Whilst reading about International Women’s day and researching my trip to Morocco and Agadir, I learned that there are many Women’s Cooperatives producing Argan Oil in the area. The Souss Plain in South West Morocco is the only region in the world where Argan trees grow and just outside Agadir is the very first Argan Oil Cooperative in the world.
Interested, I decided to dig deeper. Via Twitter and Facebook I got in touch with Afafe Daoud, the spokeswoman for the Tighanimine Cooperative, who kindly offered to take me to visit the women.
The women of the Tighanimine Fairtrade Argan Oil Cooperative Source: www.fairtrade.net
What is Argan Oil?
Argan oil is becoming increasingly popular in Europe; rich in vitamins C and E it’s an excellent natural moisturiser for skin and hair and has also been used for culinary purposes in Morocco for generations. But the benefits of this organic oil are more than just skin deep – production is creating a positive impact and empowering the women in this small region of South West Morocco.
Afafe meets me and we drive about 20 minutes out of Agadir arriving at a small village surrounded by hills dotted with Argan Trees. Stopping outside a small building the first thing I hear as we approach is the sound of lively chatter – and then the cracking of Argan nuts as they are pounded between two stones. The women sit on the floor around the edge of the room with large baskets of Argan nuts in various stages of preparation.
How is Argan Oil Made?
After harvesting the fruits from the Argan Trees they are dried and the thick peel removed, the inner flesh is also removed by hammering with a large flat stone. I decided to have a go and sat at a stone block; I removed the outer layer fairly easily – the nut inside was the size and colour of an acorn but incredibly hard.
The next stage involves cracking the nut to release the small soft almond-like kernels. It’s not easy – they’re hard nuts to crack without whacking a thumbnail – my attempts were pathetic but I don’t give up easily and eventually I cracked it!
This part of the process is the most time-consuming and explains why the oil is so expensive. Afafe tells me that it takes one woman six days to produce a kilo of Argan kernels; 2.2 kilos are needed to produce just one litre of oil.
Extracting Argan Oil
The traditional method of pressing involves grinding the kernels to a paste by crushing them between two flat round stones turned by hand – labour-intensive and time-consuming. The Tighanimine Cooperative is fortunate to have a small stainless-steel machine to press the kernels; during this process the temperature never rises about 40c to avoid oxidation and preserve the oil’s properties. Once pressed the oil is decanted for 1-2 weeks and then filtered and bottled. For culinary oil, the kernels are roasted before pressing to give a nutty taste.
How the Tighanimine Cooperative Began
Tighanimine Cooperative started up in 2007 as the women attended literacy classes run by Nadia El Fatmi, now president of the Cooperative, and since elected to the chair of Fairtrade North African Board. The women wanted to do something to improve their family income and so started the Cooperative. They were aware of the benefits of Argan oil – it had been used in the region for thousands of years and, of course, the profusion of Argan trees right on their doorstep helped.
Initially, the Cooperative was not welcomed by the men of the village – they’d traditionally been the sole bread-winners and were unsure about this change in the women’s role. Gradually the Cooperative began to reap the benefits of hard work and the men became more accepting and there are now around 60 women working at the Cooperative. The women are benefitting not only financially but through improved social position in a male-dominated society and of course Nadia’s literacy classes continue.
Fairtrade Argan Oil
Last year the Cooperative won an award from the Moroccan Network for Social and Solidarity Economy and the Pan-African Institute for Development for its work in good governance and economic development. The prize will help the women increase production and market their own brand of Argan Oil called Tounaroz. They plan to sell it in Morocco, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, and the USA.
Gaining Fairtrade status ensures that the women earn a fair price for their endeavours which in turn benefits their families and the entire village. It’s good to know that the women who work so hard to produce the Argan Oil are the people who actually benefit.
Moroccan Network Award
I was a little nervous about meeting the women but needn’t have been – everyone was very welcoming and although I don’t speak any Berber we managed to communicate with the help of Afafe’s English. Thank you Afafe for all your help with my visit. Nadia El Fatmi and the women are an inspiration and I hope this ethical Cooperative continues to grow and prosper.
