Stories by Steve Agbota [email protected] 08033302331
Shea nut has been a major source of livelihood and invaluable source of income for women living in rural areas of the country.
The commodity, which is referred to as women’s gold has gone for generations as households engaged in shea butter production use the additional income to cater for their families.
With the demand for natural and organic products rising in the Western world, shea butter has become a hot commodity.
However, Nigeria has comparative advantage in the cultivation, processing and export of crude shea butter in Africa over its counterparts due to the large arable land available for production and the conducive climatic condition.
Though Africa’s most populous nation was reputed as the world’s leading producer of shea nuts and shea butter with the capacity to earn foreign exchange, reduce poverty, empower women, and generate employment through the establishment of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), shea production and export, like many other agric products in the non-oil sector, has remained neglected.
Shea trees, which grow wildly throughout the country, are predominantly in 21 of the 36 states of the federation and are actually being handled by women. These women who pick shea nuts and process them into shea butter are just getting peanut for their hard work because foreigners are taking advantage of them and smuggling the commodity through Nigerian land borders.
The shea tree can grow to as high as 15 metres and takes about 15 years before a tree begins to fruit and about 25 years before it is fully mature. The tree can then produce fruits for the next 200 years. The tree has a 200-year life span and could produce more than 25 to 50 kilogrammes of berries annually.
Despite that shea industry can generate billions of naira for Nigeria, the industry is currently facing challenges of infrastructure, lack of funds, non-replanting of shea trees and charcoal merchants who often cut down the shea trees all in the name of firewood.
Women farmers say if these challenges are not solved, especially the activities of charcoal merchants, women in shea business would face scarcity of shea nuts and shea butter in the next few years.
It is estimated that Nigeria accounts for over 370,000 metric tonnes or 53 per cent of the capacity out of over 680,000 metric tonnes of shea nuts produced annually in West Africa, according to the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and Oil Seeds Association of Nigeria (OSAN).
Ironically, CBN said about 56 per cent of the production of shea nuts are exported, and the balance is either consumed locally or smuggled out of the country, resulting in a loss of revenue.
Farmers said that if government can partner with shea butter producers, research institutions, ministries, regulatory bodies and exporters and checkmate smuggling activities of the commodity across the land borders, Nigeria would be able to get back lost revenue estimated at about N340.6 billion annually through smuggling of shea butter across the nation’s borders.
Therefore, it is imperative for Nigeria to become a competitive global player in shea production because it would give impetus to the current industrialisation push and lift millions out of poverty.
Stakeholders who spoke to Daily Sun said there is need for government at all levels, especially in the shea producing states, to embark on infrastructural development for shea production and empower women in the shea industry. They said this is the only way Nigeria can partake of the billion of dollars in the global shea market.
Shea butter is also used in food products such as chocolates and confectioners use it as a cocoa butter equivalent to give chocolates a higher melting point and a smoother texture.
Speaking with Daily Sun, the Managing Director of Shea Origin Limited, Mrs. Mobola Sagoe, said women in the shea business are facing series of challenges including infrastructure, health safety in the industry as well as bad roads in the rural areas where shea nuts are being produced.
She explained: “We have challenges of access to shea nuts in the villages owing to bad roads. We have challenges of government not having full understanding of the product and how to put structures in place to tap its full potential. For that reason, foreigners have taken the advantage and they come to Nigeria to buy these shea nuts and get them out through the borders.
“Also, government agencies that are supposed to ensure these shea nuts are kept out of reach of smugglers are not doing enough. We have these foreigners who come in, take our shea nuts, process them outside Nigeria and make more money from it. So it is a challenge on its own when you don’t have support keeping these people out. It is important that government should look into this.”
Sagoe who is also the 2nd Vice-President of the National Association of Shea Butter Producers in Nigeria, said if people are to export shea nuts, it should be done in a proper and legal way so that any state that is selling would be allowed to make profit. She added that there is need for standard price, which would ensure that women are not being enslaved. According to her, after picking the nuts, they get very little for their shea nuts; they should be able to get standard rate, which can help the economy of Nigeria.
She added: “It shouldn’t be today, we are selling for N5 and tomorrow, because we have some foreigners, they will bid for N100. We have to sell to them and our own women will not be able to afford to buy shea nuts. For us, this is a bigger challenge in the shea industry. We also have challenge of coal merchants who cut down the trees. We have a group of people just cutting down shea trees in order to make firewood. In a few years time, there will be problem of scarcity of shea nuts.”
She said there should be a law that that will prevent charcoal merchants from cutting down the shea trees.
She therefore called on the government at all levels to intervene and assist in addressing some of the problems which include lack of basic infrastructure, inadequate butter processing facilities, and empowerment of women in the shea industry.