Sunday, August 31, 2008

The shea tree's economic and environmental values for Ghana

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi


The shea tree has many uses, both economic and environmental to the people of the Northern and Upper regions, and Ghana as a whole.

The shea tree, was scientifically known in the past as 'Butryospermum paradoxum', but is now called 'Vitellaria paradoxa'. The oldest specimen of the shea tree, according to existing literature was first collected by Mungo Park on May 26, 1797.

Many vernacular names are used for the shea tree, and this shows how widely it is spread across parts of Africa – nearly 5,000km from Senegal to Uganda across the African Continent.

The shea tree grows very well on a wide range of soils, including highly degraded, arid, semi-arid and rocky soil.

It usually grows to an average height of about 15 meters and girths of about 175 meters with profuse branches and a thick waxy and deeply fissured bark that makes it fire resistant. The shea tree grows naturally in the wild in the dry Savannah belt of West Africa from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, and onto the foothills of the Ethiopian highlands.

It occurs in 19 countries across the African continent, namely Benin, Ghana, Chad, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Ethiopia, Guinea Bissau, Cote D’Ivoire, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Togo Uganda, Zaire and Guinea. In Ghana (FAO, 1988a), it occurs extensively in the Guinea Savannah and less abundantly in the Sudan Savannah.

The shea tree grows mostly in the wild state. In Ghana, it grows in almost half of the country. It occurs over almost the entire area of Northern Ghana, covering land area of over 77,670 square kilometers in Western Dagomba, Southern Mamprusi, Western Gonja, Lawra, Tumu, Wa and Nanumba with Eastern Gonja having the densest stands. There is sparse shea tree cover found in Brong-Ahafo, Ashanti, and the Eastern and Volta regions in the south of the country.

And according to legend among local people no one owns the shea tree, because it germinates and grows on its own.

The shea tree, when it passes the germination stage in about three to five years becomes fire resistant. It is also not known to have natural enemies such as pests.

Once it survives the first five years of its early stages of germination and growth, it grows slowly and takes about 30 years to reach maturity and from here, it can live for up to three hundred years. In the absence of any hazards, including tree felling, it can bear fruit for two hundred years.

The shea tree has no capacity for vegetative regeneration, and therefore, can only be propagated through its seed.

Economic and cultural importance of the shea tree

The economic importance of the shea tree can not be over emphasized, in the face of the unstable world market price for cocoa and the need to find suitable substitutes for cocoa in the confectionery and cocoa butter industry. This importance became even more significant since the early 1970s.

The shea tree also has a great, untapped capacity for producing copious amounts of sap that can constitute an important source of raw material for the gum and rubber industry.

The mature kernel contains about 61% fat which when extracted is edible, and can serve medicinal as well as industrial purposes.

The trees begin to bear fruits at maturity and start flowering by early November, with picking or gathering lasting for five months from April to August every year. When the shea fruits ripen, they fall under their own weight to the floor and are gathered by hand.

It is estimated that about 9.4 million shea trees are in Ghana, and these can potentially yield one hundred tons of shea nuts worth about 100 million US dollars per year.

Shea butter has been found to have a fat composition similar to cocoa butter, and is used as a substitute for lard or margarine because it makes a highly, pliable dough. Shea butter is also used in making soap and candles, and it is incorporated in margarine formulations.

After the oil is extracted, the residue serves as excellent fuel, and can also be mixed with mud for plastering traditional mud huts.

Wood from the shea tree is suitable for sturdy tools such as, hoe handles for farming, pestles and mortars for food processing, and the carving of talking drums which play important roles in the cultural life of the people.

Researchers have also found out that, the shea tree is the second most important oil crop in Africa after the palm nut tree.

The shea fruit as a source of food

For most people of the northern parts of Ghana, especially women, who have the responsibility to supply the daily food intakes for their families, the shea tree provides a good source of food - the shea fruit, especially so because the ripening of the fruits coincides with the lean season of food production. The pulp around its ripe fruit is sweet and edible.

The shea butter which is extracted from the nuts also constitutes the greatest proportion of oil intake in most homes in the Northern and Upper regions of Ghana.

Medicinal properties of the shea tree

Meanwhile, records available show that, as far back as 1728, shea butter was considered a highly prized medicinal substance in many parts of Africa.

Shea butter is unique because of its high fraction, about 8%, which contains medicinal properties.

