World Artisan Guild Argan oil is produced by the Al Amal women co-operative. Al Amal is based in Ighrem, a small rural village in Morocco's Tiznit province, approximately four hours south of Marrakech. The population of the village is mostly Berber, which are the indigenous people of North Africa’s Maghreb region. Ighrem is surrounded by Argan forest – a beautiful and quiet - albeit impoverished place.
Before the Al Amal co-operative was established, there was very little economic activity in the village. Women lived humble lives as housekeepers and mothers, with little prospect for education and personal development. Like in most rural areas of Morocco, illiteracy, especially amongst women, was the norm rather than the exception.
Al Amal women co-op members with Mohamed El Karz of Argand'Or
All changed in November 1998, when, with the support of the German Development Agency GIZ, Al Amal was established. The GIZ was one of the early promoters of the Argan women co-operative movement. The goals of establishing co-operatives were to improve the life conditions and social status of the Berber women of the area, while, at the same time, rescuing the endangered Argan forest through the commercialization of Argan oil. The thought was that by opening new markets for the formerly rarely traded Argan oil, the increasing value of the Argan tree would stop the destruction of the Argan forest.
The plan worked. The creation of the Al Amal women co-operative provided local women, who were masters in the centuries old craft of Argan oil production, the opportunity to capitalize on their unique skills. Al Amal started small. In the beginning, the women focused on the production of roasted, culinary Argan oil, traditionally produced with stone mills. Later, with funds provided by the European Union "Project Arganier", the co-operative invested in a mechanical screw press and modern filter equipment. This smart investment enabled the women to produce high quality, cold-pressed Argan oil for cosmetic purposes. While the extraction of the cosmetic Argan oil is now mechanized, all preparatory steps, from harvesting of the Argan fruit to the cracking of the Argan nuts is still done manually.
Be aware of Ghost Co-operatives
The success of Argan producing women co-operatives has created a lot of buzz in the western world. A feel-good story with unlikely heroes: empowered rural Berber tribe women, improving the life of their families and local communities by successfully running businesses in the form of co-operatives for their mutual benefit!
Marketing publications of many Argan oil products suggest that the purchase of these products somehow benefit rural women in Morocco. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth.
According to BEFAIR, the Belgian Development Agency, less than 10% of the Argan oil exported from Morocco is made by women co-operatives*. The vast majority of Argan oil is mass-produced by private industries. Some companies claim that their products are made by women co-operatives, without any proof. Another problem, according to BEFAIR, is the phenomena of “Ghost cooperatives”. These fake co-operatives are private businesses that claim to be owned by female workers. In reality, the companies are controlled by local business man. The female employs are paid very little for their hard work. Luckily, there is a way to find out if a co-operative is the real thing. Most legit women co-operatives are members of the National Association of Argan Co-operatives (ANCA).
To access the list of member co-operatives on the ANCA website, please click here.
Over the years and wisely guided by long time president Madame Fatima Zerouali, the co-operative has grown to a membership of more than 60 women. Working in the co-operative allows females, who previously had little economic prospects, to earn a living wage and to financially contribute to the well-being of their families. At the end of the year, profits from Argan oil production are shared amongst the members of Al Amal. Furthermore, the co-operative established educational programs with the objective to teach their members, old and young, how to read and write. Courses in topics such as Co-operative Management and Quality Control are taught by outside consultants. Al Amal has been a success story. Membership in the co-op significantly increased the social and economic status of the rural women of Ighrem, both, within their families as well as in the whole community
The Argan forest benefited too. Al Amal is deeply involved in the reforestation efforts of the Argan forest. In 2007, co-operative members planted hundreds of new Argan tree saplings, which were provided by the regional government. The women not only planted the saplings, but also “adopted” the young trees to take care of them until they reach maturity and bear fruit.