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

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Mat­teo Fagotto is a free­lance jour­nal­ist fo­cus­ing on world­wide so­cial and hu­man rights is­sues.

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’

Matilde Gat­toni

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.

Matilde Gat­toni

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.