It is known to be naturally rich in Vitamins A, E, and F, as well as a number of other vitamins and minerals. Vitamins A and E help to soothe, hydrate, and balance the skin. They also provide skin collagen, which assists with wrinkles and other signs of ageing. Vitamin F contains essential fatty acids, and helps protect and revitalize damaged skin and hair.

Shea butter is an intense moisturizer for dry skin, and is a wonderful product for revitalizing dull or dry skin on the body or scalp. It promotes skin renewal, increases circulation, and accelerates wound healing. It is also beneficial for the treatment of many different conditions.

Shea butter is used for protection against sunburns, and post sun-exposure products. It is very effective in the treatment of ageing or scaly skin, useful in the prevention of chapping, and can also be used against scalp dryness.

In the north of Ghana, it is rubbed on the skin of newly born babies, before they are given warm baths. This gives them smooth supple skins.

Shea butter's stableness in formulations helps the fast release of active ingredients in medicaments. At room temperature, it remains solid, and it is used as a base for certain traditional ointments for the treatment of fractures and broken bones.

The roots and bark also have numerous medicinal uses. They are boiled or ground into powder for the treatment of dysentery, suppurating wounds and other ailments.

The shea tree can be used to fight desertification

The shea tree has environmental significance for the country, particularly in the fight against desertification.

Ghana's total land area of 238,539km2 is at risk of desertification. Desertification claims about 20,000 hectares of Ghana's land annually.

The most severely affected areas are the Northern and Upper regions of the country. Land in these parts of the country is arid, and the climate is hot and dry. The land is covered with sparse vegetation and is mostly grassland, these are conditions, which make land in these regions susceptible to desertification.

In the fight against desertification in these areas, therefore, the shea tree, which has been described as, "cocoa of the north", can be a suitable ally.

Several efforts though have been made scientifically to propagate the shea tree over the years, but no significant result has yet been achieved. But like all scientific efforts, it is only a matter of time before a solution is found.

Some worrying trends

While the economic, environmental and other benefits of the shea tree is undoubtedly clear, there are some worrying developments taking place in the northern part of the country that need to be checked. Some people are destroying shea trees to produce charcoal. And it has been going on for so long.

About six years ago, the Daily Graphic issues of July 16 and August 29, 2001 both carried reports that said the then Upper West Regional Minister and an official of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were both complaining about the cutting of and using shea trees for charcoal burning.

What is even more disturbing is the fact that according to the EPA, 80% of every 100 basketfuls of charcoal produced are from shea tree, the other 20% come from ‘dawadawa’ and the neem trees.

This act, which is still going on, if unchecked, has grave consequences for the shea nut industry and will contribute to environmental degradation, deforestation, and loss of vegetative cover, which would eventually lead to water and soil erosion and decrease in soil fertility. The end result of this would be hunger and poverty in the north and following in stride would be rural-urban migration of vulnerable young men and women.


It is obvious from the evidence deduced so far, that when a method is finally found in propagating the shea tree, the northern part of the country can benefit enormously from that, in terms of afforestation projects for the purposes of slowing down desertification and its dire consequences of drought, erratic rainfall and attendant poverty, hunger and starvation.

The economy of the north and certainly the entire country will receive a major boost of unimaginable proportions.

It is a big challenge, and Ghana as a nation can live up to it. It is worth investing in that area, as the country is not short of scientists who are eager and willing to deploy their expertise in that regard. The time is now, and action can only be in the interest of mother Ghana.

The shea tree plantations will invariably check the speeding rate of desertification in the country, make a positive impact on the diets of the people as well as contribute to their standard of living.

It will also open new frontiers for the country in the world export market for shea butter, as a substitute or ancillary to cocoa's economic value.

Friday, August 29, 2008

What you must know about e-waste in Ghana

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

The dangers that electronics waste, or e-waste poses to Ghana’s environment and human health are real. It is clear and present danger that we ignore to our own peril.

I raised the red flag with a version of this article which was published in the Daily Graphic issue of June 5, 2007, drawing attention to the looming health and environmental dangers of e-waste to Ghana.
Incidentally, it was the very first article to be written on the subject in the Ghanaian media.

After that I wrote another version for the internet and titled it: ‘E-waste is killing Ghanaians slowly.’ And following my article, a US TV station CBS5 sent down award winning journalist Dana King to do a story on e-waste in Ghana. Chris Carroll also came down to Ghana to do a story on the problem for the National Geographic.

