Under the shade of a giant shea butter tree, Josephine Adata sits in the company of 15 other women, waiting for customers
The 35-year-old mother of six and others from Ullepi sub-county sit by the road side, 36km from Arua town, on the Arua-Kampala highway, selling unrefined shea butter.
Like her colleagues, Adata grew up making Shea butter, mainly for home use, as a cooking ingredient for its tasty flavour. She says the butter was also widely used in the rural communities to smear newborn babies because they believed that it moisturised their skins.
Herbalists also mix shea butter oil with herbs for treatment in communities where superstition and belief in witchcraft is prevalent.
The communal harvesting of shea nut and its processing into oil is regarded a traditional chore for women and children in those communities.
Women go into the wild to collect the nuts during fruiting. The fresh fruits are left to ripen and the pulp is eaten. The hard shell seed inside is what is crushed to make oil.
Adata says they dry the nuts and crack them using stones. They roast the seeds in an open pot, fi lled with sand or ash, to create an oven.
Leaves from a specific tree specie are used to clean the roasted seeds, which are then crushed in a mortar and later grounded on a stone to make fi ne paste. Water is added into a saucepan to mix the paste and boiled.
As the water evaporates, the brownish yellow oil fl oats on the top while the residue sinks to the bottom of the saucepan. This is filtered to separate the shea butter from the residue.
To prevent the oil from going bad, the women keep it in tightly closed containers, usually empty mineral water bottles or small jerry cans. When cold, the butter solidies into a white cream.
Marketing shea butter
Shea butter is a lucrative business. Adata says she began producing shea butter for sale in 2000. She was prompted to go into the business because they had no source of income in the home.
"At the time, a litre of shea butter went for sh3,500, but now it costs sh7,000. On a good day, I can sell up to fi ve litres," she said.
Adata said she took advantage of the women who preferred to just collect the nuts, remove the outer shells and sell the dry seeds without having to endure the heat in the final preparation of the butter. They sold a basinful of the nuts at sh30,000.
Adata and her colleagues say their biggest challenge is that few people from within their area buy the oil and butter because it is common in the villages. They have to target buyers from out.
Threats to the butter industry
In 1990s, the area received a lot of cooking oil, supplied by the UNHCR to Sudanese refugees who had camped at Okollo, Rhino Camp and Imvepi settlements. That killed the demand of shear oil.
That threat ended with the repatriation of the refugees. In 2004, the National Forestry Authority gazette Laura hills as a forest reserve and cleared acres of shea tree plantations to plant pine, teak, gravellia and other trees they considered of high commercial value.
This provoked a protest from the district leaders who wanted the shea trees preserved. This coincided with a more monstrous threat, the upsurge in charcoal burning which meant more depleting of the trees.
Charcoal or shea butter?
While the shea butter business is dominated by women, the charcoal business has both men and women in equal measure. According to Nelson Atria, 27, who abandoned cotton growing for charcoal burning, the business is more lucrative because a bag fetches sh15,000. And, bulk buyers of the charcoal are not in short supply.
Local government intervention
The LC3 chairman of Ullepi sub-county, Silva Amaza, believes the future of shea butter is still bright. "Since last year, we have been implementing a district food security and nutrition ordinance, which bans cutting or burning of shea trees.
We also slapped sh36,000 monthly license fee on charcoal burners and sellers in the district," he says. He noted that the strict implementation of the ordinance was beginning to force people to abandon charcoal trade or hike the price, which cost them buyers.
"We collected over sh1.6m from charcoal traders between July and December last year," he said. Amaza said to cut down a shea tree, a person must seek permission from the area LC1 chairman, who must inform the sub-county of why it is necessary to cut that tree.
"The most common reason people give for seeking permission to cut down shea trees is big snakes, which are threatening their chicken or children. But when we try to verify the claims, they usually turned out to be lies," said Amaza.
Amaza stressed the need for an organised marketing strategy to boost the local shea butter and oil industry, which he said would encourage the people to increase their production capacity and preserve the trees.
Edison Adiribo, the Arua district forestry officer, said shea nut is a protected tree species since colonial times and according to the Forestry and Tree Planting Act, anyone caught felling shea trees is liable to imprisonment not more than three years or a fi ne not exceeding sh600,000.
As part of the regulatory measure, Adiribo disclosed that the district also collects charcoal transportation fee, which is sh62,000 per trip for lorries and sh2,000 for bicycle riders while the sub-counties are mandated to charge produce fee.
The money is collected and deposited on the district general account to be shared with sub-counties. Adiribo attributed the failure to remit the monies to the subcounties to weaknesses in the district finance department.