The Sheanut Tree, The wonder tree
“Can you borrow me some sheabutter?’. This is the commonest product that people ask for immediately the hammattan season starts in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions of Ghana. These three regions experience the severest form of hammattan brought on by the North East Trade Winds blowing across the Sahara Desert. The hammattan takes a heavy toll on the human skin, drying it up and cracking it as well as the human hair which becomes very dry and brittle and starts to break or fall off. It is not uncommon to find people bleeding from cracked lips during this period or their hair falling off due to its brittleness because of the dry weather. But thanks to the moisturizing power of sheabutter, the situation can be brought under control. It is for this reason that those who did not stock the butter in preparation for the hammattan have to borrow some to use while they replenish their own stock.
Sheabutter is derived from the sheanut tree, with the botanical name Butyrospermum parkii or Vitellaria paradoxa and is a common wild tree that grows extensively in the dry Savannah belt of West Africa, stretching from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east. The sheanut tree also thrives along the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands. Apart from Ghana, the tree can be found in 18 other countries including Benin, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo Uganda, Zaire and Guinea. In Ghana, it grows extensively in the Guinea savannah but is less prolific in the Sudan Savannah. It covers a landmass of about 77,670 square kilometers in the Northern, Upper East and Upper West Regions of Ghana. A few sheanut trees are also found in the Brong-Ahafo, Ashanti, the Eastern and Volta Regions in the southern parts of the country.
The fruit consists of a green fleshy mesocarp, which is sweet when eaten and in very ripe fruits seems to melt on the tongue when the fruit is bitten. It is also used to make jam. The mesocarp has a high nutritional value and contains between 0.7 to 1.3g of protein and 41.2g of carbohydrate. The fruit pulp is also a rich source of ascorbic acid and contains196.1mg/100g in comparison with an orange, which contains only 50mg/100g. The iron and calcium content of the mesocarp of the sheanut compares favorably with that of raspberries. Sheanuts contain 1.93mg/100g of iron as against 0.92mg/100g in raspberries. Sheanuts also contain 36.4mg/100g of calcium as against 26mg/100g for raspberries. Apart from these micro nutrients, sheanuts contain the B group vitamins and a sugar level of about 3 to 6 percent which is equally distributed among glucose, fructose and sucrose. Even the flowers of the sheanut tree are consumed by some ethnic groups that make them into edible fritters. The nuts are cracked to remove the outer cover leaving the endocarp or kernel which is roasted and ground into a paste from which sheabutter is extracted. The nuts also serve as toys for children, who use them to play a game known as “maranda”, the common name given to the nuts in Ghana.
All parts of the sheanut tree are of immense value. In some communities, the leaves are used as medicine to treat stomachache in children. In Ghana a decoction of young leaves is used as a vapor bath for the treatment of headaches and also as an eye bath. When the leaves are put in water, it forms a frothy opalescent liquid, which is used to bath the head of the patient. A leaf decoction is also used as an eye bath. Because the leaves contain saponin, they lather in water and are suitable for washing. The leaves of the sheanut tree are used as a preservative and in the processing of dawadawa, a local spice in Ghana. They are used to cover dawadawa after processing for a period of time for it to ferment. The leaves of the sheanut tree are also believed to offer spiritual protection. Hence, in some African communities when a woman goes into labor, the branches may be hung in the doorway of her hut to protect the newborn baby from evil. Some communities also use its branches for covering the dead prior to their burial.
In Nigeria, the roots of the sheanut tree are used as chewing sticks especially in the savannah areas. The roots and the root bark are sometimes ground into a paste and taken orally as a cure for jaundice in Ghana as well as the treatment of diarrhoea and stomachache. The root bark is also boiled and pounded and used for the treatment of chronic sores in horses. Nonetheless, the tree can also be employed by the unscrupulous for foul means. Among the Jukun tribe of Nigeria, the roots are mixed with tobacco to produce poison.
In Ghana, the bark of the sheanut tree is boiled and taken as a beverage and there are claims that this beverage can treat diabetes.
However, scientific studies indicate that infusions of the bark has selective anti-microbial properties. It has been found to be effective against Sarcina lutha and Staphylococcus mureas. However, the bark infusion does not treat mycobacterium phlei.
In Senegal and Guinea, worm infested cattle have been treated with infusions of the bark which are crushed together with the bark of Ceiba pentandra and salted. Ailments ranging from diarrhea and dysentery to gastric problems and even leprosy have been treated with bark infusions in Guinea Bissau. In the Ivory Coast, a bark decoction is used in baths and other therapeutic sitz-baths to ease child delivery of women in labour. It is also drunk by lactating mothers to boost the flow of milk. This practice, however, is abhorred in Northern Nigeria where the concoction is considered to be lethal. A bark infusion has the capacity to neutralize the venom of the spitting cobra when used as an eye wash. It is also used in Ghana as a foot bath to help extract jiggers.
The sheanut tree produces copious amounts of sap which can prove invaluable in the gum and rubber industry. This latex when heated and mixed with palm oil produces glue. It is even chewed as a gum by children who also play with the balls that are made out of the gum. Bobo musicians in Burkina Faso use this gum to fill up cracks on their drums and punctures on their drumheads. However, latex from sheanuts contain between 15 to 25 percent carotene which according to present technology makes it inappropriate for the commercial manufacture of rubber.
The brownish husks that are separated from the nut to release the kernel also have the ability to purify water and can remove substantial amounts of heavy metal from aqueous solutions. They are also pounded and used for plastering traditional mud houses to beautify them and promote their lifespan by making them impervious thus reducing their absorption of moisture.
