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.
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.
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 which they plan to sell 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.
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.