East or West: Which (shea) butter is better?

by Jessica Rubino
Nov 15, 2010

Sure, you've probably tried West African shea butter in skin and hair care. But what do you know about the rare East African form? This ingredient, which is the foundation of BeadforLife's new Shea Initiative, could be the next big thing in beauty—and you can feel good about using it.


Either one is just fine by me when the butter is making the world better—and various beauty companies are doing just that with their shea-based lips balms, lotions, soaps, and conditioners, which help support African women collecting the shea nuts. I’ve tried many great products using the West African ingredient. But what’s the deal with East African butter? Could it be … better? I had the opportunity to meet the founder of Boulder, Colo.-based BeadforLife and melted for a unique form of the ingredient—found only in East Africa. “This is an ingredient that is found in cosmetics but has not yet come to the international cosmetic industry,” says Founder Torkin Wakefield.


BeadforLife has helped African women generate income through its paper bead program since 2004 and just debuted its latest do good feel good venture, the Shea Initiative, with the launch of consumer products branded to BeadforLife: peppermint lip balm and soap with lavender and lemongrass. On the supply side, Wakefield has ambitious goals for the initiative's 100 percent pure shea butter, which also is certified organic. “We’re trying to launch a whole new industry,” she says. “The ingredient has the potential to reach tens of thousands of people who could pick up the shea nuts, dry them, process them, crack them open and sell them to us, then we can bring them to the international market.”  The Shea Initiative currently has the capacity to press 20 tons of butter a year, but Wakefield hopes to increase supply to 50 tons per year.  “My big dream is that there are hundreds of companies conglomerating and using the ingredient.” One problem: price. This butter, which is more expensive ingredient, is still somewhat rare in the beauty industry. 


A bit about the feel good

What makes this butter unique? It comes from an East African shea sub species, vitellaria nilotica, which has higher olien oil content than West African shea butter. The result: A  creamier butter, with a lower melting point that soaks right into the skin. Like other shea butters, it’s extremely rich in vitamins A and E. When I compared the two types side by side, I noticed the firm, waxy, texture of West’s varied greatly from the softer, creamier texture of East’s. That’s why, according to Wakefield, this butter is superior in quality. 


As for the do good …

After meeting with Wakefield I truly believe it: one person can make a difference.  She started her work in Uganda more than five years ago and since then has reached more than 6,000 people. Last year’s global BeadforLife sales exceeded 3 million and the Ugandan women Wakefield works with have increased their incomes 700 percent. “About two years ago the board of directors decided BeadforLife was in the position to reach out to more impoverished women in Northern Uganda,” she says.  Now, through the shea initiative, it has, helping provide a steady income for many more women  forced out of their homes because of civil war.


So which butter is better? I am impressed by the Shea Initiative's product and the mission, and I am looking forward to seeing more of this high-quality ingredient. In the end, when you do find a company making a difference, you'll know you struck gold.

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