Afafe Daoud, myself and Nadia El Fatmi
If you’d like to contact the Tighanimine Argan Oil Cooperative you can email them here:
Agadir in southwest Morocco with its sun, sea and surf is perfect for a winter sunshine break but if you’re looking for traditional Moroccan style you won’t find it. The town has a distinct European feel as it was completely rebuilt after a devastating earthquake destroyed it in 1960 tragically killing 15,000 inhabitants.
“God, Country and King”
Agadir’s long, wide sandy beach lined with restaurants, bars and hotels is the main attraction, as are the beaches further north, their rolling white breakers drawing the surf crowd. Although we were happy soaking up some sun, whilst the snow settled back home, it wasn’t long before I got twitchy and felt the need to search out some traditional local colour.
There are some interesting historical towns within striking distance of Agadir and we booked a tour with a local guide to Taroudant. This authentic Berber market town sits in the heart of the Souss Valley with a backdrop of the Anti Atlas mountains and has the best preserved town walls in Morocco. To give you an idea it also goes by the moniker of Little Marrakech.
We’re picked up at our hotel by a driver and our guide, Sala, wearing a blue cotton shesh – a Berber style turban – and start out for Taroudant which is about an hours drive inland from Agadir. As we drive through the fertile Souss Valley see the distant snow-capped peaks of the Atlas mountains, catch sight of a caravan of around 30 dromedaries owned by nomad Berbers and pass lush green orange groves the fruit ripe and ready.
We also spy the infamous Moroccan ‘Flying Goats’ – well not exactly flying – more just climbing trees. The nimble goats clamber around the branches of the Argan trees munching on the foliage. We stop the car to take a closer look and the herders are more than happy for us to take photos – for a few coins of course – but worth every dirham because I’m still smiling about those goats. The goats seemed quite bemused by us too.
We arrive at Taroudant, the apricot castellated ramparts concealing the bustle within, and enter the town through one of the nine ancient gateways.
We have two hours in Taroudant; time to navigate the two small souks, stop off in the main square and soak up some real Moroccan life. Men wearing hooded Djellabas and soft leather slippers slip quickly by while women draped head to foot in indigo blue, the Berber national colour, provide a bright contrast against the sun-bleached buildings.
The Souk Arab is a maze of alleyways selling local handicrafts; silverware, carved limestone, ceramics, saffron, spices, lanterns and leather. I buy a mini tagine trio that I’m not really sure what to do with now I’ve got it home – the haggling with the shopkeeper was lighthearted although he was far more skilled at it than me! Having said that people aren’t pushy and don’t approach us unless we show an interest – some are positively shy and it’s not hugely touristy.
The Marche Berbere, the other souk in town, is the food market packed with local people. It’s lively and colourful; fruit and vegetables fresh and vibrant are beautifully displayed in alluring patterns – Morocco knows how to do patterns. The mouth-watering smell of street food and spices waft from stalls and doorways and the summer-sweet smell of strawberries hit the senses as we pass by wooden carts stacked with pyramids of the ripe red fruit. Cuts of meat hang from butchers windows that open straight onto the street and a large, plucked turkey languishes awaiting its fate. Flat breads are stacked high. All the while the rasping whine of a Ghita, the Moroccan flute, follows us through the narrow alleyways. This small enclave and former Berber stronghold buzzes with life.
Near the Square we came across some women demonstrating how they produce Argan oil. I found this interesting as this was a very different scenario from the Fairtrade Womens Cooperative I visited in Tighanimine the day before – I’ll be writing about those amazing women in a future post.
We finished our visit with a stop in the heart of the town in the main square, Place Assarag, and find a café with a roof terrace. This is a good move because it means we get a great view of the square’s goings-on and can drink in the atmosphere with our mint tea without any hassle from the shouty man with the cobra in a basket. It’s huge entertainment watching him get everyone else though!
If you’re in Agadir and want to see a slice of real Moroccan life then Taroudant is the perfect day out. At only an hours drive away it’s much nearer than the three hours to Marrakech – the people in the souks are a lot less pushy and the atmosphere friendlier. You may even see some flying goats on the way!
We were picked up at 8:30 am returning at 14:00. We had plenty of room in a large 4×4 which we shared with one other couple at a cost of €18 pp. We booked through the hotel with a local tour company.