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EDN Issue 141 - Now Available 2018-10-17

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Shea Nut: The Butter Tree

By: Gene Fifer


The arid region directly south of the Sahara Desert (the Sahel), which stretches from Senegal to Ethiopia, has limited sources of fats and oils. Dairy products from cows and sheep are scarce and traditional oilseed crops are few. This is problematic for human health since fats and oils contain lipids essential for vitamin absorption and are a high-calorie energy source.  

The shea nut tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) is a widely distributed and traditional source of vegetable fat in the Sahel for the Bambara, Dyula, Fulani, Hausa, and Wolof peoples. Some of its common names suggest its dietary importance: bambouk butter tree, galam butter tree, and arbre à beurre. Other common names in many different languages include karité, cárei, carité, lulu, sirreh, se, berekunan, tamba, taanga, and kareje. Fruity pulp and butter from shea nut trees are important food sources during the ‘hunger months’ of the early rainy season, before annual crops are harvested. However, even though the shea nut tree is widespread and traditionally used, it is underutilized because of the high amounts of labor, fuel, and water that are required to process it. The grueling and resource-intensive butter-making process can be streamlined by modern, low-tech methods that could expand its use as a hedge against food insecurity. 

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