The Shea Project 2008-2012.pdf

Reinforcing sound management through trade: shea tree products in Africa

NUSPA in Lexus Magazine.pdf



The Shea Project

The Shea Project for Local Conservation and Development (The Shea Project), conceived in 1990, is an integrated conservation and development project which now covers an area of over 10,000 square miles (160,000 square kilometers) across northern Uganda, where over 400 community-based groups have been introduced to the project, their total membership representing over 10,000 farming households.

Since 1995, COVOL has developed working partnerships with NGOs working in southern Sudan and Tanzania.

The Shea Project is based on the value of the nilotic shea-butter tree, Vitellaria paradoxa ssp. nilotica, a slow-growing hardwood fruit tree indigenous to northern Uganda and Southern Sudan.

Inside the nutritious fruit is a large hard seed which yields shea-butter, a food-oil, cosmetic and sacred substance of great importance to the people who live with the tree, particularly the women farmers who process the nut and use income from the tree to sustain their families, and to improve their lives.

Women's income from shea products pays for children's school fees, clothing, salt, soap and taxes - all the cash needs of a household - while the oil itself nourishes the family. In times of drought and famine, the shea tree typically yields heavily, providing an important nutritional buffer.

The shea-butter from the nilotic shea-butter tree is different from that of the West African varieties in that it is higher in olein, which contains most of the therapeutic substances found in shea-butter. Nilotica shea-butter is softer and more fragrant than West African shea-butters, and this high-value product gives Ugandan women farmers over five times the amount received by their West African counterparts

In West Africa, sheanut and shea-butter prices are set by large multinational corporations which 'took over' the shea market following the colonial era. In Uganda, the price of shea products is set by the farmers themselves, based on the actual value of shea products to the farmers who produce it and by Ugandan consumers - prices on the traditional market are about double those of West Africa for both sheanut and shea-butter.

By reinforcing the economic value of the shea-butter tree through expanded markets, the Shea Project has received an enthusiastic response from participating farmers, who have become serious about protection of shea woodland - and serious as well about production of the finest quality shea-butter at a premium price.

Rebuilding Lives and Livelihoods in Northern Uganda: The Shea Project 2008-2012


As a natural resource controlled by women, the Shea Butter Tree Vitellaria paradoxa supports the nutritional and economic health of rural families and sustains indigenous plant and animal biodiversity. This wild and slow-growing savannah tree provides food (nutritious fruit as well as food oil), and revenues from the sale of its annual bounty help rural households to feed themselves, to invest in livestock and other income-generating forms of wealth, to and meet cash requirements including shelter, clothing, health care, taxes, school fees, school uniforms and school books.

As peace returns to northern Uganda, where well over a million people have been violently dislocated from their former lives and communities for years, the shea tree comprises a unique resource for rebuilding the lives and livelihoods of rural farmers now returning to their villages.


The Shea Project for Local Conservation and Development began between and 1992 in Otuke County, Lira District, an initiative of the Cooperative Office for Voluntary Organizations (COVOL), a US 501 (c) (3) non-profit  non-governmental organization.

The project received funding from USAID from 1995 to 1997, with an expansion phase from 1998 to 2002 funded by USAID, the McKnight Foundation, and the EU INCO program, expanding it area of activity across northern and northeastern Uganda, including the districts of Lira, Pader, Katakwi (now Katakwi and Amuria), Kotido (now Abim), Gulu (now Gulu and Amuru) and Kitgum.

The Shea Project works in partnership with the Northern Uganda Shea Processors Association (NUSPA), established under the project in 1997, which is a women-managed producer cooperative comprised of over 2000 producers from over 50 producer groups.

From 2002 to 2006, security conditions in northern Uganda deteriorated drastically, and all NUSPA members and their communities were obliged to flee their communities for the relative safety (and squalor) of the larger towns and military camps for residence of these ‘Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDPs).

Accordingly, the Shea Project field offices were closed, and all processing equipment relocated to the Lira project office where production continued to the extent that shea nut could be gathered from the war zone which had overtaken the production areas and villages of the NUSPA producers.

During this period, thousands of slow-growing shea trees were cut by highly organized charcoal traders, allegedly often using military vehicles to transport their product to urban markets, resulting in considerable damage to the integrity and sustainability of the shea resource in some areas.

Despite these very difficult conditions, in 2006 the Shea Project and NUSPA were able to establish an organic production system and obtained organic certification under USDA-NOP and EEC 2092/91 regulations.

During 2007, much of the displaced population of northern Uganda has now returned to rebuild their abandoned villages from the towns and IDP camps to which they were displaced over the most of the past 5 years.


Beyond Program: Building on Social Capital in Returnee Communities

Beyond the financial revenues to NUSPA members from the sale of their shea butter production, it is impossible to overstate the social benefits to local communities provided by such an integrated and decentralized approach to rural livelihoods development for rural women and their families.

