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Shea Tree








The Nigerian Institute for Oil Palm Research (NIFOR) represents this country in the African Oil Palm Development Association (AFOPDA), which coordinates collaborative oil palm research and development among African member countries.  During its active years of the 1990s, AFOPDA included the shea tree as a crop of interest to the Association since it is a major oil crop for some member countries especially countries of the more arid ecologies.  These member states created awareness among the Association’s member counties including Nigeria, of the numerous potentials of the shea tree and its major economic product, the shea tree.  Consequently, NIFOR was mandated by the AFOPDA to provide it with some basic information on its occurrence and distribution and production within the country.  Thus although NIFOR did not have the mandate research on the crop, it had since the early nineties developed interest in it as a result of the Institutes association with AFOPDA.


Following increasing international interest in the crop, the Institute received the authority of Government  to include the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa) in our list of mandate c rop (Ref. FMA/ASD/ASD/NARI/019/S.16/1/5 of 7/1/05).  By March 2005,  the Institute received another letter ref. No. FDA/TAS/S/5/T4 of 17/3/05).  Directing it to submit detailed proposals for the five year period.  We were also requested to provide statistics on the international trade of the crop.


This development formed the basis for which this Research Proposals are articulated.  We wish, sincerely, to thank Government for taking this decision.  We hope that the necessary resources will be made available to the Institute to see that this crop plays a major role in the lives of the communities where it abounds and improving the country’s export earning from shea.


2.         BACKGROUND      


2.1              Occurrence

The shea tree, Vitellaria paradoxa Syn.  Butyrospermum paradoxa of the family Sapotaceae, is typically a Savanna woodland tree species.  Its natural habitat stretches over Africa south of the Savannah, from the eastern part Senegeal to the north of Uganda.  This stretch covers an area of over 5,000 km long and 400 – 750 km wide.  The West African subspecies is V paradoxa var. nilotica is found in the eastern end of the range of the distribution of the species and indigenous to northern Uganda and south-western Ethiopia.  In Nigeria the shea tree also occurs in the wild.  It thrives well within the Guinea and Savannah areas as well as the lower Sahel regions of the country.  The rainfall requirement is 600 – 1,500mm annually.  Although the shea tree appears to be a rather obscure wild species, it is widely known, valued and exploited by the natives in all the areas where it occurs.   The  English call it shea, a vernacular name in Bambara language while the French call it karate, a name given to it in Senegal by Wolofs.  It also has vernacular names in many Nigerian tribes:  The Ibos call it okwuma; Yorubas  call it orioyo while the Hausas call it mankade.  In the traditional farming systems of its areas of occurrence, the shea tree grows wild in the field with arable crops, and is subjected to the annual rituals of bush burning, thus giving the tree the characteristic dark rough appearance of the trunk.


2.2              Biology

The shea is a big tree, 10 – 15m tall, that can reach 25m.  The trunk diameter at height of 1  meter scarcely exceeds 1 meter.  It is a decidous tree, with simple leaves grouped in 20 – 30 leaves at the end of each branch.  The inflorescence is composed of several flowers grouped at the axile of each leaf.  The number of flowers per inflorescence varies extremely, and can reach 100 or more.   Despite the abundance of flowers, only 3 – 5 fruits per inflorescence become ripe.  The yield  per tree is an average of 15 – 20kg of fruits or 3 – 4kg dry nuts annually.  Some individual trees can yield 50 – 100 kg of fruits per annum.  Typically, the fruit consists of fleshly mesocarp with 30 – 40% nut; 81 – 84% kernel / nut and 45 – 50% oil / kernel.  The kernel oil is the shea butter.  The germination of the shea nut lasts about one month.  In favourable environment, phyenological germination takes place within 7 – 10 days.  Its growth is very slow and seedlings take 2 – 3 years to reach field planting.  The juvenile stage of shea tree lasts very long, 15 – 20 years, hence the difficulty in its domestication.  Flowering starts at about the age of 20 years and production reaches maturity at the age of 40 – 50 years.  The shea tree can live for more than 200 years.


