The Crucial Role of Conservation and Increased Biodiversity in Africa’s Shea Zone
A woman processing shea butter nut. Yields from shea trees likely improve as shrub and tree biodiversity also increases in the parkland habitat areas of West Africa
(Photo : Wikimedia Commons)

Yields from shea trees likely improve as shrub and tree biodiversity also increases in the parkland habitat areas of West Africa. This is the finding of a recent study conducted by researchers from Trinity College Dublin. Their study results provided important insights regarding shea crop management. Shea trees provide butter, which has many uses and benefits and is usually sold and harvested by rural women. The income they derive from shea cultivation finances their children's education.

Shea trees thrive in savanna drylands, parklands, and forests. They live in these ecosystems, which comprise roughly one million square kilometers located in between northwest Uganda and west Senegal. It is an essential agro-forestry crop that fruits almost before the close of the dry season. Processing its nuts produces nutritious butter, which sustains around 80 million inhabitants and is a source of income both locally and worldwide.

The study can be accessed at the Journal of Applied Ecology. It showed that low shrub and tree diversity limits fruiting due to limited pollination by bees. In sites with more diversity, more honey bees are visiting more flowers, which in turn also increases pollination.

The new research recommends the retention of trees and shrubs when land cultivation is planned and conducted. Various bee pollinators must also be conserved. The study authors collaborated with NGOs, academicians, and local farmers in the Burkina Faso area to help realize this goal.

Senior author and Trinity College botany professor Jane Stout stated that studies like theirs are critical to show the crucial role of biodiversity. She said that more biodiversity means more pollinators, which increases crop productivity and promotes human wellbeing and livelihood.

Lead researcher Aoife Delaney shares that shea's role in providing fats and nutrients contributes to achieving food security. Conserving biodiversity, including plant communities and pollinators, also improves yields of fruits, other crops, and various species that maintain the fertility of the soil.

Naturama and BirdLife International are trying to change shea management by promoting an approach that is led by farmers with methods that are cheap and simple. These methods include natural regeneration, using native shrubs & trees, using local compost and mulch instead of agrochemicals, and bee culture for food, income, and pollination.

The team created parkland management guidelines endorsed by the organization Global Shea Alliance. This has the goal of increasing sustainability in the value chain of shea processing for industries involving cosmetics and food. The team's activities include education and awareness campaigns on the importance of pollinators, as well as capacity building and training in the region's schools.

Project manager Elaine Marshall says that they believe in a landscape-based approach that protects ecosystem components and minimizes societal vulnerability. Their work shows that the restoration of the ecosystem provides more resilient and healthier natural resources, better pollination services, and improved climate change adaptation. She believes that nature restoration must be a fundamental component of aid and development strategies.

Juliet Vickery of the Centre for Conservation Science of RSPB says that retaining trees & shrubs also helps prevent desertification and provides habitats for migratory birds from Europe that passes by the "shea zone" as they go down to the sub-Saharan region of Africa.