterioration or processed into shea butter. The pre-treatment and storage of shea kernels before the butter extraction process is a critical stage that affects the produced shea butter’s quality. Adverse effects are observed in the decrease in oil phenols and the reduction of volatile compounds responsible for shea butter’s various properties. Long-term storage under high relative humidity leads to mould infestation, increasing free acidity due to lipase production. This condition can affect the fatty acid composition, particularly the free fatty acid content, dictating the butter’s quality parameters.

Crushed shea nut pieces are roasted in a cylindrical container made of mild steel with a handle on an open fire. This results in the slight smoky smell of traditional shea butter. Most existing equipment for processing shea butter, especially roasters, is made of mild steel, which can easily rust and contaminate the product. Metal particles form as a result of rusting, settling at the bottom of the equipment and causing contamination. Smoke from open-fire roasting also contaminates Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcinogenic. Additionally, open-fire roasting produces burnt crushed kernels, resulting in black shea oil formation and the loss of vital nutrients.

After roasting, the shea kernels cool down for at least 30 minutes or at most 1 hour before being milled into a fine paste. The mixing or oil extraction stage involves mixing the paste with water by hand, adding small quantities of water, and gathering the floating fat. The manual mixing method used by Nigerian women is laborious, with the container often placed on the ground, requiring women to stand over the bucket and bend at the waist. This manual process is not only tedious and time-consuming but also strains the back, making it suitable only for younger women and exposing the product to further contamination. These challenges necessitated upgrading the indigenous technology to make it less laborious, more productive and profitable,” he stated.

In an exclusive interview with Science Nigeria, the director-general of the Raw Materials Research and Development Council (RMRDC), Prof. Hussaini Ibrahim shed light on the initiatives undertaken to address the shortcomings in the shea nut value chain in Nigeria. The council has embarked on projects aimed at revamping indigenous technology used in shea butter production and enhancing the productivity of shea nut trees locally.

To achieve these goals, the RMRDC has developed and implemented a series of projects, including the upgrading of indigenous technology used in shea butter production and improving the productivity of shea nut trees locally. The council has successfully developed and installed equipment for shea nut processing shea butter, benefitting the Araromi Women Cooperative Society in Agbaku-eji, Kwara State and Amanawa Shea Butter Women Cooperative Society in Kebbi State. This processing plant boasts a crushing capacity of 0.5 tonnes/hour and a kneading capacity of 100 kg/hour and its technology has been adopted by private sector operators in nearby villages.

Furthermore, the RMRDC has conducted laboratory analyses of shea butter samples, classifying them as grade A, B, C, or D according to international standards. In a significant move, two shea butter samples—one produced using the upgraded equipment from Agbaku-eji and the other using an imported machine from Korea—were analysed by the American Shea Butter Institute in 2015. While the Agbaku-eji shea butter did not receive the premium quality grade, the results indicated its suitability for various applications, including glue, soap, industrial lubricants, biodiesel, paint, chocolate, confectionery, livestock feeds, pet food, biomass, candles and textiles.

The RMRDC has established a model shea nut processing centre in Gawu village, Abaji Area Council of the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), serving as a training centre for shea nut processors in the FCT and surrounding states. Over 500 women and youths have undergone training related to the best practices for shea kernel production, processing, butter production and the production of shea-based cosmetics and cosmeceuticals. This initiative aims to enhance the quality of locally produced shea butter and related products while promoting diversification. The training materials have been translated into the Hausa language, facilitating wider understanding.

Impact assessments of the training revealed that the initial 500 entrepreneurs trained have subsequently trained over 3000 others, leading to an overall improvement in product quality and a 25 per cent increase in income. As a testament to the success of these initiatives, companies in Nigeria, notably Vic-Coe Great Nigeria Limited, have been exporting shea butter products (cream) to the United States since 2018.

Prof. Ibrahim acknowledged that the absence of plantations is a major obstacle to the optimal development of the shea nut value chain. Most gatherers rely on wild shea trees. To address this, the RMRDC, in collaboration with the National Centre for Genetic Resources and Biotechnology (NACGRAB) in Ibadan, initiated germplasm development studies to support the domestication and improvement of seed handling techniques for shea trees. Additionally, seed handling training workshops were conducted for shea nut farmers and processors associations.

In a related effort, the National Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) in Benin has developed improved shea nut seedlings with a shorter gestation period of 5-7 years. The RMRDC has established a pilot plantation using these seedlings to demonstrate the feasibility of domesticating shea trees. To further the optimal development of the shea industry in Nigeria, the council, in collaboration with the National Shea Products Association and other stakeholders, has crafted a roadmap for the sector, which has been adopted as a working document for all operators in the field. These comprehensive efforts underscore the commitment of the RMRDC to revolutionising the shea nut value chain in Nigeria, ensuring sustainability, economic growth and international competitiveness.

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