While the tree has so many uses, it is well known for the production of sheabutter. Sheabutter production involves various stages, beginning with de-pulping, to get rid of the fleshy fruit. This is achieved by fermentation which is enhanced by initial boiling or burying the fruit. Following de-pulping, the nuts are sun-dried for five to ten days. When temperatures are below 50 degrees Celsius, drying can go on for several days but at 50 degrees Celsius, the desired moisture content of six to seven percent is archived between four to five days. The nuts are de-husked through trampling, pounding them in a mortar using a pestle or crushing them using two stones to get rid of the brown cover leaving only the kernel.
The kernel is then crushed and baked or roasted over carefully monitored heat to prevent it from being charred since charred kennels would lower the quality of sheabutter produced by reducing its fat content. Roasting promotes fat concentration and latex coagulation and prolongs the shelf life of the nuts. Those that attain a moisture content of seven percent after roasting can be stored for two years.
Extracting butter from the baked kernel involves grinding it into a fine powder which is then mixed with warm water. The resulting semi-solid mixture is then kneaded or stirred continuously to form a paste. The paste is left standing and with time oil collects on it which is collected periodically, finally leaving behind a brown residue after all the oil has been collected.
Sheabutter serves as a moisturizer and is naturally rich in vitamin A, E and F in addition to some other vitamins. It is thus able to sooth, balance and hydrate the skin. It also contains collagen which reduces wrinkles and other signs of aging while the essential fatty acids contained in vitamin F help to revitalize and protect damaged hair and skin. It thus promotes skin renewal, increases circulation and speeds up the healing of wounds. It is estimated that about eight percent of the fat in sheabutter is medicinal and even as far back as 1728, its medicinal properties were recognized and used by Africans. The low melting point of sheabutter which is between 32 to 45 degrees Celsius and close to body temperature coupled with the presence of allantoin, which stimulates the growth of healthy tissues in ulcerous wounds, makes it ideal as a base for ointments and medicines. The butter is thus a healing balm whose uses are a myriad. According to Mr. Saibu Dawuda Wanzam, a Circumciser, sheabutter is the sole medicine used to treat the wounds of newborn babies following circumcision. “After an infant male is circumcised, melted sheabutter is applied to the wound which heals within three to four days. It is important that the mother applies melted sheabutter to the wound every 30 minutes to one hour to hasten its healing”, he says.
The butter is also applied to the umbilical cord of new born babies to hasten its healing. It is also the preferred body cream for new born babies among educated and illiterate mothers alike in Ghana, who believe that the baby creams found on the market have been adulterated or contain chemicals that are not suitable for baby skin. It is especially useful for massaging the bodies of babies during their daily bath. Sheabutter is deemed pure and contains natural moisturizers and vitamins that give babies a smooth skin. Scientific studies that involve measuring moisture on the skin using a corneometer suggest that sheabutter leads to a consistent increase in moisture levels of users for over four hours. No wonder it is the best defense for the skin during the hammattan season
Sheabutter is also an important part of the diet of people living in the areas where it grows and it is used for frying and making stews. It is sometimes smeared on Tuo Zaafi (TZ), the staple food of people in the three northern regions of Ghana to prevent the meal from drying up and forming a dry upper crust during hammattan.
The left over residue after the oil has been processed is used to decorate traditional mud houses. This thick brownish residue is also mixed with clay to harden it and make it stronger before it is molded into mounds for building.
However, recent research carried out at the Tamale Polytechnic by Hajia Adiza Sadik and one of her students at the HCIM department led to the production of chocolate bars and chocolcate spread from the residue using the same recipe used to manufacture chocolate. According to Hajia Sadik, the residue that is either thrown away or used as animal feed contains a lot of vitamins and the production of shea chocolate bars and shea chocolate spread could enhance the utilization of the sheanut tree and provide additional jobs and income for rural women.
One would have thought that given the numerous benefits of the sheanut tree, the tree would be cultivated on large farms in the northern parts of Ghana. However, this is not the case. The tree grows wild in the bush at the mercy of bushfires and charcoal burners because the best charcoal comes from the sheanut tree. However, Mr Peter Kale, a former manager of the Church Agricultural Inputs Project in Tamale thinks the sheanut tree can be cultivated.
Mr kale said sheanuts require a unique way of planting in order to germinate. “If you plant the whole seed underground which is the norm with other plants, it would not germinate. The eye of the seed should face up and should not be covered by soil. Thus, the seed should be half-buried in the soil.”
“It is for this reason that when the nuts are thrown around haphazardly after eating they germinate after a season but would not germinate when they are carefully planted in the traditional way which gives the impression that they can only grow in the wild,” he said.
“A tree would normally fruit after six to seven years if it has not been subjected to severe bushfires but those that have been subjected to severe bushfires become stunted and may require up to 10 years to fruit”, Mr Kale explained.
The tree flowers between late February and April and if it is not exposed to bushfire, the flowering is good leading to a bumper produce. Bushfires during the flowering period make the flowers to wither and drop off. However, early bushfires around early January do not impact much on its fruiting since the heat is less intense and flowering has also not started. With the inception of the rains, the fruits develop and mature around late May to June.
Scientific research into the tree has been going on in Ghana at the sub-station of the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana (CRIG) at Bole in the Northern Region which was established in 1976 by the Ghana Cocoa Marketing Board (GCMB). Research on the tree was prompted by the need to find a substitute for cocoa in the confectionary and cocoa butter industry. The institute has been able to foster the vegetative propagation of the sheanut tree and also reduce its maturity period from 20 to seven years.
Sheabutter processing and extraction remains the major economic activity of most rural women. Given its medicinal, cosmetic and nutritional values, it is on high demand internationally and is exported to earn foreign income for rural women. It is for this reason that a sheabutter processing factory was commissioned by Mr John Mahama, Vice President of Ghana, in the year 2010 in the Northern Region of Ghana.