Argan oil has long been prized for its remarkable skin and hair benefits in Morocco. However, producing and selling argan oil was traditionally women’s work, and over time they began facing many challenges as most profits went to middlemen rather than the women doing the labor. Thankfully, in recent decades cooperatives have emerged that are helping to empower Moroccan women financially and give them greater autonomy through sustainable argan oil initiatives. In this article, I will explore how argan oil cooperatives are improving lives and communities in Morocco.
A Precious Resource and Traditional Women’s Work
The argan tree is endemic to the southwestern regions of Morocco, growing almost exclusively in the provinces of Essaouira, Taroudant and Tata. Its small, olive-like fruit contains one to three seeds that have a high oil content of around 50-55%. This oil is prized for its nutritious and emollient properties that make it excellent for skin and hair care.
For centuries, Berber women in these areas have practiced the labor-intensive work of processing argan seeds into oil. It involves gathering the fruits from trees, drying them, cracking open the seeds by hand, then grinding and roasting the kernels to extract the oil. This work was traditionally done in social gatherings by women, providing an opportunity for community and intergenerational knowledge sharing.
The argan oil produced through this method has amazing restorative benefits. It is rich in vitamin E and fatty acids that moisturize and protect skin from environmental damage. For hair, argan oil promotes shine, softness and prevents breakage. Its nutrients also support nail and scalp health. Locals have used it medicinally as well to treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
As Morocco modernized and tourism grew around the unique qualities of argan oil, demand rose internationally. However, most profits went to merchants rather than the rural women doing the difficult labor. They faced many disadvantages including limited formal education, inability to own land, and the increased temptation of migrating to cities for easier work. This threatened both the survival of the traditional industry and the livelihoods of rural Berber women.
The Rise of Argan Oil Cooperatives
Thankfully, non-profit organizations and development projects began emerging in the late 1990s and 2000s to address these issues and empower women through cooperatives. Cooperatives allow groups of producers to pool their resources and market collectively. This gives them more control over production and supply chains compared to operating individually.
One pioneering group was the Arganeraie Association, founded in 1998. They helped rural women gain skills in sustainable harvesting, oil production techniques, quality control, and business management. Groups of 15-30 women now constitute cooperatives that produce and sell oil under monitored standards of quality and ethics. Profits are redistributed fairly back to the women rather than outsiders.
Other notable cooperatives include:
- The Targanine Cooperative in Ammdiner valley, founded in 2001 with 300 women members.
- The Amalcoop Cooperative established in 2002 near Taroudant city with 1200 women members across 13 villages.
- The Souss-Massa National Park Program launched eco-tourism and beekeeping initiatives combined with argan oil production starting in 2010.
These cooperatives follow sustainable forestry practices to ensure supply of argan fruit into the future. They harvest fallen fruits only rather than endangering trees. The oil produced is 100% natural with no additives and is certified organic by international standards. This has boosted market appeal.
Cooperatives were a game-changer for reinvigorating the argan oil industry and improving the lives of rural Moroccan women and their families. Their work is celebrated nationally and attracts eco-tourists keen to see this traditional women’s industry. Let’s explore some of the major impacts of cooperatives on empowering women.
Financial Empowerment and Prosperity
One of the biggest changes brought by cooperatives is financial empowerment for Moroccan women. By working together in groups and marketing their produce collectively, they now gain a much fairer share of profits compared to operating individually at the mercy of middlemen.
Cooperatives ensure women get paid promptly for their work and higher prices for higher quality oil. Profits are continually reinvested in the cooperatives through bonuses, loans, training programs and community development projects decided jointly by members.
The steady income has lifted many rural families out of poverty and food insecurity. Women have greater autonomy over household finances which has flow on social and health benefits. Savings are invested in their children’s education, better diets, homes and livestock. Some even start their own small businesses.