And then on Friday April 10, 2008, Mike Anane an environmental and e-waste campaigner held a press conference to alert the nation over the dangers of e-waste that the country is faced with.

I will however, be surprised if anything dramatic is done to address the problem. I am not being pessimistic, I am just stating the fact! This is Ghana. The Environmental Protection Agency, (EPA), does not seem to have a clue about the problem or they are simply incapable of handling it or they just don’t care. And I know because I have talked with them extensively about the problem and got nothing out of them. They simply told me as they do in all cases in this country until something terrible happens that they are still drafting the policy.

Thankfully, as at the time I am rewriting this piece as the introductory article for my blog, so much has happened. The Greenpeace came to Ghana and did a study on the problem. The findings of the study was starling, as soil and water samples that they took from the scrap yard in Agbogbloshie where broken down electronics equipment are dismantled and valuable cables burnt to extract copper wires revealed toxic contents over 100 times more than world allowable standards.

There is presently no direct evidence to show that e-waste related diseases are increasing in Ghana, because no such study has been done, but the scientific evidences made available by the Greenpeace is enough cause for worry. Given the presence of such high levels of toxic chemicals in the environment, it is possible that e-waste could be a large contributing factor to some illnesses in Ghana.

Indeed, following my articles, and pressure from some campaigners and the Greenpeace report, the issue of e-waste is now attracting some concern in Ghana but not so much is being done about it.
The EPA has come out to say they are going to start a campaign on the problem. And Ghana’s Minister of Local Government and Environment, Kwadwo Adjei-Darko, raised the issue during the recent UN Climate Change meeting in Accra, Ghana.

This is reassuring; especially when looked at in the background of growing concerns about e-waste or computer wastes around the world, particularly in developed countries.
This development also is an indication that in Ghana the issue of e-waste is catching on.

What is e-waste?

E-waste is the generic name for electronic or computer wastes. These are discarded electronics devices that come into the waste stream from several sources.

They include gadgets like televisions, personal computers (PCs), telephones, air conditioners, cell phones, and electronic toys.

The list can further be widened to include appliances such as lifts, refrigerators, washing machines, dryers, kitchen equipment or even aeroplanes.

The problems posed by e-waste are becoming more challenging, because the increase in the quantity of e-waste in the system is largely due to the speed of technological advancement and innovation coupled by a high obsolete rate. And because of the very critical role of technology in social and economic development, the issue of e-waste has become a complicated one.

Countries of the world are racing against each other in developing new technology, but technological advancement comes at some costs.

Indeed, no nation can develop without technological know-how and expertise. And some of the costs technology leaves in its trail include e-wastes and associated consequences.

These consequences reverberate in potential environmental as well as health hazards that put the globe at risk.

Among industrial waste campaigners the world over, electronics equipment is one of the largest known sources of heavy metals, toxic materials and organic pollutants in city waste.

Due to the speed at which technology is changing, people change their electronic equipment within short periods.

In the US alone, an estimated 30 million computers are thrown out every year. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), of this number, only 14% are recycled.

Available records show that by the end of 2004, over 314 million computers were obsolete and by the year 2007 the cumulative number of obsolete computers in the US is expected to rise to 500 million.

Due to this rapid advancement, the average life-span of computers has shrunk to less than two years. For most people, the lure of new technology is so strong that, they would rather buy a new computer than upgrade an old one, and those PCs that can not be upgraded add up to the waste pile.

Another estimate suggests that by 2010, 100 million cell phones and 300 million PCs will end up on the dumping site.

Sadly, because accurate statistics are often hard to obtain in Ghana and in most cases figures do not exist, estimates of PCs in Ghana are not readily available.

But there are now emerging evidences that Ghana has become a dumping ground for discarded electronics goods.

Moreover, the rate at which electronic gadgets become obsolete in Ghana is not known, taking into account the fact that a good number of PCs and other electronics gadgets that are imported into the country are already old.

E-waste contains dangerous chemicals

E-waste is known to contain dangerous chemical pollutants that are released into the atmosphere and underground water.

The modes of disposal, which include dumping old gadgets into landfills or burning in smelters, also expose the environment and humans to a cocktail of toxic chemicals and poison.

These chemicals contain substances like lead, mercury and arsenic.

