The Argan tree, Argania spinosa, is the sole species in the genus Argania. Vast tracts of Argan forest have been wiped out across arid north-west Africa one half of the Argan forests – in the last century. This gnarled trees thick peel-covered fruit hides within its bitter tasting pith, a gem, or perhaps two. A hard nut contains a single, or with luck, several oil-rich seeds.
It is this 80 million- year-old species that carries the collective hopes of 18 Moroccan women.
When Zahir Dossa watched this small band of Berber women unload their donkeys of their precious cargo of Argan seeds in Moroccos remote Sous valley, he believed he had hit on what few development practitioners like himself, see. He had witnessed a tangible result. The women went home with enough dirhams to pay for several months of food and supplies.
Dossa saw how The Argan Trees co-operative business structure had allowed Berber women, who often have difficulty finding work due to their strict religious lifestyles and lack of Arabic, a sense of power and control.
Dossa, who is undertaking his PhD at MIT in the United States, heads the co-operative. His studies focus on how producer co-operatives can embrace the internet in order to improve their members lives and build their communities through their online product sales. In the past, sales have been handled by associations which operate outside the co-operative. Associations have taken on the role of marketer of the oil to the global market. It is these associations and retailers which capture the majority of the value – 71 per cent by Dossas reckoning.
Dossa asks why Argan oil producers like the women who form The Argan Tree have traditionally received a miniscule proportion of profits. This slender sliver of profit is no longer hidden. Every sale shows graphically the proportion of funds which the women of the Sous valley receive. And its no longer meager.
The Argan Trees female members have a painstaking job. They tear the bitter flesh away from the nut, crack it open, and claim the precious kernels. A full working day yields one kilogram of the prized kernels from 30 kilograms of the fleshy fruit.
Each woman has their own reasons for joining the co-operative, all related to bettering their lives or basic survival. “I have always wanted to rebuild the stable for my cow to help her produce more milk,” says Mamassa Battah, who has nine children. “I want to have a bit of money on the side to cover health problems,” says Aicha Elmansouri, who has four children. Even though I live in town, one day I’d like to return to my grandparent’s village and support myself with a little money,” says Imane Elmadi, who is not married. “I’d like to help out my husband and to have electricity in my home,” says Yamna Redouane, who has no children. “I would like to have the perfect kitchen and would also like to send my children back to school,” says Fatima Aggzar, who has seven children.