For instance, one study found Amalcoop cooperative members earned an average annual income of $1000-1500 USD from argan oil sales. This lifted many above Morocco’s national poverty line of $2/day and reduced their dependence on remittances from migrant family members. Higher incomes also retained youth in villages by providing meaningful livelihood options instead of urban migration.
Decision Making Power and Confidence
Operating successful businesses has equipped Berber women with organizational, financial and marketing skills. Cooperatives routinely elect board members and managers from within their own ranks. This fosters greater participation of women in local decision making beyond just household matters.
Members report increased self-confidence navigating institutions like banks for loans and negotiating with domestic/international buyers. Public speaking at exhibitions and cooperatives’ community projects enhances social skills. Cooperatives are platforms to voice concerns about sustainable development, education or health policies impacting villages.
Research confirms this empowering effect. One survey found 87% of women cooperative members perceived positive changes in their self-esteem, leadership abilities and social status compared to before. Assertiveness training helps overcome cultural norms of modesty to confidently promote their own products. Over time, cooperatives are changing mindsets about women’s potential roles across Moroccan society.
Environmental Stewardship and Climate Resilience
Sustainable practices promoted through cooperatives protect forests and livelihoods for future generations. By harvesting fallen fruit only, cooperatives ensure the regeneration of argan trees which are an endangered endemic species. Reforestation projects replenish barren areas and conserve biodiversity in fragile ecosystems.
This has environmental and climate benefits too. The dense root systems of argan trees stabilize soil against erosion. Their deep roots also tap groundwater stores, reducing surface runoff that leads to flooding during heavier rainfall periods. Conservation efforts nurture a natural resource uniquely adapted to the semi-arid climate of this region.
Tree planting programs are undertaken as communal work where all members contribute saplings, watering and weed control. Youth groups are involved to foster continued stewardship values. Cooperatives also encourage the establishment of woodlots on farmland to support bee colonies vital for argan tree pollination. This ecosystems approach combines food security, climate resilience and nature protection priorities.
Benefits for Community Well-Being
Higher living standards brought by cooperatives strengthens social cohesion in remote villages facing depopulation and lack of opportunity for youth. New amenities are created through member-funded initiatives like community centers, drinking wells, health clinics, libraries and technical training programs especially benefitting girls.
Collective natural resource management encourages self-reliance, village pride and cooperation between generations. Elders pass wisdom to young farmers. Cooperatives mobilize traditional skills and innovations to meet global demand for natural, ethical products while upholding cultural heritage. Their success stories showcase possibilities for development rooted in local identity and sustainable values.
Many cooperatives work with tourism ventures who bring visitors interested not just in buying fine argan oil, but experiencing the rich culture and traditional knowledge of Berber communities. Eco-lodges, trekking guides and artisanal cooperatives provide alternative youth employment and bring outside currency into villages. Community participation in cooperative decision making builds leadership and promotes empowerment at the grassroots levels.
Future Opportunities and Continued Support
As argan oil gains global recognition for its nutritional and cosmetic qualities, the potential for growth in women’s cooperatives remains huge. Value addition through new product lines like cosmetics, food supplements and skin care further boosts rural incomes. Some cooperatives now operate processing machinery and filling equipment to bottle oil and package other goods for international markets.
However, securing agricultural subsidies and finance, investing in efficient facilities, meeting regulatory standards and forming strategic partnerships requires ongoing support. International donors, Moroccan government programs and cooperatives working with NGOs play important continuing roles. Advocacy raises awareness about the social mission of empowering women through fair trade in natural products. Research disseminates best practices for steady quality improvements, output scale up, and culturally-sensitive eco-tourism development.
Morocco has the chance to build on argan oil as a globally recognized social enterprise exemplar of women’s empowerment and environmental sustainability. With careful nurturing, its cooperatives can serve as a replicable model empowering other indigenous communities through adding value to endemic natural resources worldwide. With shared prosperity, communities become more resilient to disruptions like climate risks or economic crises. The future remains bright if next generations carry on the mission of the outstanding pioneers who revived argan oil livelihoods.