Cooperatives boost opportunities for Moroccan women
Argan oil is the most valuable product of the argan tree, a hardy, long-lived, drought-tolerant species that grows only in Morocco. Prized for its light, nutty flavour, the honey-coloured oil is used as salad dressing and cooking oil, and is coveted for its medicinal and cosmetic properties.
Blending old and new technologies
The Taitmatine Cooperative is one of about 50 such groups in southwestern Morocco that have been set up since 1996. The champion and catalyst for improving argan oil production techniques and launching many of these cooperatives is Zoubida Charrouf, a chemistry professor at Mohammed V University.
Charrouf is also president of the Ibn Albaytar Association, which promotes medicinal plant species. With a four-year research grant from IDRC (1998–2002), she worked in collaboration with the association to develop and improve argan oil production and business management. Some of the tedious production tasks, such as grinding the nuts and pressing the oil, were mechanized. This not only sped up the operation, but also improved the quality of the oil, doubled its shelf life, and reduced waste. A key task still being done manually is cracking the nuts between two stones. Because the number of kernels in the nut varies, this operation does not lend itself well to mechanization.
From problem to opportunity
Charrouf’s initial interest in the argan tree was largely environmental: how to protect an endangered tree unique to her country, a species long considered a “green curtain” against the desert. “At the time, we were losing more than 600 hectares of argan forest each year. But,” she says, “we also wanted to convert this ecological problem into an economic opportunity.” Before approaching IDRC, says Charrouf, “I knocked at several doors, but no one believed in my project. Even though IDRC didn’t fund all the work, it did support the basic link in the chain,” she explains. “Now argan oil is known around the world. If there hadn’t been that initial work supported by IDRC, I don’t think we would have advanced to the point where we are now.”
Membership in the cooperatives ranges from 35 to 40 women. A dramatic benefit for these members is that they now earn about €6 a day (CA $8.60) – more than 10 times their income a few years ago.
Substantial support for argan oil development continues with a €12 million grant. Half comes from the European Union, half from the Moroccan government.
Today, argan oil is a high-value niche product on the international market. It is certified internationally as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) product, a labeling system set up the European Union. PGI status was granted to Moroccan argan oil in April 2009, making it the first product on the African continent to receive such protection.
Being part of the cooperative freed me from tedious domestic work in people’s homes. Now I’m learning to read and write and I’ve learned how to ensure the quality of the argan kernels. The cooperative has made me more independent. I’ve been able to visit other cooperatives in other provinces. I’ve seen how girls and women like me have been able to shape their own destiny and move ahead to develop their cooperatives.
— 29-year old, single member of the Taitmatine Cooperative, Morocco