The Mystique surrounding the Karite fruit in Africa is fascinating. Known as the Tree of Life, its history is one of mystery, awe, and power. Tracing its story over thousands of years, this extraordinary tree is referenced in almost all African historical documents. However, the true mystique of the Karite tree is found in the oil extracted from its fruit seeds; we know it as Shea butter. Its healing and skin- restorative properties are legendary, and it was even used by the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra. One reference mentions caravans bearing clay jars of precious Shea butter for Cleopatra’s cosmetic use, and huge urns filled with the oil were found in her tomb. Europeans rediscovered these trees about 200 years ago and have sought to commercialize its properties. Today, the oil in Shea butter is a highly sought-after ingredient in cosmetics, foods, medicines and applied science.

The Karite tree can be found growing wild on the dry, open savannahs of Central and Western Africa. Maturing after 25 years, a single tree can live and bear fruit for more than 300 years. It cannot be cultivated by humans. It grows only wild, reaching heights of over 60 feet. There is another mystery surrounding the tree: many believe it traces back to the Garden of Eden. As the story is told, a serpent tempted a woman to eat the fruit of the Karite. In doing so, she became inextricably connected to the tree and to the snake. This story has been passed down for generations and because the mystifying connection, only women are permitted to touch the tree, harvest the fruit and produce the Shea butter the is sold throughout the world. And another air of mystery? Large black snakes also love the Karite fruit and hover in the vicinity.

Processing Shea butter is done by hand and is laborious, intensive work. It takes about 20 hours of labor to produce just two pounds of Shea butter, and the women work together as a team. They then sell the oil to make extra money. Is it any wonder that Shea butter is commonly called “Women’s Gold?” And nothing is left to waste. The fruits, butter, leaves, flowers, bark, wood - and even the roots of the Karite tree are used in traditional food, medicines, rituals and furniture. It is truly the Tree of Life!

Women’s Gold has created a much- needed opportunity for the women in Burkina Faso, Africa. By producing Shea butter that’s sold on the international market, these women now can earn an income that them to buy food and medicine and pay for their children’s schooling. They have an enterprise that is entirely their own and are experiencing increased respect from the men in their village. In a cultural context, they have greater input into the decision-making processes which affect their communities. The women of Burkina Faso are carving out their destinies for themselves and for their children.