Shea Butter: A Blessing In Arigu
By Ruth Emefa Toklo

Arigu is a farming community in the Upper East region of Ghana, an hour and a half drive from the closest city, Bolgatanga, and along the White Volta. The natural vegetation of the area is savannah woodland characterized by short scattered drought-resistant trees and grass that gets burnt by bushfires or scorched by the sun during the long dry season. Human interference with ecology is significant, resulting in near semi-arid conditions. The White Volta is a few kilometers away from the settlement of Arigu. Along the shores of the river and surrounding the community, people have their farmland and Shea trees grow naturally. People use the water of the White Volta mainly for farming their crops and as a means of transportation using canoes when going to farms across the river. Farming crops, such as tomato, onion, watermelon, rice, okra, pepper, maize, and other cereals and tubers are the main occupation in the community for both men and women. This occupation provides a livelihood source for the 3,000 inhabitants of the community.

The landscape view of the Arigu community

The landscape view of the Arigu community

The White Volta River located at Arigu

The White Volta River located at Arigu

Farmland across the White Volta at Arigu

More than a million sparse shea trees cover the arable land of Arigu with the people producing about 1,000 to 1,200 metric tons of shea nuts annually with a maximum potential of 3,000 metric tons. Shea butter is recognized for its cosmetic, nutritional, and therapeutic values, as well as employment creation. The trees are highly valued by local communities for the bark, roots, and leaves used in traditional medicines, wood for charcoal, and building purposes. For many women in Arigu production of shea nuts and butter is seasonal work but provides their main income which allows them to escape poverty and the opportunity to cater to their families and dependents, including buying clothes and paying school fees. Additionally, Shea trees are a free resource available to all in the Arigu community. The Shea nut tree is an important cash crop that contributes significantly to the growth and well-being of people in the agricultural sector in many African countries. Shea butter and Shea nut are some of the most important export commodities in Ghana. In the year 2000, Ghana exported 35,983.1 tons of Shea nut and Shea butter at a value of US $4.7 million with the potential of Ghana to produce 90% of the world’s shea nuts.

Water pumps moving river water to farmlands for irrigational use

Water from the Volta river on a farmland

Women transplanting onions on farmland as laborers across the River

A population of shea trees growing naturally on a farmland

The rainy season, from May to July is the season of fruit collection. Processing the Shea fruit takes a long time and is hard work because the women use traditional processing methods and most of it is done by hand. The skin of the fruits is removed; the nuts obtained are washed, well-dried under the sun for 3 to 5 days, and roasted to concentrate the oil in the nuts. The dried nuts that are to be processed for butter are cracked with stones or other hard materials and roasted on a fire. The roasted cracked nuts are taken to the mill to grind to get a thick paste which is the only method that speeds up the process. Women churn the paste by gradually adding water for at least an hour until the white cream separates from the water. The white cream is boiled on fire to get the oil and solidifies to butter. Most women in Arigu sell shea nuts to off-takers that come to the community to buy while others process the butter to sell at the close-by Pwalugu market.

Dried shea nuts in a sack

Women collecting the nuts start their journey by 4 am due to the distance they have to walk to get to the Shea trees. Carrying their harvest alone, some women go twice a day to get enough fruit for the day. The lack of adequate transportation is a challenge for the shea industry in Arigu. Shea trees across the White Volta have a good yield and good quality. But needing to transport the nuts on a non-mechanized boat with high water levels and strong currents during the rainy season makes such a journey a great risk. Most women feel reluctant in taking such a risk to cross the river to get shea fruits and opt for walking to other areas.

Cracking of shea nuts with stone to process for shea oil

Crushed shea nut milled to a brown thick paste

Arigu has one mill serving as a grinding source for all food products accessible to all the inhabitants of the community. Emmanuel Anagdene is the operator of the mill in the community. “I charge higher for grinding cracked nuts to paste but the milling machine is just one. During the peak season when the nuts to mill is in abundance I set three days within the week for shea milling and during the dry seasons, I grind the nuts to paste only in the evenings. I then clean the milling machine thoroughly before grinding any food products such as corn flour, soybeans, millet, and other cereal and legume products,” he explains.

Crushed shea nut milled to a brown thick paste

White cream after churning shea nut paste

Emmanuel milling corn flour for customers

The Shea industry is empowering the women of Arigu as it provides them with their livelihoods and the opportunity to cater to their families. The trade-in of shea butter and nuts is a profitable venture with high-income potential but the income the women make is very marginal compared to the arduous work involved in the production of shea nuts and shea butter by them.

A busy market day for the Arigu community

A busy market day for the Arigu community

Azotiba Lamisi started her shea business when she got married and moved to Arigu more than 10 years ago. She joined the trade as a shea fruit picker and has been stocking them to sell during the dry season. This business has been her main source of income. Her older daughter, 14, takes the responsibility of getting the younger ones ready for school when she leaves at dawn to collect shea fruits. When the season is out, she works on people’s farms and gets paid GHS 25.00 per day.

Azotiba Lamisi working as a laborer on farmland across the river

Yaa Tindana poses for a photo

For 27 years Yaa Tindana has been picking shea fruits and processes to get nuts to sell. Additionally, she has been producing maize and groundnuts from her deceased husband’s farm all by herself. The income she earns from the shea business she invests into buying products for farming on her land.

Ayinepoka a shea fruit collector

From a young age, Ayinepoka has been collecting shea fruit and trading nuts. Due to her old age and the distance to the trees, she collects about 250 kg of nuts. There is more money to make from selling Shea butter but she chose to sell the nuts rather because the strength involved in beating the paste to make the butter is too much work for her.

Kanzoni Mbokiya in her home preparing to churn shea nut paste

Kanzoni Mbokiya is a wholesale dealer of shea nuts and also processes them into shea butter to sell. She started the business at a young age after she dropped out of school and when she lost her mother. Due to this, she got married at an early age and gave birth to seven children. Shea butter as a free resource has been her only source of income to survive on. The business grew and today she buys the nuts from people and sells the nuts or the processed butter for example to government officials on order. She also trades in smoked and fresh fish that is caught from the White Volta. Bambara beans and maize are some of the legumes she buys in bulk to sell in the market.

Kanzoni Mbokiya a trader in shea nut and butter
Emefa Toklo
Emefa Toklo is a Ghanaian photographer trained by Lensational organisation in the fields of photojournalism and documentary. Since she started photography in 2020, she has worked on stories related to Women's empowerment, Climate change, Community engagement, Health, and Reproductive Health. In addition to her documentary work, she currently works as a photography assistant working on product and fashion photography. Her aim is to tell compelling stories that evoke emotion and energy, and to do so by inviting her subjects to stand out and be an integral part of the narrative she documents.