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In Mali, the production of shea butter, a communal and exclusively female practice, is providing a welcome source of income for some rural women in the drought-stricken country this year. Typically, a halfdozen women and girls pound dried shea-tree nuts in a large village pestle as onlookers sing and dance. The crushed nuts are then cooked in a pot over an open fire, ground again into a paste, scooped out by hand and left to cool and harden into shea butter.Handout | Alyssa Bistonath | World Vision

There's a gold rush on in the African nation of Mali, but it has nothing to do with the metal. This gold grows on shea trees, the nut of which is being processed into a multipurpose butter that not only represents economic independence for the women producing it, but also the hope of sustenance in a country staring down the barrel of a potentially major food crisis.

"Shea production is definitely something that helps women economically," says Justin Douglass, communications manager for World Vision Mali. "Facing a food crisis, it is especially important that they have access to money to purchase food for their families."

In much of western Africa, females are solely responsible for the production of shea, dubbed "African women's gold." By some estimates, it can account for up to 80 per cent of the incomes of rural women.

In the midst of Mali's current food crunch – the result of a major rain shortfall during last year's agricultural season – shea butter provides a rare ray of hope, emerging as one of the sole goods that generates any income for the reported 1.7 million Malians who stand to be affected by the shortage. Tough and drought-tolerant, the shea tree is indigenous to about 20 African countries, with Mali and Burkina Faso leading shea-butter production in the west. Although it takes from 20 to 30 years for a tree to reach maturity, it starts producing fruit at the 10-year mark.

In Africa, women use shea butter for numerous purposes, including curing dermal ailments, treating minor cuts, softening skin and hair, cooking food and waterproofing the exterior of mud huts. Once it makes its way into the hands of the international community, however, its primary usage is skin care.

In 2009, the Canadian International Development Agency pledged to stimulate shea-butter trade in Mali by 20 per cent, but immediate needs resulting from the current food shortage recently saw the agency pledge $41-million in separate new aid to the Sahel region, which includes the hardest hit areas of Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger.

"Although this business is helping to support Malian women over the long term, we are seeing a steep rise in food prices, so the money they are making from shea butter, while still important to their well-being, is not buying as much as it used to," Douglass says.

Even so, the production of the butter provides a degree of financial autonomy for women that few other practices do. The fact that it is also a time-honoured process makes it as culturally important as it is financially promising. Much as a prized recipe might be passed from a Canadian mother to her daughter, shea-production techniques are handed down from generation to generation in Africa. After the fruit, which is characterized by a fleshy, avocado-like pulp around an oily kernel, is gathered during the rainy season, the nut is retained and left to dry under the sun or underground. Once dry, the nut must be separated from its hard exterior, a communal effort by women and girls involving an oversized mortar and large, heavy pestles. A typical scene might see five or six females (often with babies strapped to their backs) heaving the pestles and rhythmically breaking the nuts, frequently accompanied by singing and dancing among children and onlookers. Next, the crushed nuts are cooked in a large pot over an open wood-burning flame, which gives traditional shea butter its characteristic smoky scent. After further grinding it into a smooth paste, separating the oils and melting it over a fire, the women scoop out the butter and place it somewhere cool to harden. It is finally formed into balls.

In the developed world, most household beauty brands, including Kiehl's, L'Occitane, The Body Shop and Yves Rocher, use African shea butter in some capacity, usually as a softener or moisturizer.

Fair-trade varieties can also be found at health-food stores, online at and at non-profit retailers like Ten Thousand Villages, which has locations across Canada.

Increasingly, though, many socially minded brands are working with producers directly at the source, both to better oversee their sourcing and to improve worker conditions. Burt's Bees, for one, has partnered with a major West African shea-kernel provider as well as the United Nations Development Program to promote efficiency of harvesting. Among the initiatives is the provision of energy for a wide variety of grinding, shelling and pressing tools that in turn give female workers more time to focus on education.

"According to a third-party study, the real impact [of Burt's Bees' involvement]is that the number of women in the villages who can read has increased by more than 25 per cent since we started this project," says Celeste Lutrario, vice-president of research and development for the company. "They are able to make financial contributions to the local village and [accumulate]substantial savings."

And that is worth more than gold.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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