The shea fruit: a green gift to mankind

By Ruth Napio, Msc Food Science and Technology, Makerere University

SheaBack when I was a little girl, and well into my teenage years, my favourite petroleum jelly was always the one labelled “enriched with shea butter”. Though I liked the product, it was imported and costly. I had no idea that the treasured shea butter came from a tree that grew in many countries including my home country, Uganda!  I first saw shea butter in its raw form about two years ago and was impressed by its many uses, including as cooking fat. So when I got the opportunity to study shea fruit for my master’s research, I embraced it with enthusiasm.

Although largely ignored by farmers, and less famous than the butter derived from the nuts, shea fruit pulp is very nutritious. It is loaded with vitamins and minerals. The pulp is also a source of food for animals such as sheep and pigs. Due to its multiple uses, the shea fruit has been described as a “green gift from God to mankind‟.

In Uganda, shea fruit trees thrive in the dry savannah regions including the district of Otuke which is the location of my research. Otuke is over 390 kilometres north of Uganda’s capital city, Kampala. I travelled there about four times during my master’s research and interacted with the local communities to learn more about the shea fruit.

Most farmers in Otuke had shea fruit trees in their backyards and collected the ripe fruits when they fell to the ground. Aside from a few women and children, few members of the community ate the nutritious pulp of the shea fruit. Their main interest was the seeds from which they extracted butter. It was heartbreaking to see farmers fermenting the fruits so as to soften the pulps and easily access the seeds for processing into butter and oil that was consumed at home or sold for little profit. The pulp was discarded.

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