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Shea butter could be lifeline for Ugandan women

By Emily Wither for CNN
  • Shea nuts have been collected by Ugandan women for centuries
  • Beadforlife has brought together 760 women farmers and buys the nuts they gather
  • Some say the shea butter produced in northern Ugandan is of especially high quality
  • Shea nut production is slowly increasing as Uganda recovers from years of conflict

(CNN) -- In northern Uganda, Sarah Omollo, like hundreds of other women, rises early each day to collect shea nuts.

Omollo, who is now in her thirties, has been gathering the nuts since she was a young child, crushing them up and using the oil they produce for things like cooking and body lotion.

Now it is hoped this regional tradition could bring hundreds of women out of poverty and revive the local economy torn apart by years of conflict.

Non-profit organization Beadforlife has brought together 760 women farmers, many rebuilding their lives after two decades of civil war, and started a business processing and selling the nuts they gather.

The shea tree grows throughout Sahelian Africa, from Senegal to Ethiopia. But some say the sub species, nilotica, which grows in northern Uganda and Southern Sudan, is particularly special.

"Shea butter is commonly associated with West Africa but the trees in northern Uganda produce a high-quality oil that, if compared, is softer and perfect for cosmetics," said Torkin Wakefield from Beadforlife.

We have plans in the coming years for the women to own a couple of small hand pressers so they can sell us the butter instead of the nuts.
--Torkin Wakefield , Beadforlife

The group is on a mission to bring local shea butter to the international cosmetic and soap market by buying the women's organic nuts and turning them into "butter."

Beadforlife says Omollo has been made a coordinator for a buying center in Orum. She was captured by the Lord's Resistance Army in 1992 when she was 18 years old. Her father was killed by the rebels and she and her sister were abducted.

Omollo is one of the many women in the region trying to rebuild their lives.

"When Beadforlife came here they did a wonderful thing and increased the price of buying shea nuts," she told Beadforlife. "So even if you just bring a little, you get a lot of money. Life is better because of the shea."

The women pick the nuts, shell, dry and process them before they are bought. The nuts are then made into butter by a Ugandan presser.

Beadforlife says this year it hopes to press between 20-30 tons of butter, but the aim is to eventually get the women to make it themselves.

"We have plans in the coming years for the women to own a couple of small hand pressers so they can sell us the butter instead of the nuts, so the women can make more money," Wakefield explained.

But this grassroots organization has much bigger plans for the future. "The hard thing for Ugandans is to build a sustainable market," Wakefield said. "Many companies have tried and failed in the past."

"We're looking at working with international cosmetic companies because our biggest desire is that this becomes an industry way bigger than what our project will do, where the cosmetic companies of the world say we want this ingredient, this is a premium, high-quality ingredient," she continued.

Guru Nanank Oil Mills is a company that manufactures pure shea butter in the northern town of Lira. It says it already sells its product to cosmetic companies internationally and claims its business can help local communities affected by civil war.

I have more respect from my husband because I am earning money. This has happened to many women.
--Flo Engol, farmer

Manager Surjit Singh said: "We work in collaboration with farmers in order to preserve this very high-value species and also educate them to protect the trees.

"The conflict brought poverty to northern Uganda, which affected shea butter production.

"People used to cut the shea trees for charcoal production for domestic usage. However, we have brought awareness to the community and offered cash for shea nuts to the farmers, directly creating a big market for them."

Singh says that shea nut production is slowly increasing and Beadforlife believes that once there is demand the market could really take off.

"We are talking to several large and small companies and right now they are raving about this product," Wakefield said.

"I have confidence that once companies start using the product a market will develop. Once a market develops jobs will be created for thousands of people that can harvest nuts across northern Uganda and Southern Sudan."

For the women farmers it is still one step at a time. Beadforlife is also about to launch a trading process so as well as buying nuts, it will let women trade them for things like ploughs, school books and seeds.

Flo Engol sells the nuts she collects in Okwang to Beadforlife. She was nearly killed by rebels several years ago and said that gathering shea has improved the community in many ways.

"I have more respect from my husband because I am earning money. This has happened to many women," Engol told Beadforlife.

She added: "Many of the children were forced to leave school during the war, and they are now just drop outs. Having an income will make a difference for all of us."