The Souss-Massa-Drâa region in southern Morocco is facing many challenges. In addition to the threat of the advancing Sahara, the traditional Berber communities are also persistently poor. Since a few years the Trade for Development Centre is very active in the region, with on one hand financial assistance to the local NGO Ibn Al Baytar, and on the other hand marketing support in projects of Enabel, the Belgian development agency. A sustainable future for the region inevitably depends on the development of local assets such as argan oil, dates and saffron.
The argan tree is one of the oldest tree species around. It 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 ecologically valuable as a 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 its fruit’s kernel. That 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. Next, women 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. She understood that 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 advance of the 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, the Berber women.”
Ibn Al Baytar
In 1996 Charrouf established the first cooperative of argan oil producers and in 1999 the NGO Ibn Al Baytar was created. Since, the organisation has helped many starting cooperatives and, with the support of international donors and later 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. But, it was a culturally sensitive issue to have women work 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 strongly boosted their status within society. Also many thousands of women learned to read and write. As a consequence more and more mothers send 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.
Organic and fair trade
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 the scepticism of their husbands and started their own cooperative. Thanks to their success some of them have become the main wage earners in their households. And in a short while the cooperative obtained both the PGI label and organic certification. 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 went tenfold. Recently, the cooperative was also selected as a pilot to introduce a HACCP system for risk assessment and quality assurance
In 2014 the TDC decided to further pursue support to the women’s cooperatives. Ibn Al Baytar intends to use the success of Tighanimine 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 the NGO GoodPlanet Foundation of Yann Arthus-Bertrand a plan was drawn up composed of several ecologic and social and economic projects that are related to the forest and the argan culture. Also the Moroccan government decided to support the whole process with planting argan trees.
“In the course of the 20th century more than half the argan forest disappeared. That trend fortunately 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.“
The Belgian development agency BTC is also operating in this same Souss-Massa-Drâa region, among others in a long-running saffron and dates project. It is part of the bilateral cooperation’s commitment in Morocco’s green – ‘Maroc Vert’ – plan which aims at the sustainable economic development of the region, and especially of the most vulnerable producers.
The project consists of three pillars: promoting sustainable agricultural techniques, for instance in water management; strengthening the position of the producers by establishing cooperative and EIGs; and coaching these in commercialising their products. “Because the last item is essential for the success of the project, the TDC was involved from the design phase onwards, conducting analyses and providing advice on the best possible intervention strategy,” explains Josiane Droeghag, who is the Marketing and business management Officer of the TDC since 2009. “What do potential clients on the national and international market want and to what extent can young cooperatives and EIGs from the region meet those demands?” At the end of 2013 the TDC advocated the recruitment of Claire de Foucaud, a marketeer and fair trade specialist. Claire works locally with the local partner, the Office Régional de Mise en Valeur Agricole de Ouarzazate (ORMVAO) to find answers to these questions.
The red gold
In a few remote valleys around the city of Taliouine every year some 3,000 farmers plant their fields with saffron crocuses. The harvest is painstaking and labour-intensive work that is left to women. And this is even before the most delicate work is done as the valuable stigmas, or threads, are plucked and dried. Approximately 150,000 flowers are needed to produce 1 kilogram of saffron.
You will not notice much of the glamour of this ‘red gold’ in southern Morocco. Most producers sell their saffron in an informal way at the local souks, where they are not paid much, even though they consider it a boon that they are paid in cash, since their families often badly and urgently need the money. It is not clear what the major companies from Casablanca or Marrakesh further up the value chain do with saffron, but quality is definitely not their first priority.
“We have to start from scratch with regards to market information,” says Claire de Foucaud. “In a first study that we are currently conducting we compare the quality of Moroccan saffron with Iranian saffron – Iran represents 90% of global production – and saffron from a few other countries. Moroccans claim quality, but there is no scientific backing for such a claim. The purpose of a second study is to map the demand on the national and international market. Buyers do not come from the culinary industry only. Increasingly they have pharmaceutical and cosmetics interests.”
Maison du Safran
On the basis of both studies the cooperatives and EIGs will be assisted in drawing up a marketing plan. While waiting for the results, Claire de Foucaud and her Moroccan colleagues do not sit idle.
“As part of the move to have producers get organised better, we actively look for direct contacts with potential customers. For instance, a year ago we linked the Maison du Safran in Taliouine, a recent EIG that brings together 24 cooperatives and that should become a logistics and commercial platform for the region, with the Belgian pharmaceutical lab Pharco, which sells food supplements made from Iranian saffron. Pharco is also interested in finding other suppliers of saffron, a compound of which (safranal) is shown to have antidepressant properties.”
Since the production of saffron is mainly women’s work, the comparison with argan oil is self-evident. Again, widows with a piece of land are the first ones to dare set the step to a cooperative. “We hope that they too can become role models and convince other women to be better remunerated for their work,” concludes Claire de Foucaud
Another tree that is omnipresent in the oases of southern Morocco is the date palm. The scale on which dates are produced cannot be compared to saffron. For centuries hundreds of thousands of farmer families have cultivated up to some 450 varieties of dates. But there are several striking similarities with saffron. Both value chains are highly informal: Two-thirds are sold at the local souks because the farmers are in urgent need of cash.
A significant share is used as fodder. Hardly any attention is paid to quality and most dates are presented in rather unhygienic wooden crates. In short, even high-quality varieties are poorly marketed. Consequently, even Morocco’s domestic market is invaded mainly by Tunisians who have focused on one particular date variety, the deglet nour, which they package in nice boxes. At the airport tourists on their way home are most likely to buy a box of Tunisian dates as a souvenir of their holidays in Morocco.
“That is why we are conducting these date market studies,” adds Claire de Foucaud. “We are looking into how we can position twelve local varieties on the Moroccan market. A second study looks into the advantages and disadvantages of various packaging. At the same time we look at how the structure of emerging cooperatives and EIGs needs to change for them to function better. One of the reasons why they have such a hard time taking off is that they hardly have any cash to buy the harvest of their membership. There is also a cultural bias against lending money from a bank for for-profit projects. One idea to break through this vicious circle is to look for direct outlets in Morocco’s major cities in the north. Dates are mainly consumed on the occasion of major religious celebrations. So, to be a player on the market, you need storage facilities.”
And, it so happens that the region has that asset too. Over the past years, Millennium Challenge Account, an American project, has invested significantly in Added-value units, a series of small and larger storage rooms and cold-storage warehouses to process and store local agricultural produce. “In fact, they follow another approach than us: infrastructure is set up before structures and people are ready for them,” Claire de Foucaud concedes. “And there lies exactly one of the major challenges for the cooperatives and EIGs and for local authorities and the whole region: finding solutions to manage these warehouses well and making sure they do not become so-called white elephants.”
“This Enabel project is formulated for the 2013–2019 period. A time frame that will be needed to support the Moroccan cooperatives and EIGs in finding markets for their dates and saffron and in managing themselves properly,” concludes Josiane Droeghag. “At the same time we want to pay continued attention to the position of women in this process. Unlike the saffron culture, women are hardly involved in date harvesting. But they are increasingly employed by cooperatives and at the newly-started Added-value units to sort the dates. Currently, their wages are still low and they do not have a voice in the cooperatives. It is something we will keep hammering on.“