The cathode ray tubes (CRTs) in most computer monitors and television screens have x-ray shields that contain 4 to 8 pounds of lead, mostly embedded in glass.

Flat screen monitors that are mostly used in laptops do not contain high concentrations of lead, but most are illuminated with fluorescent lights that contain some mercury.

A PC’s central processing unit (CPU), the module containing the chip and the hard disk, typically contains toxic heavy metals such as mercury (in switches), lead (in solder on circuit boards), and cadmium (in batteries).

Plastics used to house computer equipment and cover wire cables to prevent flammability often contain polybrominated flame retardants, a class of dangerous chemicals. Studies have shown that ingesting these substances may increase the risk of cancer, liver damage, and immune system dysfunction.

Lead, mercury, cadmium, and polybrominated flame retardants are all persistent, bio-accumulative toxins (PBTs), that can create environmental and health risks when computers are manufactured, incinerated, landfilled or melted during recycling. PBTs, in particular are a dangerous class of chemicals that linger in the environment and accumulate in living tissues.

And because they increase in concentration as they move up the food chain, PBTs can reach dangerous levels in living organisms, even when released in minute quantities. PBTs are harmful to human health and the environment and have been associated with cancer, nerve damage and reproductive disorders.

Looked at individually, the chemicals contained in e-waste are a cocktail of dangerous pollutants that kill both the environment and humans slowly.

Lead, which negative effects were recognized and therefore banned from gasoline in the 1970s causes damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, blood systems, kidney and the reproductive system in humans.

Effects of lead on the endocrine system have been observed, including the serious negative effects it has on children’s brain development. When it accumulates in the environment, it has high acute and chronic effects on plants, animals and micro-organisms.

Cadmium compounds are also toxic with a possible risk of irreversible effects on human health and accumulate in the human body, particularly the kidneys. Cadmium occurs in certain components such as SMD chip resistors, infra-red detectors, and semi-conductor chips.

Mercury on the other hand, can cause damage to various organs including the brain and kidneys as well as the fetus. More especially, the developing fetus is highly susceptible through maternal exposure to mercury.

These are only few of the chemicals used in the manufacture of electronics equipment. Other chemicals are Hexavalent Chromium which is used as a corrosion protection of untreated and galvanized steel plates and as a decorative or hardener for steel housings. Plastics including, PVC are also used. Plastics constitute about 13.8 pounds of an average computer.

The largest volume of plastics, 26% used in electronics is PVC. When PVC is burned, dioxin can be formed because it contains chlorine compounds. Barium, is a soft silvery-white metal that is used in computers in the front panel of a CRT, to protect users from radiation.

Studies have shown that short-term exposure to barium has caused brain swelling, muscle weakness, damage to the liver, heart and spleen.

Considering the health hazards of e-waste, another ubiquitous computer peripheral scrap worth mentioning is toners. The main ingredient of the black toner is a pigment commonly called, carbon black – the general term used to describe the commercial powder form of carbon.

Inhalation is the primary means of exposure, and acute exposure may lead to respiratory tract irritation.

The country’s EPA is poorly resourced and not motivated enough to do its job of monitoring Ghana’s environment.

Besides, Ghana’s health institutions, apart from facing acute shortage of qualified health professionals, lack the equipment required to handle known and possible side effects of e-waste.

At the Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Accra, some people buy these discarded electronics equipment and use some of the parts to fix faulty equipment, but what happens to the other unwanted parts is anyone’s guess. On a heap inside the market, scrap dealers, including children burn these discarded items, under unhygienic and unsafe circumstances to extract the copper wires for sale, further endangering their health and the environment.

In the absence of any clear policy on e-waste in Ghana, the situation in the country becomes grim.

What is even more surprising is that, in spite of the currency of environmental issues in today’s globalized world, which has lead to the formation of political parties with ideological leanings that seek to pursue environmental issues in some countries, in Ghana, politicians hardly raise environmental issues in their campaign for political power.

It is high time we as a country looked seriously at the growing trend in e-waste and take a decisive step to deal with the problem, before we are slowly, but surely submerged in this cocktail of poisonous chemicals which can only mean disaster which is sure to come.

Environmental campaigners believe that a good heap of the e-waste discarded in developed countries land in developing countries including Ghana, further exposing our people to health hazards we are hardly prepared to handle.