2.3. Uses

Shea has multiple uses.  The fruit contains sweet edible fleshly pulp or mesocarp, which is locally consumed like mangoes and other wild seasonal fruits.  The trunk bark and cortex, the roots and leaves are all used for preparation of many traditional medicinal remedies.  The trunk of shea makes excellent charcoal.  It is the favoured sources of wood fuel. The butter extracted from the almonds contained in the kernels is the main economic product of the shea.  It is a mixture of fats and latex.  It is locally used in traditional medicines and cosmetics.  Its medicinal uses include protection of the skin against harsh weather; wound healing, cure of superficial skin irritations and sore muscles.  These uses have long been recognized by pharmacologists and nutritional chemists in Europe.   Export trade on shea developed long, since in colonial times.  It is used as valuable addition to moisturizers, creams, shampoos and soaps.  The high linoleic acid content of shea butter makes it ideal remedy against dry skin, dermatitis, sunburn, redness, chapping and eczema.   The shea butter has close similarity to cocoa butter; it is used as a substitute to cocoa butter in the manufacture of chocolates and pastries.



2.4  Production

The West African annual production of shea nut in years of good crops is estimated at about 600,000 metric tonnes of dry nuts based on traded volume.  These estimates are however less than actual production since the quantities of nuts not collected from the wild and those consumed locally are excluded from these estimates.  Nigerian accounts for over 50% of the West African production.   The Central Bank Annual Report of 1998 and the Oil Seeds Association of Nigeria (OSAN) report of 1997, shows that Nigeria produces rather significant quantities of shea nut annually.  The production level, which was recorded as 373,000 metric tonnes for dry nuts in 1997 had remained stable since 1991 (table 1).   The revenue earned from shea nut during 1995 (N3,580b) was higher than those earned from soybeans (N3.120b), cottonseed (N2.156b) and sesame seed (N3.480b) during the same year.  The shea tree is a crop of great potentials and with improved  technologies and popularization;  the present level of production will definitely be surpassed.



Table 1:  Estimated Output of Major oilseed products in Nigeria (x 1,000 tonnes)













Price N/Tonne


Revenue Nb

Palm Oil








Palm kernel








Groundnut Oil
































Shea nut









Source:    White Paper on the Oil Seeds Situation in Nigeria by Oil Seeds Association of Nigeria (OSAN 1997).


2.5  Processing

The shea nut is processed primarily through the traditional methods.  It is a major occupation of women in these communities.  The traditional method of processing involves minimum mechanical input, heavy drudgery and high input of firewood.  It involves heating and kneading the c rushed kernels and straining the resultant oily mass.  The shea butter thus produced is considered unsuitable for export, because it is difficult and expensive to store as it deteriorates very rapidly.   Locally produced shea butter is consumed locally, fetching very low price for the farmer.  Export trade is on dry nuts.  Local methods of processing deplete the shea tree population, which serves as the main source of wood fuel.  It possesses a serious threat to the conservation of natural wood tree species.


2.6  Prospects for Development

The shea tree has an exceptional short, medium and long-term prospects for development, which must be exploited through evolving new technologies.


1.         Characteristically, wide variability in traits associated with the adaptation and the survival of the species, specifically growth and reproductive traits, abound in all wild species in their native habitat.  The exploitation of such existing natural variations provides the easiest short and medium term approach to s electing novel genotypes and developing new varieties.


2.         The very slow growth, which has hindered the domestication of the species, can be reversed significantly through the development of modern propagation techniques, which reduces periods

of juvenility.


3.         The flora biology of the species disposes the shea tree favourably to the

identification and exploitation of naturally existing variations in productivity

traits, which enhance pollination and fruit retention.


4.         The application of modern crop husbandry, management practices in the nursery

and for field establishment will enhance growth and production.


5.         New processing techniques must be developed to ensure that high quality shea

            butter is produced locally, which will have minimal wood fuel input.  Such

technologies would produce shea butter suitable for export, improve the income

earnings of local producers; reduce level of dry nut exportation and very

importantly, result in the conservation of natural populations of wood trees



6.         The awareness of the need for the conservation of natural plant populations must

be created to encourage the local communities to conserve the shea trees.


The research projects which have been articulated are geared towards the achievement of these numerous potentials and prospects identified for the shea tree in the short and medium term.



























SHEA BUTTER TREE (Vittellaria paradoxa) PROGRAMME











Studies of distribution and variation of Shea Tree population in Nigeria.

To determine density distribution and occurrence of the various varieties

1.   Survey on distribution and density  of 

      Shea  Tree in the Guinea and  Sudan

      Savannah  regions of Nigeria in Edo,

      Kogi, Benue, FCT, Niger,  Nassarawa,

      Plateau, Adamawa, Taraba, Kaduna,

      Kebbi, Kano, Zamfara, Bauchi, Gombe,

      Yobe and Kwara States.


2.   Identification of the various

      varieties based on fruit, seed, oil  

      characters and other traits of


Determination of the  area under shea tree cultivation in Nigeria




Identification of the commercial varieties in Nigeria and the potential of other populations

Studies concluded







Studies concluded


Studies of the floral biology

1.        To facilitate the development of

       controlled pollination

       methods for future breeding

       and selection.


2.        Explore the optimal fruit

       production potential of the

       crop and subsequently yield

1.        Studies on floral structure, and pollination

        mechanism and fruit development on

        Nigeria shea trees.


2.        Development of controlled pollination

       techniques on shea trees.

Proper understanding of floral structure, pollination mechanism and handling of pollen

Understanding of the various stages of fruit development it effect on fruit quality.


Method of controlled pollination developed for breeding and selection


Gestation Period, Reduction Studies

To reduce the juvenile age of the tree from the present 20 years to a more acceptable period of 5 – 7  years  that is characteristics of most fruit tree under domestication.

1.  Anatomical studies on shea and other

     related plants within the Saponaceous

     family to  facilitate vegetative

     propagation  through budding or




2.   Studies on induced accelerated maturity

     of  shea through grafting, budding and



Screening of close relatives of shea tree for anatomical similarity.


Technique for grafting, budding and laying developed

Close relatives of Vitellaria paradoxa identified based on anatomical features.


Planting materials developed through the vegetative propagation methods produced.











Evaluation &


1.   To assemble the genetic   diversity in the wild in a repository where it can be optimally managed, evaluated and exploited for the development of improved planting materials through breeding and selection.


2.  To create awareness among the local inhabitants on the need to preserve natural populations of the species


1.  Collection and evaluation of genetic

     material of various varieties of Shea in



2.  Introduction of much prized V. nilotica


3. In-situ conservation of shea germplasm

Nursery establishment with material collected.


Introduce V. nilotica from Uganda.


Creating awareness for in-situ conservation by local farmers

Field establishment of nurseries with collected genetic materials.


Establishment of nurseries of V. nilotica


Local extension and support system established for in-situ conservation.


Development of appropriate Crop Husbandry Techniques for Nursery and field establishment

1.  To have proper understanding of the  cultivation yield and utilization of the tree crop in the different ecologies.


2.  To establish the right cultural practices for the production of vigorous transplantable seedlings.


3.  To determine optimum cultural practices for increased and sustainable productivity.

Diagnostic survey of the cultivation and utilization of shea better.



Development of appropriate cultural practices for shea tree nursery

Development of cultural practices for shea tree nursery and production of seedlings for field planting.

Establishment of field  trials to determine optimum cultural practices for shea tree production.


Establishment of a base data bank for the Nigerian shea tree industry

To monitor and evaluate Nigerian production, exports imports and prices of shea tree product  and to keep track of trends in the world market for shea tree product

Data on world and Nigerian shea tree trade will be obtained.

Information and guidelines for shea tree cultivation and marketing of shea  tree will be available.














Physico-chemical and

utilization studies of Nigerian shea tree fat


1.        To characterize shea nut oil and develop efficient non-degrading  methods for extracting and processing shea tree oil.


2.     To fractionate shea tree for extended industrial uses.


Determination of efficient methods of extracting and processing shea tree

Industrial uses of value added shea tree will be developed

Entrepreneurs encouraged to invest on shea tree products..


Development of  technology for the post harvest processing of the shea fruit-mesocarp and extraction of the shea kernel oil / butter.

1.        To investigate the local / traditional method(s) of harvesting, handling, processing of the shea fruit mesocarp and extraction of shea kernel oil / butter.


2.        To design and develop appropriate technology / equipment for mechanization of shea fruit harvesting, handling, processing of  the mesocarp and extraction  of shea kernel oil / butter .


3.        To test, publish and extend the appropriate technology at shea tree growing areas of Nigeria.

Design of equipment for mechanization of shea fruit harvesting and processing.

Study results of various traditional methods used in the harvesting, handling, processing, storage and use of shea

fruit and kernel throughout the shea tree growing areas of Nigeria.

Development of appropriate technology(s) for the harvesting, handling, processing, storage and utilization of shea fruit and kernel.











Extension activities in development of Shea tree in Nigeria.

1.        To identify and asses the role and skills of women in the shea tree industry and recommend improved processing methods to the women.







2.        To organize women into

       co-operative groups for

       processing and marketing

      shea tree.

1.  Identification of the various roles of

     women in the shea tree industry.













2.  Organication of women into cooperative

     groups for effective participation in

     cultivation, processing and marketing of

     shea and its products.


Role of women in shea tree industry identified.