Produced from the kernels of the argan tree which is endemic to the otherwise barren lands of south-western Morocco, argan oil is one of the rarest oils in the world and is hailed as the “liquid gold” of Morocco. It is said that, since the 13th century, the Berber people of North Africa have been making argan oil for culinary and cosmetic purposes.
In recent years, world-wide demand for argan oil has been increasing. The beauty industry hails its moisturizing and anti-ageing effects, and the food industry praises it as a delicacy that is good for the heart and prevents cancer. According to Moroccan government data, the country’s exports of argan oil have more than doubled in the past five years, to more than 700 tons, much of which has gone to skin- and hair-care product makers such as L’Oréal and Unilever.
Despite the high demand, the method of making argan oil has changed very little. For centuries, Berber women have been engaged in the arduous and time-consuming tasks of collecting, drying and shelling the plum-size argan nuts, in order to obtain the kernels. The kernels are then crushed and ground in a handmade mill to release the oil. With this traditional method, it usually takes one woman 16 hours, using about 30 kilograms of argan fruits, to produce one litre of oil, which can sell for around USD 400 in beauty boutiques worldwide.
Although most of the argan-producing Berber women in Morocco work together in cooperatives, due to the poorly developed local value chain, profits are small. The women only earn 40 dirhams (approx. USD 4) for a day’s work. According to Louhine Bennana, President of the Moroccan Argan Companies Association, more than 90% of Morocco’s argan oil export is in bulk, leaving little room for the locals to capitalize on the upstream of the value chain. Often, the women’s cooperatives have no direct access to the international market, and a large share of the profit goes to the middlemen and big corporations.
“The international market is dominated by large companies and brands. We are too fragile. We are not present in the international market”, said Louhcine Bennana. “But if we can convert the bulk to finished products, the added value and the enhanced level of the sector can greatly contribute to the domestic economy.”
The market for argan oil is expanding quickly, but consumers’ expectations have grown and many regulations and quality-control requirements are being imposed. If the women could access the information and knowledge about the demands of the international marketplace, they then could make argan oil with consistently higher quality and turn it into finished products, which would enable them to move up the whole value chain and reap more profit for their hard labour.
To this end, since 2013, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) has been working closely with the Morocco’s Ministry of Agriculture and with local stakeholders to improve the market access and value chain of Morocco’s argan oil producers.
Within the framework of the Swiss government-funded project, “Project for the market access of traditional and typical food products” (PAMPAT, according to its French acronym), UNIDO has provided capacity-building training for over 100 argan oil-producing cooperatives - that is almost half of all the existing cooperatives, and more than 30 enterprises, helping them comply with national and international requirements, such as sanitary and hygienic standards.
UNIDO is also assisting them in obtaining special labelling for their products, such as Organic Certification and Geographical Indication. Project experts are also working to develop export consortia, which entails grouping together small-scale cooperatives and companies under different collective marks that produce a range of finished products. All this is helping the small-scale producers access high-end niche markets and become more competitive in the global market, thereby gaining higher revenues from their products.
The PAMPAT project is one of a number of national and international initiatives that, by helping to structure and professionalize women’s cooperatives, have brought about significant improvements in the social, economic and political conditions for Morocco’s women over the last decade.
Referring to the impact of these projects, Zahra Kenabo, president of one of the cooperatives, said, “Before, a woman couldn’t get out of her house. We gave the oil to our husbands who then sold it at the market, and we gained nothing. But now things have completely changed. We are now financially independent, and often earn more than our husbands. We go to market, buy things, and negotiate with men. Some of us were in Spain, Italy, France, Germany and China, to attend different events and introduce our products.”
Along with increased financial status, women’s self-confidence has also boosted. Many now want to learn how to read and write. Almost half of Morocco’s women are illiterate, and the illiteracy rate among rural women is even higher. “We not only can send our children, including girls, to schools, but we ourselves now can take literacy classes in the cooperatives, and follow our children’s schooling,” said Kenabo. The political status of the rural women has also increased. Women are now more involved in local political affairs. According to Kenabo, there are now female members in the administrative council of her town, something that is unprecedented. The women have also become more environmentally aware as they realize how their newfound independence is dependent on the argan tree. As argan trees are vulnerable to degradation, drought and other uncontrollable natural factors, women in these cooperatives have established “tree nurseries” to preserve seeds and nurture argan tree seedlings, the indigenous plantation that their independence is reliant on.
By ZHONG Xingfei
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