In less than two decades, Moroccan argan oil has become one of the most wanted beauty products for hair, skin, and nails globally. When it is pressed, the argan tree's fruit produces a luxurious oil that is rich in fatty acids, omega-6, and vitamin E. What's more, Morocco is the only location in the world where the oil, or Moroccan "gold" as it's known, can be produced.
In 2015, Morocco produced about 4,000 tonnes of argan oil, about a third of which was exported, mostly by large global beauty brands including L'Oréal and Aveda. The Body Shop works with the Targanine network of co-ops from where it sources organic argan oil for body butter, face creams, and bath products.
Women's argan co-ops have been turning the oil into a thriving business that's changing lives. It's not only bringing money and access to international markets, but it's also challenging traditional views about the role of women in Moroccan society—with 93 percent of its population considered religious, Islam is the majority and constitutionally established state religion.
"Morocco is a country rich in culture and tradition. It has an exotic appeal to travelers from all over the world. Yet, what one doesn't see on a holiday in Morocco is the real struggle that people have in daily life for basic things such as education, food, and health care," says Ahmed Jeriouda, who works with the Marjana Cooperative to import argan oil into the United States for his Moroccan Elixir products.
"The Marjana Cooperative is an inspirational place to visit. The women have created a community for themselves where they are are all owners of the co-op, and what they put in is what they get out of it. Beyond the financial gains and the downstream effects of that, it's a true community of women who engage."
The commercialization of the oil production that has resulted in the creation of co-ops is down to the fact that all parts of the argan tree can be used, and is endemic to only the calcareous semidesert Sous valley of southwestern Morocco. Also, each hectare planted with argan trees can generate about $400 per year, a significant sum for remote villages in the Essaouira and Agadir regions. Another positive is that the co-ops are being used as a base to educate and empower women.
Jeriouda explains, "In the beginning, men did not want their women to go out to work, so we had to really encourage both sides, give the women confidence to deal with budgets and sale prices, and to teach them to negotiate with buyers."
The popularity and also lucrative nature of Moroccan argan oil is so strong that the government has decided to get involved. It is making an effort to increase the size of the argan forests, which have already been declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and triple national production of argan oil by the year 2020.
"When I was in university in Rabat, Morocco, I was active in organizations that were supporting women's empowerment and rights," says Jeriouda. "I learned then, and have come to believe now, that the best way we can support women is to give them the ability to have financial independence. From there they will have the self-esteem and creativity to care for themselves, their families, and their communities."
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