A Behind the Scenes Look at the African Shea Butter

A Behind the Scenes Look at the African Shea Butter

Shea butter is made from the nuts of the Karite tree in Africa. The process of turning raw shea nuts into finished Nilotica shea butter is known as “moo yao” in Langi, the local language. The nuts are cracked open, then roasted to give the butter a nice consistency. Afterwards, the butter is scooped out of the nuts, kneaded to make it more spreadable.

Its high content of essential fatty acids and natural anti-oxidant compounds provide extreme moistursing capabilities as well as cellular restoration making this a very popular ingredient in the cosmetic industry.

Good and all…..but what we may not know is the fascinating, hard labor-intensive process behind extracting this creamy shea butter that women covet in our personal care products.

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Reading the following will open your heart and help you to appreciate this wonderful shea butter ingredient.

Native women begin by gathering raw shea nuts from wildcrafted trees. The general rule of thumb is this: if the tree is on your property, the nuts are yours. If the tree is on communal property or lining a road, first woman to the tree gets the nuts!

You can also buy filtered shea butter which has been passed through clay filters repeatedly to make the consistency smoother and to ensure that there are no particles of the nut shell in the butter. Some people also prefer filtered shea butter because it doesn’t have as strong of a nutty aroma. Some people like the nutty aroma though, so it’s a personal choice you’ll have to make!

The nuts are washed and dried on handwoven mats in the sun. As they dry, the kernel inside the shell contracts a bit, so the women shake the nuts next to their ears to see if they’re ready. If they rattle slightly, the inner kernel is dry and ready for processing. The women then remove the outershell by gently smashing the nut between two rocks. At this juncture, they take them to the local project coordinators at Bead For Life, who grade them, weigh them and purchase nuts by the kilo.

The very best, classified as “grade A”, are reserved for shea butter processing destined for the export market. Grade B nuts are typically not purchased by BFL and the local women retain them for use in soaps and shea butter processing for the local market. Grade C nuts are the lowest tier, used by the women at home- both as a cooking oil and to smear upon their babies to encourage soft skin and deep sleep.

The deshelled, dried and graded shea nuts are then transported to Lira, the nearest town in Uganda, to begin processing. They are graded once more as part of a stringent quality control process and only grade “A” nuts are used in Nilotica butter processing. A generator-powered grinding mill quickly turns the nuts into a coarsely ground powder. East African shea nuts are never boiled or roasted, unlike their traditional West African counterparts. The result is a cold-processing method that maintains an abundance of the natural vitamins and skin benefits of the natural shea nut.

The powder is blended with hot water, which excites the natural oils inside the nuts. The resulting “slurry” is scooped into small cotton bags, which are then placed in a manual steel press fitted with a sieve. Heavy plates are placed on top of the bags to add pressure and weight, then a giant “screw” head is lowered upon the bags, winched down by two men walking in circles until the full pressure of the press has been applied to those bags of shea slurry. The pressure causes the liquid shea to ooze from the bags.

The bags are then handwashed and hung to dry in the sun. The shea powder, now devoid of the lion’s share of its valuable oil, is retained. The rebel insurgency has contributed to the rapid deforestation of Uganda’s shea parklands, as villagers cut down large shea trees, transforming them into charcoal to earn a living. The Bead For Life team in Uganda is experimenting with turning this powder into charcoal cakes, which could help slow the deforestation by preserving existing trees. As it takes twenty years for a shea tree to bear its first fruit, preservation is vital since replanting won’t yield results for at least a generation.

The liquid shea butter is then heated twice. The first heating purifies the butter and removes any impurities, such as ground nuts which may have seeped through the bags. The second warming evaporates any remaining water, leaving nothing but pure shea behind. The shea is poured into buckets while still warm. Upon cooling, it becomes more firm and is ready for incorporation into a variety of different personal care products. The butter is transported to Kampala, Uganda’s capital, then flown internationally around the world and used in top grade skin care brands and products.

A tedious labour intensive process that we in first world countries take advantage of. Lets be fair and go fair trade!

Shea butter has proven successful in the treatment of various skin ailments including eczema and psoriasis and in some cases rosacea. Shea Butter is like food for the skin containing Vitamins A, E and F.  Vitamins A and E help the skin keep itself healthy.  These vitamins are especially important when it comes to helping damaged skin heal.

Shea Butter Benefits

Shea butter products helps heal scars, burns, bruises, and stretch marks.
• Makes great balms to prevents chapping of lips and hands
• An ideal hair conditioner that protects the scalp from sores and rashes.
• Helps prevent hair from breaking, fading, or thinning out.
• An ideal hand cream which fortifies cuticles and nails.
• Helps rid the scalp of dandruff.
• Helps prevent skin irritation for babies: used for generations to help babies sleep better. Great for baby products
• Prevents irritation, and restores skin natural luster after shaving.
• Ideal for dermatitis, eczema, and athletes foot.
Anti-aging products to help firm up aging skin and helps clear wrinkles.
• Massage shea butter into areas affected by arthritis, joint pains, or other muscular aches.
• Shea Butter naturally contains vitamins A and E.

The shea butter extraction process has been contributed by Bella Lucce.

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  1. Stacey Simpson

    I have always been a fan of natural beauty essentials like brightening serum and aloe but this is the first time to get a closer look at the benefits of African Shea butter. It seems interesting and i just might head off to buy one now!


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