- The indiscriminate cutting of the sheanut tress have endangered the natural species. It is rare to grow them in nursery beds to ensure continuity
- The locals only produce the sheanut oil on small scale but could be expanded when a factory could be established within the region
- The cutting is continuing amidst the Food and Nutrition by-law formed by Arua district local government that bans its cutting
- The sheanut tree also thrives along the foothills of the, Nebbi, Moyo and Adjumani districts
By Warom Felix
West Nile-While the economic and cultural values of the sheanut tree have become undoubtedly clear, there are some worrying developments taking place in West Nile that need to be checked.
Some people are destroying sheanut trees to produce charcoal. And it has been going on for so long. This act, which is still going on, if unchecked, has grave consequences for the sheanut industry and will contribute to environmental degradation, deforestation, and loss of vegetative cover, which would eventually lead to water and soil erosion and decrease in soil fertility.
The oil is facing increasing competition, particularly from imported palm oil for edible use, and from widely advertised more sophisticated, modern cosmetics. As a result, the tree is not so highly valued now as it has been in the past. There is concern that unless more viable non-destructive uses for the species are found, it may not survive.
West Nile is part of the other regions where sheanut trees are plenty. And this puts Uganda on the map of Africa where sheanuts are plenty together with Ghana, Benin, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic and Ethiopia.
For 76 year-old John Ongan, said: “The sheanut tree produces abundant amounts of sap which can prove invaluable in the gum and rubber industry. The problem is that the wood from it provides the best charcoal but it is unfortunate that not many people value it now because during our time, no one was allowed to cut. You only use the one that has dried on its own.”
He added that the butter is also applied to the umbilical cord of new born babies to hasten its healing. It was also used for smearing on traditional chiefs during initiation ceremonies but the cultural heritage is no more.
Some of the women sort out the shea nuts before selling them to the new Company. Photo by Aluma Aribo.
All parts of the sheanut tree are of immense value. In some communities, the leaves are used as medicine to treat stomachache in children.
Today poverty is blamed for its destruction as people sell the sheanuts, making it expensive to have during meal time because of the high cost. For instance, one liter costs Shs 6,000 up from Shs 1,500 fifteen years ago.
A 54 year-old Gloria Adania from Anyiribu in Madi, said the production involves various stages, beginning with de-pulping, to get rid of the fleshy fruit. “This is achieved by fermentation which is enhanced by initial boiling or burying the fruit. And following de-pulping, the nuts are sun-dried for five to ten days,” she said.
“Those that are roasted can even be stored for two years. And extracting butter from the baked kernel involves grinding it into a fine powder which is then mixed with warm water,” she added.
Statistics from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the European Union report that European imports were in the range of 2,500-5,000 metric tons in 1997.
The oil is usually served with a popular local dish known as ‘angira’ which is made from white beans. The combination of the two is what makes a complete meal for an Alur family or a visitor to the area.
Can enforcement be done
The Arua District Forest Officer, Edison Aderibo, said: “Even in colonial era they were protected trees and people used not to cut them. But the challenge is that many of them are in people’s land and enforcement of law is difficult. But when we get people cutting those in forest reserves we arrest them. About four people were arrested three years ago.”
The supply outstrips demand. Hence, shea butter is becoming increasingly popular as an ingredient in cosmetics and soaps. There are many vernacular names for the shea tree like yao in Alur, awa in Madi and Kumara in Lugbara and this shows how widely it is spread across the region.
Kits Obima, a former health worker in Nebbi recalls that in the past the sheanut oil was the most valued oil. “It was just a great one and even it is so healthy and better than the cooking oil from sunflowers where other ingredients are added to it,” he said.
One of the sheanut species at a home in Logiri Sub-county in Arua. Photo by Aluma Aribo.
Shea nuts also contain calcium, glucose, fructose and sucrose. Obima says sheabutter serves as a moisturizer and is naturally rich in vitamin A, E and F in addition to some other vitamins. It is thus able to sooth, balance and hydrates the skin.
Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) recommends that while higher-quality butter may fetch a higher market price. It is also preferred for home consumption and will keep longer in storage than a poor-quality product.
The kernel is then crushed and baked or roasted over carefully monitored heat to prevent it from being charred since charred kennels would lower the quality of shea butter produced by reducing its fat content.
Here, the trees especially around Madi Okollo in Arua, Aliba Sub-county in Moyo, Nyaravur in Nebbi have been subjected to severe bushfires. Given its medicinal, cosmetic and nutritional values, it is on high demand internationally and is exported to earn foreign income for rural women.
Amazing Life Span
The shea tree, when it passes the germination stage in about three to five years becomes fire resistant. Once it survives the first five years of its early stages of germination and growth, it grows slowly and takes about 30 years to reach maturity and from here, it can live for up to 300 years. It usually grows to an average height of about 15 meters and girths of about 175 meters with profuse branches and a thick waxy and deeply fissured bark that makes it fire resistant. In the absence of any hazards, including tree felling, it can bear fruit for 200 years.