Posted February 2nd 2011 at 1:06 pm by
in Cooperatives & New Business Models, Stories from the Field

Empowering Low-income Argan Oil Producers in Morocco

Rooftop view of the women in the Riad-Imsouance cooperative breaking apart taffiesh (argan fruit) to get tiznit (argan kernels), which will be pressed to collect argan oil

January 4th, 2011- As I sealed the flat-rate USPS box containing an 8oz. bottle of culinary argan oil, it hit me — The Argan Tree was finally a reality. It had been over two and a half years from when I first traveled to Agadir, Morocco and discovered female argan oil cooperatives and over a year from when I had the idea to start my own.

Since deciding to launch a new cooperative, and more importantly a new cooperative model, life has been hectic. With the help of my best friend, Chris Hudgens, and with the help of Aziz El Madi and other members of Volunteer Morocco, we:

• organized the women,

• provided a loan to the cooperative to finance start-up costs,

• registered all facilities and processes in line with U.S. and Moroccan laws/regulations,

• made multiple visits to the area,

• established complete supply chain including a partner to help us filter and export the oil,

• purchased and designed product packaging,

• launched TheArganTree.com,

• and finally bottled our first batch of oil.

More interesting than our activities to launch The Argan Tree, however, is the motivation behind the initiative. The initial reason for my traveling to Morocco was to help empower low-income farmers through the sales and distribution of low-cost drip irrigation kits. However, as I encountered the female coops in rural areas, my perception of how to enact real poverty alleviation shifted. Rather than creating enterprises catered to the poor, for which it is often difficult to get buy-in due to risk and limited savings, a potentially better alternative is to create enterprises among the poor. It was with this mindset that I began exploring cooperatives.

The Argan Tree focuses on 3 aspects of community development: economic, social, and environmental.

Economic: The members of our cooperative earn 12-times more than they would in other argan oil cooperatives and 36-times what they would earn if selling to the private market.

Social: Women in the Islamic region traditionally do not work. At The Argan Tree, they not only have jobs but they have complete ownership of the cooperative. We are also working with a local university to provide the members with a course on business and managerial skills.

Environmental: We collaborate with Volunteer Morocco on an annual replanting effort of argan trees. In the 20th century, 70% of the argan forests, which are native to and only present in Morocco, had been depleted due to locals over-grazing and chopping down trees for sources of fuel. We therefore also educate the local community on good practices for preserving the argan forests.

We also provide a service to our customers by connecting them directly to producers of argan oil through our website so they can benefit from its health benefits at a low cost and high quality. Culinary argan oil has been shown to decrease cholesterol while cosmetic argan oil fixes damaged hair and repairs skin. Although these benefits are now becoming publicized, Berber tribes have long known about the benefits.

On our website, you can meet the women of the cooperative and see where the money from each purchase goes. Look forward to a future post on our innovative e-commerce model or take a peek at our site: http://theargantree.com

Post by Zahir Dossa, a PhD Candidate in the MIT Dept. of Urban Studies and Planning. He is the co-founder and president of The Argan Tree.

Pictures of culinary and cosmetic argan oil produced by the women that we sell at The Argan Tree.

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