Shea has been used for centuries in Africa in many applications; for its therapeutic and moisturizing properties, in various traditional ceremonies, and as a food source. It has a well established use as skin ointment for its anti-inflammatory properties, and its ability to help the skin heal and retain moisture. In some traditional weddings, it is used to improve the bride's skin tone and elasticity months before the ceremony. Some regions also eat the shea fruit which is high in Vitamin C, and reportedly tastes like plain yogurt.
Shea Oil is extracted from the nuts found inside the shea fruit. The shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) grows naturally only in Africa, and is found from as far West as Senegal to Uganda in the East, in the agroforestry parklands of semi-arid Africa where it is protected and managed. It can take up to 15 years for a new tree to start to bear fruit, and will typically bear fruit for more than 100 years. The fruit from the shea tree is green with a soft outer layer and a large oil rich nut in the middle from which shea oil is extracted. Shea flowers start appearing in December, and by May the fruits are ready to fall off the tree.
Shea nut collection is an arduous process that requires ongoing investments in time and energy that deliver slow returns. The nuts are picked by hand over a period usually by the women of the community. The women will typically work in groups because of the amount of work involved and the vast area to be covered.
The shea nuts picked are then dried in the sun for days, shelled, roasted, and then ground into a pasty meal. This paste is kneaded and boiled to extract its valuable oil. The extraction method has remained largely unchanged and the butter making craft is conveyed from mothers to their daughters from generation to generation. Shea tree provides a valuable source of income for many local women and their families.