Cultivation of medicinal tree crops as a deliberate business venture is a viable foray. It is a specialised area of agriculture and forestry that would yield good returns not only for supply to local herbal medicine manufacturers, but also for export. This is one more area where entrepreneurs can tap into to create new wealth and generate employment.
All the present-day herbal medicine manufacturer needs to do is to shed the old garb of mysticism, seek information, embrace contemporary best practices and adopt attractive packaging. With these done, we too can sell our herbal preparations to the rest of the world.
A good percentage of modern drugs and cosmetics are plant-derived and the World Health Organisation estimates that there are about 21000 plant species with medicinal value and a good percentage of these are believed to be available in Nigeria with our vast biodiversity and bio-resources. This is therefore an area of cache waiting to be unearthed by discerning entrepreneurs, especially because many Nigerians now spend huge sums on imported herbal brands from America, Europe and Asia. Interestingly, some of those formulations are prepared with herbs sourced from Nigeria.
The acceptance and use of plants and roots for the cure and control of ailments has suffered a dwindling fate- from the ancient times when they were the only remedies known to man, to the time when they were treated with suspicion and considered as fetish, to contemporary times when man is revisiting herbal remedies because synthetic preparations sometimes have dangerous side effects that put a question mark on their continued use.
This has created windows of opportunity for herbal medicinal and cosmetic packages to continue to gain acceptance in hitherto highly intolerant quarters. The Shea tree is one of our tree resources that are brimming with potential.
The forest contributes to food security and provides goods and services for man. Forestry development is therefore a wise investment choice. Apart from its economic benefits, there are also numerous health and environmental benefits to reap. Most trees have medicinal applications. A forestry developer also leaves an enduring legacy for his own offspring and for all of mankind. Although the slow growth of the Shea tree makes it an unpopular choice for a plantation crop, the existing market for its product cannot be overlooked.
The Shea tree grows naturally in most parts of West Africa and occurs generously in Nigeria particularly in the North, Middle Belt and part of the South West. It typically starts to bear fruit at around 10 to 15 years old and attains full production when it is between 20 and 30 years after which it can remain productive for up to 200 years, yielding an average of about 15 to 20 kilogrammes of fruit per tree.
As at 2010, the Raw Materials Research and Development Council began a collaborative work with the National Centre for Genetic Research and Biotechnology on a new project for the establishment of Shea tree plantations so that we would no longer rely solely on wild growing Shea trees. This effort will ensure the sustainability of Shea-based enterprises as exploitation of the tree products continues to grow in popularity.
In Africa, Shea butter is used as a cure for most skin and hair conditions. It is especially useful as a moisturizer and is now included in many cosmetic products including lip gloss, skin lotions and hair conditioners. It is also used as cooking oil in some countries. This versatile fat also finds application in candle making and helps to increase the durability of wood used in making certain musical instruments. In the medical field, Shea butter is used as a base for ointments used in treating conditions ranging from arthritis to dermatitis and a host of skin allergies.
The market for all natural Shea butter and products made from Shea butter is undeniable, especially in contemporary times when ‘going natural’ has become the vogue; it is also one of Nigeria’s many natural endowments. However, as with most of our resources, the wealth in the Shea tree cannot be fully exploited if we rely only on naturally occurring trees and archaic processing methods. A solid investment in mechanised extraction techniques and in a sizeable plantation is sure to yield good returns in due time.
Shea butter or Okwoma as it is called in Igbo or Ori in Yoruba, is the fat extracted from the shea tree nut. It is traditionally prepared in Africa by crushing, roasting and grinding the nuts and separating the butter from the resulting paste through a process of kneading and mixing with water to bring the butter oil to the surface. The final product is then removed and left to cool and harden.
Currently, the extraction process remains largely primitive, tedious and ultimately unsustainable. With a view to correcting this, the Raw Materials Research and Development Council, in 2002, launched a project to upgrade the traditional processing method to meet up with international standards. This project also introduced machines to mechanise the local grinding and kneading methods; local investors may obtain the technology and scale it up appropriately. Entrepreneurs may invest either in growing Shea trees; although it has a long gestation period; or in the production of the butter or value addition to it.
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