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Zoubida Charrouf

Zoubida Charrouf

Professor, Science Faculty of Mohamed V. University

Solving Pieces of the Argan Puzzle: Researcher Profile, Zoubida Charrouf

"I didn’t know that I bothered people ... well, I knew that I did, but I didn’t know quite how much." Zoubida Charrouf, Professor in the Science Faculty of Mohamed V. University, in Rabat, Morocco is quietly trying to explain some of the hurdles she faces. "People reproach me three things. They reproach me for having helped women get out of the house. They reproach me for having improved the extraction of argan oil. And they reproach me for being interested in a tree that belongs to ordinary people, not to academics."

Those three elements – women’s emancipation, the products of the argan tree, and the conservation of an indigenous species – are inextricably linked in Dr Charrouf’s work. Without doubt, she is the argan’s greatest champion. Unique to the poor, arid south-west of Morocco, the thorny argan is a precious resource. Every part of the tree is useable: the wood is used for fuel, the leaves and fruit provide forage for goats, and the oil extracted from the almonds is used in cooking and traditional medicine. More important perhaps, it is the region’s last bulwark against the advance of the desert.
 
The argan is all the more precious for the women of the villages of Tamanar and Tidzi where Dr Charrouf has brought to bear more than 15 years of research to establish the country’s first-ever argan oil processing cooperatives. They are all the more remarkable because they are run entirely by local women.
 
Researching the argan’s undiscovered properties
 
Dr Charrouf’s interest in the argan was piqued on her return from studies in France," to be a chemical engineer – I’ve always been fascinated by chemistry." But when she returned home to Morocco, she found that the only work available was not research, but "routine tasks." She therefore embarked on a PhD program, to be followed by a state PhD which would enable her to teach. "I was almost obliged to accept a subject," she says, "because there was only one professor at the university. It was in organic chemistry – pure, hard synthesis – and I didn’t like it at all. So when I had a chance, I chose to start over from scratch and do something I like."
 
What she liked were plants. "For me, plants are something with which one dialogues. They’re useful." Why the argan? "Because it’s typically Moroccan. And also because it’s threatened by extinction." Although the argan is Morocco’s second most common tree species, more than third of the forest has disappeared in the past century.
 
There was also a century-old puzzle to solve. "Argan oil had been studied by many researchers before me," she says. "What attracted me most – I guess I’m always looking for challenges – was that, at the end of the 19th century, a French author who studied the argan stone claimed that it contained an active principle. What intrigued me was that, from that time until I started my research, no one had sought to discover what that principle was. Whenever someone works on the argan, they focus only on the oil. The oil may be the argan’s main product, but there’s much more."
 
The "much more" she discovered were new molecular substances, unique to the argan. In Québec City this past August, she described some of those substances and their properties – as antimicrobial agent, as antioxydant, and more – to fellow researchers attending the fifth annual colloquium on natural products from plants, organized by the Laboratoire d’analyse et de séparation des essences végétales of the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
 
Finding ways to help the community
 
Research is fine and well, but when it’s finished, you come back to the reality of the country, says Dr Charrouf. To commercialize a product takes at least 10 to 20 years, even in developed countries. "In the meantime, do you just sit back and wait?" she asks. Dr Charrouf felt the need, first to do field work, but also to give something back to the communities she had consulted in the course of her research. "There’s a debt to be paid," she states, "there has to be a return to the disenfranchised of these regions who taught us about the argan’s benefits."
 
"That’s when I told myself that it made no sense that, at the end of the 20th century, this oil that has so many virtues – nutritional, cosmetic, therapeutic – can be as debased as it was. It’s not right that it’s still sold on the side of the road, in recycled, chipped bottles. It’s not right either that it’s still produced by grinding the nuts between rocks."
 
With IDRC assistance, she set out to protect the argan forest by improving the processing of argan oil and, in so doing, improve the lives of rural Moroccan women "usually condemned to domestic tasks and illiteracy." While the technology for pressing oil exists, the argan seed poses unique problems – it’s 16 times harder than a hazelnut, for instance, has an unusual shape, and contains up to three kernels. Nevertheless, she found that it was possible "to work with the women, to give them employment and improve the oil using machines that already exist." One of those machines – the roaster – was built by her husband, adapting plans from another Centre-supported project in Burkina Faso.
 
The goal, explains Charrouf, was not to simply help commercialize a product and confirm its medicinal and cosmetic uses, but to help the forest users gain greater benefit from the trees. She is convinced that "that way, they’ll be motivated to protect it and replant it."
 
Building a booming business
 
The argan oil’s success took even her by surprise. "We had no money for publicity," she says, "not a cent for a pamphlet or to write an article." Nevertheless, the media came in droves. So much so that today "in Europe, there’s almost an article every month."
 
Argan oil now figures on the menu of some of Europe’s and New York’s best restaurants. Much of it comes from industrial installations, she says, but still "it’s unbelievable that a cooperative, in one year, had $100,000 worth of business." The cooperatives’ oil meets international health standards and is certified organic. The cooperative members’ outstanding work was recognized this past October when the Amal Cooperative of Tamanar was awarded the International Slow Food Award for Biodiversity 2001.
 
Changing women’s lives
 
If the argan and its potential fascinate Dr Charrouf, she is also driven by the desire to improve women’s lives. "You can already feel it," she says, "these women are not the same as before." If you ask them what they like most about the cooperative, the answer is unambiguous and unanimous: 'We have gotten out of of the house.' "Together they share their problems, their laughter, she adds. And because they are together, the project can offer training in literacy, marketing, quality control, and other subjects."
 
While IDRC’s involvement in the argan cooperatives has now ended, Dr Charrouf’s work is just beginning. "We’ve only done 10 percent of what should be done in the argan forest," she says. The oil was a short-term project that we could carry out right away. But there are other products to be developed. "Extraordinary things can be done with the extraction residues," she says, and with the leaves, wood pulp, wood – all can be exploited industrially. "I’m staying with it so that as many benefits as possible remain in Morocco," she adds.
 
Michelle Hibler is Chief, Writing and Translation, in IDRC’s Communications Division.


For more information: Prof. Zoubida Charrouf, Département de chimie, Faculté des sciences, Université Mohammed V-Agdal, Avenue Ibn Batouta, BP 1014, Rabat, Morocco; Phone: (+212.37) 68 28 48; Fax: (+212.37) 71.32.79; Email: zcharrouf@menara.ma; Web site: www.targanine.com

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