Backstory: The women cooperatives producing the Argan Oil

Berber women producing argan oilFor centuries, argan oil was crafted by Berber women. In the 1990s the Moroccan royal house promoted its GTZ project (German Agency for Technical Cooperation), supporting the Berber women. This project, among other initiatives, helped to develop organisational structures. As a result, numerous argan oil Cooperatives have been created and worked quite successful for some years.

However, the days of argan oil cooperatives seem to be counted: What started with a noble thought became over time become a race against nature and developed into a pure cost-benefit competition, with the dominating question "How can we produce the highest amount of oil under the cheapest production conditions?". But who is losing this race? The Argan trees? The Berber women? The customer who buys the oil?

In 2003 four cooperatives founded a GIE (groupement d 'intérêt économique = community of interest), to take over the worldwide marketing and sales of the argan oil. But instead of helping the cooperatives to market and sell their argan oil, the GIE began over time to produce argan oil on their own.

By doing so, they bypassed some members who wanted to participate in the trades. The GIE handled all export permits directly and thus, the customers soon turned primarily directly to them. As a consequence, two cooperatives in the region of Essaouira dropped out of the GIE, but have been replaced immediately by four new members.

At the end of the day, the situation turned into an increasing conflict between financially well-equipped companies and destitute farmers who fight for their daily survival. The needs of the producers are much to often ignored. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Berber women became quite suspicious over the years. They longed for continuous, fairly paid work in their small cooperative, which they could fulfill with pride and dignity.

The cooperative community serves a social purpose: the women can exchange family problems while at the same time enjoying the benefits of education and a fair wage. The status of education increased, the women are proud when their children go to school instead of working on the field. Furthermore, the women become more independent because they earn their own money increasing their esteem within the family.

Unfortunately, the reality looks increasingly different and the livelihoods of the Berber women producing the argan oil are threatened by several factors:

  1. Speculators buy up all the seeds, hope for production bottlenecks to benefit from rising prices.
  2. Only companies based in the EU can apply for the so-called "Novel Food Notification 258/97" and import argan oil. This distorts competition and contradicts the principles of the free market.
  3. Small factories that acquire the argan seeds and process them industrially are more interesting for potential buyers, because they can produce at cheaper prices. But the quality of the oil gets left behind. Cooperatives, whose basic idea in argan oil production is a fairly priced, high quality, sustainable product can't match the price and are left behind.
  4. Argan oil mixed with water, getting rancid within six months, is often imported and distributed by solely profit-oriented companies. This diluted argan oil, purchased in Morocco at cheap prices but sold at a high price, is a very lucrative business. Due to strict EU laws the sales of diluted argan oil is prohibited, but of course some don't care and sell it anyway. Others add a few liters of "good, pure" argan oil to their water diluted argan oil, and with those "pure oil" papers the undermine the EU directive.
  5. Native farm animals such as camels and goats feed from the argan tree fruits and leaves - thus also limiting the available product.

The extreme price difference you can experience on the markt when buying argan oil are mainly explained buy point number 3. and 4. 


berber women argan oil

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