The shea tree (in Arabic, the lulu tree) grows across Africa in a narrow band lying south of the Sahara Desert. The tree lives for a long time – between 200 and 300 years - and grows abundantly in South Sudan, where it is revered. Lulu trees provide shade, their fruit is edible, and the nuts of the tree are used for oil and food. During Sudan’s long civil wars, when food was very scarce, the nuts helped many people survive. Children would collect the nuts, and their mothers made oil out of them. The calories and nutrients in the oil helped people stay alive. The nutritious oil is still a main source of food during the yearly dry season that lasts from November to May there.
Today, some women’s groups in South Sudan have started businesses to make and market shea (or lulu) butter and/or its refined counterpart, shea oil. There are now a few dozen lulu nut processing centers in South Sudan owned and operated by women, who are considered to be the traditional guardians of the lulu tree. Typically each center employs about 20 women, who are often from different tribes. In order for their business to be successful, they must overlook their tribal differences and learn to work together and cooperate with each other. In return, they are building a peaceful living situation in their communities and enjoy a dependable and substantial source of income for their families.
Typically, women now working in lulu nut processing used to eke out a living by selling meager produce from their gardens in the market, or by making beer and alcoholic drinks to sell. These activities did not produce enough money for them to send their children to school. With the extra money they earn from lulu nut processing, they can send their children to school and also enjoy a somewhat higher standard of living.
Converting lulu nuts into butter and oil is hard work, and in Sudanese women’s cooperatives, it’s done by hand. First, the fruit which surrounds the nuts is removed, and the nuts are spread out to dry in the sun. Then the hard outer shells of the nuts are broken with sharp rocks and removed. The inner parts of the nuts are then pounded with heavy wooden pestles in a funduk to crush them. The flour formed by crushing the nuts is then roasted in huge pots over a fire, and during this process it must be constantly stirred. After roasting, water is added and the nuts are pounded in the funduk again to form a smooth paste. The paste is kneaded by hand, and then the oil is separated from the butter. Water is added to separate out the oil, which floats to the top of the mixture, where it is removed and the excess water is squeezed out. The oil is then boiled slowly over a fire, which evaporates any traces of remaining water. Meanwhile the butter, which remains in the roasting pan, is cooled and then formed into balls to be sold.
In Africa, shea butter is used as cooking oil, as a wax for water proofing, for hairdressing and in making candles. It is said to have anti-inflammatory properties and so is also used in medicinal ointments. Companies outside Africa buy shea butter and oil to use in products such as skin moisturizers, salves, and lotions. It is also used in preparing foods - occasionally even the chocolate industry uses it, substituting it for cocoa butter!
Some of the women in the women’s literacy groups supported by Mercy Beyond Borders in Rumbek, South Sudan, are experimenting with shea butter production in an effort to generate money and raise their standard of living. Below, a woman uses a pestle and funduk to pound the nuts into flour. If you haven’t seen shea butter for sale in the stores, perhaps you will soon – and maybe this woman will have had a part in making it! You may want to buy some and try it – shea butter goes on nicely, as it melts at body temperature and absorbs rapidly into the skin without leaving a greasy feeling, and is reported to be very good for the skin. Be sure that it carries the “Fair Trade Certified” label, which ensures that a fair portion of the proceeds go to the people who produced it.