By D. I. E. Aleku
Maturing Shea fruits bearing up a Shea tree in the Teso sub-region wild. Photo credit: Nchi Moto
“Oh yeah, those people disappeared,” came telephone reply of Rev. Deusdedit Jacinto Ogwal, the Member of Parliament for Otuke County. “Could you know their whereabouts or contact; I have been looking around.”
But it’s the very reason that I had called Ogwal to inquire the operations of the Cooperative Office for Voluntary Organizations (COVOL) in his Otuke district. My concern was the organization’s brainchild, the Shea Project and Northern Uganda Shea Processors Association.
Based in the United States, COVOL came to Uganda in 1988 as a non-profit, voluntary organization. It’s objective is to develop and implement effective, low-cost innovations that enhance food and economic security of rural households in Sub-Saharan Africa through conservation and utilization of indigenous biodiversity.
Once in Uganda, Otuke County became its nucleus. Integrated rural-based, it began the Shea Project for Local Conservation and Development, which engendered conservation of indigenous woodland through access to improved technologies, small-scale credit and development of new, high-value markets for Ugandan shea-butter.
Primarily, it worked with the women’s farmer groups in Otuke-Lira, Amuria-Katakwi, Abim-Kotido, Amuru-Gulu and Pader-Kitgum districts. These established the Northern Uganda Shea Processors Association (NUSPA) as a women-managed producer cooperative comprising over 2000 producers from over 50 producer groups.
A simple well-illustrated technical training curriculum was developed for improved processing with promotional materials in English, Acholi, Lango, Ateso, Leb Thur, Alur and Dinka for the SPLM-administered areas of New Sudan. The Project was seeking local and international markets for Ugandan shea-butter and other non-wood products of indigenous woodland besides reinforcing woodland conservation through direct economic incentive.
Traditionally, shea processing involves heavy inputs of fuel-wood and female labour. So in 1999, a prototype Ugandan grinding machine was completed by the SAIMMCO workshop in Soroti, based on a Ghanaian-made plate grinder designed specifically for shea processing.
“Initially, the machine likely of Indian origin was made of cast iron when Elliot Masters, the project coordinator introduced it to us,” says John Bosco Okwalinga, the Supervisor, SAIMMCO. “The problem with cast iron is that any slight vibration breaks it so it was brought here and we modified it to mild steel.”
The machine transformed shea oil extraction from the traditional roast, crush and heat to cold press. Supported by the USAID, McKnight Foundation and the European Commission, NUSPA became the sole exporters of shea products from the nilotica variety region.
The nilotica shea-butter comes from a sub-species of the shea-butter tree indigenous to the Nile region of Africa. Its variety is soft and fragrant with high levels of olein and therapeutic unsaponifiables meaning it’s softer and creamer than regular shea butter.
In other words it’s soothing oil for inflamed skin and is therapeutic for acne, bruises and sprains among others absorbing more readily into the skin. Cosmetologists world-over agree that Nilotica Shea helps moisture skin and retain its elasticity besides aiding cellular regeneration especially for mature skin and stretch marks.
But typical of Africa, woodland is at the mercy of peasants. Shea trees however, are most noticeable of the useful trees preserved when clearing farmland.
Usually, it calls for good care to protect the young ones from ox-ploughs during traction. The developing tree remains less than a meter in height for several years, and does not become productive until its 15th or 20th year.
Yet, with partial European Commission funds through University of Wales at Bangor, COVOL began a comprehensive ecological, botanical and socioeconomic study of indigenous management of woodland biodiversity here. Under International Cooperation Programme (INCO) project, it joined 15 counterpart institutions in Africa and Europe in collaborative research work with local farmers on shea-butter trees focusing on nilotica subspecies.
“COVOL experts ringed and graded more 200 shea-tree species in my land categorizing them into short, big, sweet et cetera,” says Mzee John Aisu of Abarilela Sub County in Amuria district. “They said, they we’re here to start planting and possibly clone shea trees for quick yields.”
The community was involved through local-language publications and public meetings. Overall, COVOL provided technical assistance to establish and manage tree nurseries for afforestation and income generation by groups, schools and individuals.
But all that was dashed in 2002 with the resurgence of the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in the project area. Security conditions severely deteriorated that the NUSPA members and their communities had to flee their villages for relative safety in the Internally Displaced Persons camps (IDPs) and large towns.
Consequently, the Shea Project field offices closed, and the processing equipment relocated from Corner Adwari to Lira project office in town. Production dragged on with daring producers that risked gather shea-nut from the war overtaken areas of production and villages.
