The argan tree is one of the oldest species of tree and is only found in south-west Morocco. Its spiny branches and deep root systems make it perfectly suited to withstand long periods of drought. In addition to being an ecologically valuable buffer against desertification, the argan tree also has an important economic value for the local Berber community.
Its leaves and fruit are eaten by goats and camels; its wood is used as fuel; and oil is pressed from the fruit's kernel. This oil is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic acid and vitamin E which explains its medicinal value and its reputation as ‘Moroccan gold’ or ‘the secret of the beauty of Moroccan women'. For culinary purposes, oil is extracted from roasted kernels; for cosmetic purposes unroasted kernels are used.
"Traditionally, the production of argan oil has been a women's business. Mothers passed on the skills of cracking the nuts and of extracting the kernels to their daughters. Women then pressed the kernels with a hand mill. Men were only involved at the end of the process to sell the oil in the souks," explains Zoubida Charrouf, a chemistry professor at the University of Rabat.
The growing interest for argan oil offered sustainable development opportunities for the region. The final goal was – and still is – to preserve the argan forest and to stop the advancing Sahara. But how do you achieve that goal? "By providing people with a decent income that is directly related to forest preservation. Major companies have discovered argan oil and partially industrialised the production. That is why a social alternative was needed to provide an income to those who do the work, i.e. the Berber women.”
In 1996, Charrouf established the first cooperative of argan oil producers and in 1999 the NGO Ibn Al Baytar was created. Since then, the organisation has helped many starting cooperatives and, with the support of international donors and at a later stage also of the Moroccan government, assisted a whole series of projects in the region. Zoubida Charrouf recalls, “It was not easy. To boost the oil quality we brought women together in small processing entities where they could crack the nuts and we could mechanise pressing. However, it was a culturally sensitive issue to have women working away from their homes. The first ones to join the cooperative were widows and divorcees. Gradually but slowly things changed.”
Fifteen years later, results are noteworthy. The number of cooperatives grew quickly and their turnover increased impressively. Several cooperatives united into Economic Interest Groups (EIGs), which handle commercialisation, promotion and exports. For the first time women manage their own income, which has given their status within society a strong boost. Many thousands of women have also learned to read and write. As a consequence more and more mothers are sending their daughters to high school.
Along with others Ibn Al Baytar aimed to introduce a PGI (protected geographical indication) label. This label, a first in Africa, is important in the fight against fraudsters who use cheaper pressing techniques or who mix argan oil with other oils.
In 2010, the Trade for Development Centre (TDC) joined this undertaking. It provided financial support to three cooperatives to strengthen them in various areas: management capacity development, the development of quality assurance systems and the production of banners and folders for promotion on the Moroccan and European market.
Tighanimine is Ibn Al Baytar's flagship project. It is a cooperative that was created by a group of women who learned to read and write together. Spurred on by their teacher, they succeeded in overcoming their husbands’ scepticism and launched their own cooperative. Thanks to their success some have become the main breadwinners in their households. The cooperative obtained both the PGI label and organic certification over a short period. To cap it all, in 2011 it became the first fair trade certified argan oil producer group. In two years' time the cooperative's turnover grew tenfold. The cooperative has also recently been selected as a pilot to introduce an HACCP system for risk assessment and quality assurance.
In 2014, the TDC decided to pursue support to women's cooperatives. Ibn Al Baytar intends to use Tighanimine’s success as leverage for the development of other cooperatives and the region as a whole. Many cooperatives are located in the Messguina forest, which is a 30,000 hectare stretch of the argan forest. Over the past few years Ibn al Baytar and other NGOs have brought together inhabitants and organisations of the area in a broader forest stakeholders' movement. With the support of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s NGO GoodPlanet Foundation a plan was drawn up composed of several ecologic, social and economic projects related to the forest and argan culture. The Moroccan government also decided to support the whole process by planting argan trees.
In the course of the 20th century more than half the argan forest disappeared. Fortunately that trend was reversed, thanks also to the promotion of argan oil and the traditional know-how of women,” concludes Zoubida Charrouf. “But we must also dare to look further and not become too dependent on just one product. The forest is home to many more medicinal plants from which we can develop products. Also, the first ecotourism projects have been launched. We must dare to dream."