While the current NUSPA member groups were all pre-existing (their established history thus indicating long-term viability), new groups have always been formed be neighboring communities based on the inspiration provided by the benefits accruing to the members of these existing groups.

Benefits are not only financial (or nutritional) in nature; the project has long observed the great enjoyment of producers coming together, both within and between member groups, for group meetings and other social events (some lasting long into the night), particularly as NUSPA brings together women and men of several distinct ethnicities and language groups which would never otherwise have occasion to meet and to develop ‘cross-cultural’ friendships and business partnerships.

These exchanges provide not only a means of entertainment and enjoyment, but also provide a forum for extension of important social initiatives including education on aspects of civil society such as voting rights, and health issues such as pre-natal care, nutrition and protection from water-borne diseases and HIV/AIDS.

The Shea Resource

The Shea Butter Tree (Vitellaria paradoxa,syn. Butyrospermum paradoxum) is a nutritional and economic resource of great importance across 16 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, a slow-growing and wild savannah fruit tree indigenous to a narrow band of parkland extending from Senegal to Uganda.

Across Africa, it is women who traditionally harvest shea fruit (an important nutritional resource in and of itself, as it ripens and falls from the tree during the annual ‘hungry season’, when food stocks are lowest and agricultural requirements are highest, in clearing land and planting crops with the coming of the rains).

The shea resource is the domain of women because within the household they are traditionally responsible for gathering of non-agricultural products (e.g. wild fruits), and also because processing the shea nuts into butter is considered women’s work, like most household food processing activities. Very significantly, and unlike most cash-crops, women control the revenues from the sale of shea butter – which they use to care for the cash needs of their households and families.

It is widely recognized across Africa – and in northern Uganda in particular - that while men often use their money in selfish pursuits, meat and liquor etc. - women use their income primarily if not exclusively to care for their households. This includes investing in livestock, cultivation and a wide range of income-generating activities. Women are thus the real engines of local economic development, which is what makes shea butter such a very important resource for rural communities across Africa.

While the nilotica subspecies of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa subspecies nilotica) is found only in the eastern part of the range – Uganda, South Sudan and Ethiopia – the Ugandan variety is very distinct in its composition, being much softer and smoother, with a gentler scent than the Sudanese or Ethiopian varieties. The Ugandan variety is also genetically unique, as proven by recent studies carried out by the French research institute CIRAD from 1998 to 2003.

Ripe shea fruits fall from the tree – in Uganda, from  April through June – and are harvested before sunrise by rural women. Children sometimes help, before school. The fruit pulp is nutritious and a very important source of calories, vitamins and minerals during the annual ‘hungry season’ when food stocks are lowest, yet food energy is desperately needed to support the labor requirements of cultivation. Inside the seed (nut) is a kernel which is dried and stored for subsequent processing and extraction of shea butter.

The fruits not eaten during collection are brought home, where the pulp is removed (by eating or removal to make dried fruit preserves, a traditional delicacy) and the fresh nuts laid out on woven mats in the sun to dry.

After a few days of sun-drying (and protection from the rain), the shell of the nut is cracked and removed, and the shea kernel inside is sun-dried for another 4 or 5 days, then stored in traditional granaries (or, for NUSPA’s certified organic production system, in food-grade jute bags). Stored properly, the dried stored nuts may be kept for over a year.

The dried kernels are put twice through a motorized grinding machine, first to break them and a second time to yield a fine powder. The powder is mixed with a small amount of clean boiling water and packed into new cloth bags, which are pressed to yield the oil.

Aside from the disruptions brought by the war, The NUSPA women involved in the Shea Project are fundamentally farmers, rural women raising farming households. As such, they depend on cultivation, and not a cash economy, to raise and sustain their families. Other income-generating activities include making clay pots, for instance - but their production and marketing of certified organic shea butter through the Shea Project is vastly more profitable than those other activities (making pots might bring in a dollar or two a day, making shea butter $100).

While we would never want the NUSPA members to become dependent on any sort of export-oriented activity for their survival, the income provided by access to international markets offers these women a unique opportunity to greatly (and quantifiably) improve their lives and living standards of their families – in terms of nutrition, education, medical care and investment of their income from sales of organic shea butter in profitable enterprises.

Beyond the socio-economic benefits to producers from their production and sale of shea butter, the Shea Project has resulted in conservation of this indigenous woodland (objectively verifiable by sampling methods) by providing more profitable opportunities for marketing of shea butter which offer a positive and very tangible economic incentive serve to protect the living tree – and the plant and animal biodiversity which it supports - across whole landscapes.

Contact :

Eliot Masters, Project Coordinator
PO Box 6908 Kampala, Uganda


Tel. +256 75 374 1616 (Uganda)
Tel. +254 733 729 612 (Nairobi)