Moreover, thousands of the shea trees were cut down by highly organized charcoal traders, allegedly aided by the military. The awful activity greatly damaged the reliability and sustainability of the shea resource within the belt region.
Nonetheless, the project kept on. In 2006 it established an organic production system and obtained organic certification under the US Department of Agriculture –the National Organic Programme and the Council Regulation of the European Union.
Sadly, NUSPA seemed only to count time on the deathbed to succumb to the blow dealt that by then it had literally been dissolved. The LRA was flashed out, peace restored but the wreak remains as fresh as ever more than ten years after.
“It’s unfortunate, we did not build on what COVOL achieved,” says Dr. Patrick Byakagaba, Environment and Natural Resource Management Specialist at Makerere University. “Anyway we have had several initiatives especially by NEMA to regenerate shea trees but the documents prepared seem always shelved somewhere gathering dust without getting to the floor of parliament for exhaustive debate.”
Significant, Byakagaba with other lead ecologists in the country unanimously concur that shea trees can be propagated. But the major reason farmers are reluctant to plant is that it is very slow growing and takes long for someone to realize returns.
“Cloning is possible but why go for the most expensive and difficult method of regeneration when we have chance to redeem it the natural way; it’s not late,” says Byakagaba. “Besides, shea trees have evolved overtime; you may pick germplasm from this tree for cloning when the next tree has changed.”
Seemingly though, the quickest way is what Byakagaba and his colleague, Assoc. Prof. Gerald Eilu call vegetative propagation. By this the scholars mean it’s easier and faster to raise young shea trees off sprouts from the cuttings of parent trees.
The seed, largely dispersed by animal and man loses its viability very fast. In addition, shea trees are less competitive and are easily eliminated from growth by other tree species surrounding them.
Suffice it to say, the shea tree line of extinction apparently is not germination failures but ownership and land use practices in Uganda. It grows on private and not public land hence there is communal ownership without value attached.
Moreover, the agricultural traditions of land clearance in the shea belt without bothering about soil and water conservation is harmful to shea tree survival. The level of awareness is very low that people only think of their rights without corresponding responsibilities.
It requires a nerve to change people’s perception to plant sheas. Putting aside the bylaws enforcing shea tree planting and regulating cutting, there must be a deliberate programme with benefits such as soil and water conservation.
“May be people should be encouraged to plant for land demarcation,” says Martin Alomu Eriagu, a retired Forest Manager with public service. “During the colonial days sheas were called the reserved trees and you didn’t cut without permission.”
That law however changed more than a decade ago with the new National Forestry and Tree Planting Act 2004. The Act changed many things including creating the National Forest Authority and decentralized some aspects of management to the districts- the District Forest Services, which are almost non-existent should be the right people to popularize shea trees.
“The Act also classified trees as crops such that when you own land, you own trees on it as well,” says Eriagu. “The trees stopped being property of government and by the law liberalizing ownership of trees; it makes difficult now to protect useful species.”
Liberalization parse is not bad but for regions with communal ownership. People here have even abandoned free seedlings from forest personnel for afforestation for fear that government could later claim their land.
Poverty and conservation on the other hand do not rhyme that it’s fundamental to address the question of poverty first. Unlike industrialized nations, Uganda is purely peasant economy with over 80% dependent on natural resources; the reason for land wrangles with difficulty to police.
Public preference for shea tree charcoal with lucrative demand prices seems irresistible fortune to the dealers. Shea tree charcoal has highest calorific value (energy) ever known in that it’s economical and burns longest.
Incidentally, sheas are selective trees that grow in low altitudes above equator and are not known countrywide. The belt concentration stretches from Ethiopia to Senegal in West Africa through Teso, Lango and Acholi sub-regions.
It’s on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of threatened species. The IUCN is an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources.
But the government and the UNDP-Global Environment Facility are trying through Kidepo Critical Landscape Project to reverse the trends. The project is engaged in Conservation and Sustainable Use of the Threatened Savannah Woodland in the districts of Kitgum, Agago, Otuke, Abim, Kaabong and Kotido.
Pundits however, say the project mostly focuses on Kidepo Valley National Park than the shea tree. In addition, the 48 months U$3m project started July 2013 is nearing its evening and soon will be ended.
