Promoting early-maturing, oil-rich shea trees and holding off the charcoal threat

In Abia, Northern Uganda, farmer and grandmother Catherine Ekuka, 63, decants shea oil for cooking. Photo CWatson/ICRAF

In Abia, Northern Uganda, farmer and grandmother Catherine Ekuka, 63, decants shea oil for cooking. Photo CWatson/ICRAF

In Europe and the US, shea butter or oil is a famous skin cream. But shea is even more important as the main cooking oil for the band of 21 African countries that stretches West to East from Senegal to Ethiopia. There the oil is valued and relied upon by an estimated 80 million people.

“It’s the oil that people use for their own nutrition,” says Sam Gwali. “They store the nuts all year round and process the oil at home when it’s needed, and also share it.  A neighbor can borrow from a friend, saying ‘Mine is finished’’

Gwali is talking about oil from Vitellaria paradoxa subspecies nilotica, a tree that has been his intellectual quest for 20 years. He is in Nairobi at the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) for a training to which top plant breeders from around the continent have been recruited. His aim is more productive, earlier-maturing trees. (Shea trees typically mature in 15 to 20 years).

“The African Plant Breeding Academy (AfPBA) has helped us because tree breeding is not a big priority in most African countries,” says the Ugandan scientist. “Most African countries breed short rotation crops. But this course is giving us genomic techniques that we can use to do selection from plants that take a long time to mature, like trees;  for a tree breeder, the nightmare is the period of time it takes to get a second generation.”

“Shea trees are important for nutrition, so we must understand their genetics,” says Gwali, who works at Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organization as head of the Tree Improvement and Germplasm Research Programme. “With some shea trees, people eat the fruit pulp which is rich in Vitamin A and C. But in breeding, we are selecting for key traits, in particular the amount of the oil from the kernels and a shorter time to maturity.”

The training is under the aegis of the African Orphan Crop Consortium (AOCC), a 14 member public–private partnership supported by the African Union. ICRAF hosts the AOCC lab and is a partner in a project to sequence the shea tree genome and improve the species’ productivity. The project is funded by the US National Science Foundation and led by Iago Hale of the University of New Hampshire.

“I am thrilled to be a part of this effort,” says Hale, who is also a lead instructor in the Academy. “By getting some fundamental genomics resources into the hands of highly-trained regional breeders like Sam, the prospect of improving this semi-domesticated agroforestry species increases tremendously.  We believe that the livelihoods of millions of women, the nutritional status of their families, and the conservation of shea itself depend on this work.”

The Shea tree grows typically in agroforestry parklands. Photo L Deenan

The Shea tree grows typically in agroforestry parklands. Photo L Deenan

ICRAF’s Prasad Hendre who runs the AOCC lab adds optimistically, “Sequencing Shea is fundamental for its improvement and its survival. We expect it to be completed by the end of 2017. The genome will be an open resource available to anyone in the world. We are building public knowledge for biodiversity and food security. We are trying to improve the shea tree at a faster rate using more efficient, accurate and somewhat predictable tools developed using its genome sequence. This in a way is a tool to ensure its survival in a situation where the older parklands are not being refreshed and restored.”

Gwali senses a new dawn too. “Before we used proxy markers, but now it will be like the human genome where we know that this part controls sickle cell disease, for instance. We will look for trees with high breeding value, which can pass on those traits to their offspring. We will be able to breed very effectively.  The course has given us very good insights into how to do our programmes.”

At the African Plant Breeding Academy at ICRAF, Uganda’s Sam Gwali learns new genomic approaches. Photo CWatson/ICRAF

At the African Plant Breeding Academy at ICRAF, Uganda’s Sam Gwali learns new genomic approaches. Photo CWatson/ICRAF

But it is a race.  Shea is under onslaught for energy. “It’s a very big problem,” says Gwali. “In Uganda, there’s much cutting down of Shea for its charcoal, which burns slowly and therefore fetches a high price. We have done a lot of work with communities. And government has passed a policy to prevent the felling. But unfortunately, some people still cut it in secret, to make money.”

Sounding more social scientist than geneticist, Gwali says local sanctions can be effective in protecting the tree.  “Where we have worked in Amuria, Katakwi and Otuke, the local leadership found it wise to create their own bye laws and manage shea trees themselves. If you cut a Shea tree, the community can isolate you and tell you – now you have cut yours, do not pick fruits from ours.”

Interviews by ICRAF in Abia in northern Uganda found that the threats to shea are every bit as serious as Gwali makes out. “When I grew up, there were way more Shea trees,” said an elder, 75. “We ate the fruit and consumed the butter. The result is that our children were very strong. Today we have lost so many shea trees to charcoal. Burning a tree for charcoal is one time, and it is gone. You forfeit it.”

Changes in the political economy of agriculture are a further risk. Referring to agribusinesses that are promoting new crops like soya and sunflower for oil and animal feed, a young man said, “They tell us to make sure that the land is clear. So indirectly they advise us to cut trees. We need to resolve the tension between agriculture and shade.”

The mold for shea soap at Guru Nanak Oil Mills (U) Ltd, a large buyer of kernels in Northern Uganda.

The mold for shea soap at Guru Nanak Oil Mills (U) Ltd, a large buyer of kernels in Northern Uganda.

Gwali hopes that faster and higher yielding trees may hold their own against the threat of charcoal and land use change, safeguarding the tree. Shea oil is sold in domestic markets in Northern Uganda; its price is competitive with other oils. It is sought after too by a factory making shea soap and cream in the town of Lira as well as exported to Europe.

Besides its products, Shea provides environmental services such as soil fertility. Moses Okao, who researches early-maturing varieties with Gwali, says that Shea trees improve millet and sorghum yields. Its oil is deeply cultural.  “It gives me a lot of power,” said a grandmother, 63. “It is traditional to serve it to visitors and grandchildren. Then people say, ‘This is a hardworking woman!’”

Supremely important to local diets, nurses in local clinics say Shea oil is rich in Omega-3 fatty acids, boosts immunity and is healthier than other oils coming on stream. “It is the basis of rural peoples’ lives,” says Gwali.

Visit the AOCC website at: http://africanorphancrops.org/

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Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson

Cathy Watson is chief of programme development at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi. Before joining ICRAF in November 2012, she founded and ran two NGOs in Uganda — Straight Talk Foundation and Mvule Trust. She was made a senior Ashoka fellow for social entrepreneurship in 2006. She has also been a foreign correspondent, working for The Guardian and the BBC, among others. A graduate in biology and Latin American Studies from Princeton, she has almost 30 years of work experience in Africa with a focus on trees, youth, HIV, families, and communication for social change. She holds a certificate in agroforestry from the University of Missouri.

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