The shea tree has many uses, both economic and environmental to the people of the Northern and Upper regions, and Ghana as a whole.
The shea tree, was scientifically known in the past as ‘Butryospermum paradoxum’, but is now called ‘Vitellaria paradoxa’. The oldest specimen of the shea tree, according to existing literature was first collected by Mungo Park on May 26, 1797.
Many vernacular names are used for the shea tree, and this shows how widely it is spread across parts of Africa – nearly 5,000km from Senegal to Uganda across the African Continent.
The shea tree grows very well on a wide range of soils, including highly degraded, arid, semi-arid and rocky soil.
It usually grows to an average height of about 15 meters and girths of about 175 meters with profuse branches and a thick waxy and deeply fissured bark that makes it fire resistant. The shea tree grows naturally in the wild in the dry Savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands.
It occurs in 19 countries across the African continent, namely Benin, Ghana, 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 (FAO, 1988a), it occurs extensively in the Guinea Savannah and less abundantly in the Sudan Savannah.
The shea tree grows mostly in the wild state. In Ghana, it grows in almost half of the country. It occurs over almost the entire area of Northern Ghana, covering land area of over 77,670 square kilometers in Western Dagomba, Southern Mamprusi, Western Gonja, Lawra, Tumu, Wa and Nanumba with Eastern Gonja having the densest stands. There is sparse shea tree cover found in Brong-Ahafo, Ashanti, and the Eastern and Volta regions in the south of the country.
And according to legend among local people no one owns the shea tree, because it germinates and grows on its own.
The shea tree, when it passes the germination stage in about three to five years becomes fire resistant. It is also not known to have natural enemies such as pests.
Once it survives the first five years of its early stages of germination and growth, it grows slowly and takes about 30 years to reach maturity and from here, it can live for up to three hundred years. In the absence of any hazards, including tree felling, it can bear fruit for two hundred years.
The shea tree has no capacity for vegetative regeneration, and therefore, can only be propagated through its seed.
Economic and cultural importance of the shea tree
The economic importance of the shea tree can not be over emphasized, in the face of the unstable world market price for cocoa and the need to find suitable substitutes for cocoa in the confectionery and cocoa butter industry. This importance became even more significant since the early 1970s.
The shea tree also has a great, untapped capacity for producing copious amounts of sap that can constitute an important source of raw material for the gum and rubber industry.
The mature kernel contains about 61% fat which when extracted is edible, and can serve medicinal as well as industrial purposes.
The trees begin to bear fruits at maturity and start flowering by early November, with picking or gathering lasting for five months from April to August every year. When the shea fruits ripen, they fall under their own weight to the floor and are gathered by hand.
It is estimated that about 9.4 million shea trees are in Ghana, and these can potentially yield one hundred tons of shea nuts worth about 100 million US dollars per year.
Shea butter has been found to have a fat composition similar to cocoa butter, and is used as a substitute for lard or margarine because it makes a highly, pliable dough. Shea butter is also used in making soap and candles, and it is incorporated in margarine formulations.
Wood from the shea tree is suitable for sturdy tools such as, hoe handles for farming, pestles and mortars for food processing, and the carving of talking drums which play important roles in the cultural life of the people.
Researchers have also found out that, the shea tree is the second most important oil crop in Africa after the palm nut tree.
The shea fruit as a source of food
For most people of the northern parts of Ghana, especially women, who have the responsibility to supply the daily food intakes for their families, the shea tree provides a good source of food – the shea fruit, especially so because the ripening of the fruits coincides with the lean season of food production. The pulp around its ripe fruit is sweet and edible.
The shea butter which is extracted from the nuts also constitutes the greatest proportion of oil intake in most homes in the Northern and Upper regions of Ghana.
Medicinal properties of the shea tree
Meanwhile, records available show that, as far back as 1728, shea butter was considered a highly prized medicinal substance in many parts of Africa.
Shea butter is unique because of its high fraction, about 8%, which contains medicinal properties.
It is known to be naturally rich in Vitamins A, E, and F, as well as a number of other vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A and E help to soothe, hydrate, and balance the skin. They also provide skin collagen, which assists with wrinkles and other signs of ageing. Vitamin F contains essential fatty acids, and helps protect and revitalize damaged skin and hair.
Shea butter is an intense moisturizer for dry skin, and is a wonderful product for revitalizing dull or dry skin on the body or scalp. It promotes skin renewal, increases circulation, and accelerates wound healing. It is also beneficial for the treatment of many different conditions.
Shea butter is used for protection against sunburns, and post sun-exposure products. It is very effective in the treatment of ageing or scaly skin, useful in the prevention of chapping, and can also be used against scalp dryness.
In the north of Ghana, it is rubbed on the skin of newly born babies, before they are given warm baths. This gives them smooth supple skins.
Shea butter’s stableness in formulations helps the fast release of active ingredients in medicaments. At room temperature, it remains solid, and it is used as a base for certain traditional ointments for the treatment of fractures and broken bones.
The roots and bark also have numerous medicinal uses. They are boiled or ground into powder for the treatment of dysentery, suppurating wounds and other ailments.
The shea tree can be used to fight desertification
The shea tree has environmental significance for the country, particularly in the fight against desertification.
Ghana’s total land area of 238,539km2 is at risk of desertification. Desertification claims about 20,000 hectares of Ghana’s land annually.
The most severely affected areas are the Northern and Upper regions of the country. Land in these parts of the country is arid, and the climate is hot and dry. The land is covered with sparse vegetation and is mostly grassland, these are conditions, which make land in these regions susceptible to desertification.
In the fight against desertification in these areas, therefore, the shea tree, which has been described as, “cocoa of the north”, can be a suitable ally.
Several efforts though have been made scientifically to propagate the shea tree over the years, but no significant result has yet been achieved. But like all scientific efforts, it is only a matter of time before a solution is found.
Some worrying trends
While the economic, environmental and other benefits of the shea tree is undoubtedly clear, there are some worrying developments taking place in the northern part of the country that need to be checked. Some people are destroying shea trees to produce charcoal. And it has been going on for so long.
About six years ago, the Daily Graphic issues of July 16 and August 29, 2001 both carried reports that said the then Upper West Regional Minister and an official of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were both complaining about the cutting of and using shea trees for charcoal burning.
What is even more disturbing is the fact that according to the EPA, 80% of every 100 basketfuls of charcoal produced are from shea tree, the other 20% come from ‘dawadawa’ and the neem trees.
This act, which is still going on, if unchecked, has grave consequences for the shea nut industry and will contribute to environmental degradation, deforestation, and loss of vegetative cover, which would eventually lead to water and soil erosion and decrease in soil fertility. The end result of this would be hunger and poverty in the north and following in stride would be rural-urban migration of vulnerable young men and women.
It is obvious from the evidence deduced so far, that when a method is finally found in propagating the shea tree, the northern part of the country can benefit enormously from that, in terms of afforestation projects for the purposes of slowing down desertification and its dire consequences of drought, erratic rainfall and attendant poverty, hunger and starvation.
The economy of the north and certainly the entire country will receive a major boost of unimaginable proportions.
It is a big challenge, and Ghana as a nation can live up to it. It is worth investing in that area, as the country is not short of scientists who are eager and willing to deploy their expertise in that regard. The time is now, and action can only be in the interest of mother Ghana.
The shea tree plantations will invariably check the speeding rate of desertification in the country, make a positive impact on the diets of the people as well as contribute to their standard of living.
It will also open new frontiers for the country in the world export market for shea butter, as a substitute or ancillary to cocoa’s economic value.
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi