Historical evidence indicates a widespread and centuries old exchange of shea kernels and shea butter by women in periodic local markets, and on a regional scale, with the densely populated West African littoral.
Initial French interest in shea was as a potential substitute for gutta-percha (latex) to insulate submarine cables in the wake of the profligate, inefficient and unsustainable methods of extraction from Palaquium gutta and other tropical rainforest trees in Southeast Asia.
Early and violent resistance to colonial rule during the Volta-Bani War was replaced by persistent migration into the (British) Protectorate of the Northern Territories of the Gold Coast Colony, as a form of protest by local Burkinabé communities to avoid the cumulative burdens of capitation tax, forced labour, military conscription, corporal punishment, and restrictive forest policies.
Multiple initiatives to extract shea butter (mechanically and chemically), to protect shea parklands or to plant shea trees, as well as early industrialization efforts, including a French ‘colonial petroleum’ project, were not successful.
Ultimately, the production and supply of shea kernels and shea butter remained central to servicing the needs of Burkinabe and West African consumers throughout the colonial period.
Burkinabé women have traded shea kernels and shea butter in periodic local markets, and on a regional scale with the densely-populated West African littoral, for centuries. This paper traces the origins of French colonial efforts to develop shea as a commodity of empire from the 1890s to independence in 1960.
Colonial efforts to incorporate Upper Volta, a French colonial backwater, into the world economy was drawn out, heterogenous, and messy. The colonial state assumed erroneously that little shea trade existed, and that producers would respond positively to market incentives. Yet, we suggest that French colonial policies failed due to a composite of factors including the limited investment in either the colony or shea as an oilseed crop, adaptation by women shea producers to the extraction of male labour and the trade opportunities created by new international borders, and the ‘blindness’ of colonial officials to the economic, social and cultural functions of periodic local markets used by women shea traders. The historical trajectory of the shea trade continues to have implications for current-day shea markets and their actors.