- There is need to raise awareness to embrace a shea tree as a National asset
- Raise debate in public including parliament
- Promote value addition and formation of cooperatives (product extraction remains rudimentary)
- Widen market products and not only shea butter but soap and others
- Step up monitoring to check on illegal charcoal burning
- Check on wildfires
- Invoke the Semei Kakungulu conservation spirit
- Revisit the law especially on implementation
- Plant for shade and boundaries
- Introduce conservation in school curricula as early as primary one
Additional information on a shea tree
Once a relished item in the wild fruit-gathers’ basket, it passes for a relic today. Comparable to large plums, shea fruit-seeds are much known to evocative passing generations for gifting them food and income.
Picked off the long-established African nutritional plant, shea with an oil-rich seed has been an essential part of the continent’s inheritance. Seasonal, households pick up to 45kgs of fresh fruit per tree yielding approximately 18kgs of dry seed.
Alas, population explosion, urbanization, modernity and consumerism have come at the expense of the shea tree. Dry savannah wild tree of the Sapotaceae family shea is at the brink of extinct.
Old women though recall how back in the day no custom rite was complete without shea oil. It was a prize in initiating brides, nourishing babies and anointing according to Losira Ipilu.
Frail, Ipilu who is one of the few octogenarians let alone centenarians now battling old age on tiny hut verandas in the region, recalls how shea trees lived and dried on their own without disrupted lifespans by charcoal burners. The avid unquenchable charcoal demand, construction and land clearance that have become harmful she says are a recent phenomenon.
Known also as Vitellaria paradoxa, builders initially never targeted it for poles. Likewise peasants never cultivated beneath it for fear of poor yields under tree-shades but nowadays they prune branches to aid phototropism.
By all accounts shea trees have an illustrious lifespan of two centuries bearing first fruit after 10 years and are gigantic in size. They grow in more than 20 countries across Africa stretching from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east through Sierra Leone, Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Togo, Nigeria, Chad, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Cote d’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Sudan and ranking Burkina Faso’s third largest export earner.
Hard to drive roofing nails in, the heart-of-steel trait that the maroon hardwood possesses plays to the advantage of charcoal burners. Sources claim a good charcoal harvest fetches more than sh1m from a single tree felled.
The specie dots a greater Teso vegetation cover through Lango, Acholi sub-regions and into the Sudan. Natives then enjoyed the oil delicacy as sauce laced with groundnut paste and smeared it on their skins to nourish.
Increasingly though, the tradition has disappeared with the rise in fuel demand for cooking from forest products. Swift scan through average charcoal prices across the country rests the price-tag at sh80, 000 for an elongated bag.
Profitable, suspects risk all it takes to bring down the trees and vicious to any village authority threatening to halt their illicit activity. Inhibitive district ordinances to safeguard endangered flora and fauna like mangoes (manifera indica); tamarind (tamarindus indica) and shea remain great paperwork.
Field staffs are lacking on the ground to monitor and inspect charcoal burning sites and movement. Community environment protection is voluntary with the local governments relying on the Parish Environment Persons who accept the risk without any facilitation.
The task is enormous that volunteers relate the perpetrators are ruthless to stop and have discouraged most of them with bodily harm. Consequently, the fainthearted have surrendered to the criminal rackets dinning with the wrongdoers and protecting them.
Suspects arrested flout the law and easily buy their way out of police cells. Such suspects return with vengeance towards the volunteers who took them into detention.
But unsustainable natural resource exploitation has left the world let alone Uganda and Teso sub-region ruing climate change. The resultant prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall, flashfloods and heatwaves due to earth surface alterations have borne famine and poverty.
Indeed death toll for human, animal and plant is mounting by the year. Carbon-dioxide once absorbed by the depleted green vegetation cover in place of oxygen for food production is saturating in the atmosphere pushing temperatures high.
Deadly pests and weeds alongside gusty winds accompanied by thunderbolts have become regular occurrences. Eroded high trees like sheas that were once wind-breakers and shield-guard lightening-arresters have exposed household vulnerabilities.
Degradation aside, shea butter is a common element in the pharmaceutical industry and food preparation including chocolates. The shea bark on the other hand is an ingredient in traditional medicines while the nut shells are said to repel mosquitos.
Vitamin and mineral rich, shea butter is an oil extract from sheanuts crushed and ground to fat. It’s composed of five principal fatty acids: palmitic, stearic, oleic, linoleic and arachidic making it a darling for soap and cosmetic producers as moisturizer, salve or lotion.
Stearic and oleic acids though constitute greater portions of the component arrangement. The two are credited with oil solid consistency and controlling how soft or hard it is in given room temperature, oleic acid accounting for liquid shea oil.