One hot afternoon, as Ojok Okello lay under a giant shea tree, an idea struck him. He was looking at the clumps of round green and golden brown fruits above—shea nuts, which he believed could help the livelihoods of the communities of Okere city, and protect the climate.
400 kilometres north-east from Uganda’s capital Kampala, Okere nestles amongst the Northern Acacia Commiphora bushlands and thickets of the Kidepo Critical Landscape.
The shea tree, which was once available in abundance here, now faces human and climate induced threats. The tree has undergone large-scale cutting for charcoal production, while an increased frequency of dry spells and erratic rainfall have challenged people’s dependence on the tree. It is also impacting the shea value chain, resulting in lower quality and more expensive shea nuts and butter.
This did not go unnoticed by Okello. In 2018, Okello, who grew up in Kampala, visited Okere to track his paternal roots. He decided to stay permanently.
“The shea nut tree was slowly becoming disconnected with its economic reality, and people started chopping trees down. It was all about [reiterating] the ecological and economic sense of it,” Okello told Climate Tracker. He graduated in rural development and holds a Master’s degree from London School of Economics.
Apart from its economic value, these trees act as a carbon sink, play an integral role in maintaining biodiversity, and support the livelihoods of communities living near it. With these benefits in mind, Okello decided to contribute to the shea trees’ regeneration.
Understanding the economic and ecological benefits of the shea tree
Indegenous to Sub-Saharan Africa, shea grows across a continuous 6000 kilometre belt stretching from Senegal to Northern Uganda, which includes the Kidepo Critical Landscape. It grows naturally in grasslands, and does not need irrigation, fertiliser, or pesticides.
It has economic potential, since all parts of the tree, including fruits, roots, leaves, and bark can be used. The nut is the prime source of shea butter, which has health benefits apart from being a source of income. It is highly sought after by the cosmetic industry— Uganda’s Shea export is valued at USD 1 million for an industry whose global market is expected to value at US$ 2.6 billion in 2022 and is projected to surpass US$ 5.5 billion by 2032.
The tree also plays an ecological role. Shea trees—many that are currently aged more than 300 years— can also act as carbon sinks. Currently, in West Africa, shea trees absorb and fix an incredible 1.5 million tonnes of CO 2 every year, according to the Global Shea Alliance. They also provide for a good agroforestry opportunity, since they are found integrated with crops on small farm holdings.
Shea also plays a critical role in maintaining biodiversity. The husks of the seeds are good mulch and fertiliser, and its fruits attract animals and insects that thrive in the presence of other tree and shrub species.
The integral forest produce
Shea fruit is an important nutritional resource which is harvested mainly by women and children during April and September. This period is also synonymous with the annual ‘hungry season’ which is when food stocks are at their lowest because of the long dry seasons. Being a non-timber forest producer, Shea also brings significant income for the households.
In Okere, whilst it wasn’t conserved and protected for commercial purposes, the nuts from shea trees were locally processed to produce edible shea butter which was used both for frying and flavouring food. Shea nuts were also barter-traded with other food crops such as beans, sorghum and millet for household consumption.
In fact, 98% of the households in Okere have more than one shea in their farmlands, according to Shea Butter in Okere; Gift from Nature report.
“Cutting down a shea tree was unheard of and abhorred,” said Imat Berici, one of the elders of Okere while speaking to the research team in the same report. “Even when a shea tree was in the middle of your garden, one would rather cut down its leaves or some of its branches to create space for cultivable land rather than cut it down completely”, the report states.
Under attack from humans and climate change
Unsustainable charcoal production is one of the biggest threats to shea. Northern Uganda, which provides a hub for this production, demands charcoal made of shea tree wood. This is attributed to the assertion that charcoal made from shea trees is the “best” because it burns longer and less smoky.
Between 2000 and 2020, Okere lost more than 80% of its shea trees’ cover, where more than 90% of this destruction occurred between 2000 to 2014. This happened despite a local government ordinance in Otuke District against cutting down of the trees.
“This is disastrous to the environment and the ecosystem,” says Okello while speaking to Climate Tracker.
Extreme weather events accompanying climate change emerge as the other main challenge to these trees. Thomas Reuters reports that climate change is impacting farmers in two ways: those frustrated by poor rains are cutting down the trees to sell charcoal in order to feed their families, while rising heat is making shea less productive.
As a result, climate-induced shocks to the shea value chain are resulting in lower-quality and more expensive shea nuts and butter.
Regenerating the shea tree for humans and the climate
“We had to be deliberate in making sure that our community understands the ecological and economic benefits of the shea tree,” Okello told Climate Tracker.
Through awareness building on economic benefits of the shea nut, its role in sustainability, and climate change impacts and adaptation, Okello and his team embarked on protection and regeneration of the shea trees in Okere.
They formed Okere Shea Cooperative Society to support community members to sustainably cultivate shea trees and market shea butter while reaping the climate co-benefits. Okere Shea CO-OP brings together community members to collect and store shea nuts. They later sell them to make a profit. Membership to the cooperative is through bringing at least 50 kilograms of the shea nuts.
“We have a 300 member strong CO-OP involved in the shea and apiary value chain”, Ojok says. “Once people begin reaping fruits from shea, the trees will automatically be protected because you cannot cut down what is bringing more money to you at household level,” he adds.
Their plan is to plant, protect and manage one million shea nut trees in the next ten years through the efforts of children, women, and the elderly.
Evidence on the ground and insights from the people in Okere indicate that there is a general appreciation of the increasing value that shea trees provide which has led to the slowdown in its destruction pattern in the past five years.
The people in Okere are desirous to increase the Shea trees’ coverage through afforestation efforts and rewilding them.
In line with local knowledge, the Okere community collects fresh shea fruits and buries them in the ground for two weeks. When the shoots come out, the soil is removed. The seeds are then nursery bedded to enable them to grow up to a height of about 15 centimetres. The shea seedlings are then transplanted to the garden and continuously watered if rainfall is not sufficient.
90% of the transplanted seedlings successfully grow and flourish.
“Culturally the shea tree belongs to everybody in the community,” says Okello while speaking to Climate Tracker. “We integrated this practice to ensure all community members are participating and their voices are heard.” The communities process and add value to the shea butter and sell to the communities across Uganda.
Reaping monetary and ecosystem benefits
Figures indicate that in just six months, between July and December 2020, communities had made a net profit of about US$ 2000 and by the end of 2021, they had a net profit of about US$7,500 gross profit mainly by selling to people in the capital, Kampala.
The monetary benefits are the incentives for humans, and the goal is to protect the environment and the planet. Both appear to be winning in the Okere development model.
The impacts of climate change on the community have lessened and people are starting to observe an increase in soil productivity in areas practising agroforestry whilst integrating shea trees in crop production. Shea trees provide shade to crops and gardens that are in an agroforestry setting with shea trees are performing better in Okere community
“We are in a much better position than we were three years back,” says Jennifer Ogwal, a shea butter producer and member of Okere shea co-op. “We are earning money as well as benefit in terms of food and a better climate.”
The droughts continue but are not severely damaging to Okere community like in the past because of the increasing cover of shea trees in farms and homesteads.
Globally, people in critical landscapes like Okere can scale up efforts to conserve critical vegetation cover like shea trees, for the global good.
Leaders need to ensure that communities have access to effective climate projections, meteorological and climate data and information, while also involving communities in the efforts, and including traditional knowledge.