The kernel at the heart of progress
In south-western Morocco, groups of women have formed cooperatives to harness the natural wealth of their region, in the form of argan oil. Matteo Fagotto reports on an ancient craft and how their lives have changed
It’s mid-morning and the sun shines high on the stone houses of this small rural town, just 25 kilometres from the frenetic port city of Essaouira, Morocco. Inside a barren, freshly white-painted building sit a dozen women, wearing long dresses and hijab. Every two seconds, each of them picks one of the brownish nuts collected in a nearby basket, cracks it between two stones and takes out its white kernels. The rhythmic, continuous sound is broken only by the occasional bursts of laughter that erupt when one of the women cracks a joke.
“I love to be here and have fun with the other girls. This is the only space where we can be among ourselves,” says 32-year-old Fatima Oumissi, amid the nods of her friends. Soon, the extracted kernels will turn into the most precious product this arid region of south-western Morocco has to offer, an oil which has revolutionised the cosmetics industry.
With its light-golden colour and its intense, nutty flavour, the argan oil has been a staple ingredient of local cuisine since the Middle Ages, either eaten together with flat bread or used to garnish landmark Moroccan dishes such as tajine and couscous. But in the past 15 years, a refined version of this “liquid gold” has conquered the global cosmetics market thanks to its unique moisturising and rejuvenating properties. Rich in vitamin E and fatty acids, cosmetic argan oil is one of the most sought-after and expensive beauty products in the world. Generally sold in small bottles of 100 millilitres, its price in Europe can fetch up to €152 (Dh625) per litre.
With its elongated green leaves and twisted trunk, the argan tree where this oil originates grows naturally only in the 800,000 hectares of the argan forest bordering Tidzi. While its yellow fruits are a delicacy for local goats, for centuries the oil has been extracted from the inside nuts through an exhausting, slowly-mastered craft local women learn since an early age, and then pass on to the next generation. Once collected and sun-dried for a few days, the argan fruits are depulped and their nuts cracked in order to extract the kernels, which are later roasted on firewood and ground with the help of a stonemill. The brownish paste is then kneaded with water, to extract the oil. The procedure is identical for both culinary and cosmetic oil, although the roasting only takes place for the former. It takes 30 kilograms of fruit to obtain one litre of oil. The manual process takes hours and is so tiring that women are able to extract a maximum of two litres per day. “That’s why argan is so much more expensive than olive oil”, says 32-year-old Hadifa El Hantati, quality control manager at Ajddigue, one of the oldest argan oil women cooperatives in Tidzi. “This is an art you master with time.”
Since the early 2000s, when the Moroccan state created a partly-foreign-sustained agency named Projet Arganier to fund cooperatives and equip them with modern extracting machines, the export of such a valuable product has been accompanied by the social upliftment of women extracting it.
The fierce resistance they initially faced from traditional society was gradually overcome through the economic success of the cooperatives, which started hiring managers to market the products and sell them to private companies and global beauty brands. Today there are an estimated 150 cooperatives in Morocco, employing thousands of women. They have turned argan oil into one of the main economic opportunities in a region stricken by poverty and unemployment, where the only alternatives are livestock or migration.
Starting in 1997 from an initiative of 17 local women, Ajddigue currently employs 60 women, but has benefited hundreds more since its creation. Its members, who pay a one-time contribution of 300 Moroccan dirhams (about €27 euros, or Dh111), are remunerated according to the quantity of fruit they collect. Although compensations vary according to the time they dedicate to their work, members earn an average of 1,000 dirhams per month, much more than what they would get by selling the oil locally.
“Before, it was my husband who used to sell it at the local market and get all the money,” says Fatima Aamin, 36, a member of Ajddigue. “Now, I get paid directly.”
“The money we earn helps our families a lot” says 49-year-old Saadia Tighanimine, who has been working at Ajddigue since 2010. Originally from the village of Idmine, this mother of four spends up to 10 hours a day at the cooperative or in the forest collecting fruit during the threemonth-long harvesting season.
Together with the income from her husband, who is a mason, Tighanimine has been able to equip her house with previously-unthinkable luxuries such as electricity and running water. “Working at the cooperative is not like producing oil at home,” she says. “Here, I feel compelled to do more, as I have a responsibility towards the cooperative and my fellow co-workers.”
The extra earnings are used by Ajddigue to pay technical and administrative staff, to organise classes for illiterate members and to maintain buildings and extracting machines. This has enabled the cooperative to increase production to 20 tonnes of oil per year, leaving women with the sole task of collecting the fruit and extracting the kernels, therefore allowing them to have more time with their families.
“I come here half-a-day, after having sent my kids to school,” says Oumissi. “My husband is a fisherman and spends most of the week away, so I have to look after the kids alone.” More importantly, cooperatives have given women a better social status and a renewed confidence in their abilities. “We are much more encouraged to stand up to our men than before,” says Aamin. “Now, after dinner, I often discuss with my husband how to invest the money we earn.”
The strong bonds women have forged at the cooperative go beyond work, as Ajddigue is also a haven where members can spend time together, sharing and confronting their experiences. Women often go together to the nearby beach of Sidi Kaouki in their spare time and help each other financially. Every month, each of them puts 100 dirhams in a common fund, which is then distributed to a single member on a rotation basis. In this way, women are able to sustain extraordinary expenses, such as a marriage or a house renovation, without having to take out expensive bank loans. Thanks to their renewed focus on argan oil production, cooperatives have also been instrumental in preserving the forest, a powerful natural protection against desertification and climate change for the region.
But the popularity of argan oil has also brought unexpected problems, attracting imposters and profiteers. According to Ajddigue director, 45-year-old Zahra Knabo, several local shops and companies trading in argan oil now disguise themselves as cooperatives in order to receive state subsidies, employing just a few women as a form of window-dressing. Others mix argan with sunflower oil in order to increase sales quantities.
“The counterfeiting and the lack of a standard quality for the oil is hurting the reputation of the whole industry” laments Knabo. Moreover, some industrial plants have mechanised all production and are now able to commercialise the oil at more competitive prices. “It is not easy right now. We need more publicity and more clients in order to survive” says Nina Amchine, the 52-year-old cooperative president.
Faced with new challenges, Ajddigue has decided to invest in the quality of its products: its oil is now certified by Fair Trade, Ecocert and by the EU-label PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), awarded to products that are processed and prepared in a specific area using recognised know-how.
At stake is not only the survival of a business that is a perfect mix between tradition and modernity, but all the social conquests women have been able to achieve through it. “In the past year, our orders have diminished significantly, but we still have hope,” says Knabo. “It would be a pity to see cooperatives disappear in five or 10 years time, after all they have done for our women.”
There are about 150 cooperatives in Morocco ... They have turned argan oil into one of the main economic opportunities in a region stricken by poverty and unemployment
‘The counterfeiting and the lack of a standard quality ... is hurting the reputation of the whole industry’
Fatima Aamin earns up to €60 (Dh247) a month since joining Ajddigue, an argan oil cooperative, in 2010. Top, mixing argan paste with water to extract oil, at the cooperative in Tidzi, Morocco.
Hadifa El Hantati, quality control manager at Ajddigue women’s cooperative, teaches Arabic to members, who also maintain strong communal bonds outside of work and support one another.