Morocco: Jamila Raissi, Managing Director of an argan oil cooperative

Jamila Raissi, Managing Director of an argan oil cooperative

The unique argan forests in Morocco’s Souss-Massa region are a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, yet they have barely been opened up to visitors to date. Commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH is promoting sustainable tourism in rural areas as a way of creating employment and income opportunities for the local population. To this end, it has also been supporting the Akkain Ouargane women’s cooperative since 2013. Thanks to the use of modern machinery in several production steps and training, the cooperative has increased the quality and quantity of the organic argan oil it produces. It has also doubled its revenue through the sale of its products to tourists and customers abroad. Managing Director Jamila Raissi explains how a total of 350 women and their families are now benefiting from these changes. The project is part of a special initiative designed to stabilise and promote development in North Africa and the Middle East run by the BMZ.

What is so unique about the argan tree and argan oil?

Argan trees only grow in the Souss-Massa region of south-western Morocco. For generations, the women have used the nuts to produce cooking and cosmetic oils, as well as amlou, a spread containing argan oil, almonds and honey. Argan oil is good for your health and your skin, and is part of the cultural heritage of the Berber people.

How did the Akkain Ouargane cooperative come into existence?

In the past, the women from the village processed the nuts by hand at home. Their husbands then attempted to sell the oil on roadsides and in the commercial quarters, or souks as they are known locally. But this did not provide them with a sufficient income, which is why the women decided to set up a cooperative to facilitate the sale of the oil. Getting all the relevant paperwork together was hard work, but we managed it by 2007.

How has the cooperative developed since then?

The group did not manage to set up a suitable financial-management and accounting system immediately. As a qualified accountant, I showed the women how to document the production process, and they asked me to take on the role of managing director. Things then progressed quickly when we received support from GIZ.

How exactly did GIZ support the cooperative?

GIZ financed roasting machines, oil presses, filters and filling devices, which have significantly improved the quantity and quality of our oil production. Taking part in technical and business training has allowed the women and me to professionalise our work. And GIZ has also enabled us to participate in international trade fairs. As a result, our marketing strategy is now far more sophisticated and geared to a greater extent towards sustainable tourism.

What role does the tourism sector play for you?

We benefit from one another: we work with the tourism industry, local hotels and tour operators. Ecotourism also brings many foreign visitors to us. They can gain an insight into our traditional ways of living and working and buy our products. This has stimulated our business and allowed us to increase our revenue by 50 per cent.

What are your hopes for the future?

I hope that we can continue producing argan oil sustainably and responsibly, despite growing demand. To this end, we must ensure that we protect the trees from grazing goats, exploitation and pollution."

All parts of the argan tree have a use: the wood for heating, the pulp for animal feed and the nuts for oil production. Copyright Fotos:Tristan Vostry

In 2014, UNESCO added the argan tree and the traditional argan oil production process to its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

The mature fruit is picked up from the ground in August. The women often sing as they go about the laborious work of harvesting and processing.

Singing makes the job of cracking and peeling the argan nuts that bit easier. But even well practised hands cannot manage more than one kilo per day.

In the past, the women roasted and pressed the nuts by hand. Traditionally produced oil and amlou are still popular among customers today, who prefer the taste.

The women add a little water to the ground nuts and knead the mass into a press cake. What is left is liquid gold: argan oil.

Modern machinery is sometimes used today to roast, press and bottle the oil, but the peeling process is still done by hand. Waste products are used as animal feed and heating fuel.

The women of the cooperative asked Jamila Raissi to run their business activities. She participated in a series of training courses organised by GIZ.

Buchhaltung, Arbeitsabläufe und Vermarktung haben sich seit der Gründung der Kooperative modernisiert und professionalisiert. Dennoch wird auf die Traditionen Wert gelegt.

The women are given flexibility to organise their own working hours around their family commitments and produce a bill at the end of each month for the amount of nuts they have cracked and peeled that month.

The managing director checks the quality of the finished product. To guarantee the organic quality, the cooperative uses health and food certification processes.

The cooperative has two product lines: cooking oil, for which the argan nuts are roasted in advance, and cold-pressed cosmetic oil.

Aboutayeb’s eco lodge is a model of sustainable tourism. The lodge creates a key sales market for the cooperative.

Jamila Raissi delivers an order to the nearby Atlas Kasbah eco lodge. The organic products fit well into the holistic concept of hotel owner Hassan Aboutayeb.

The cooperative has grown from 53 to 72 members since it was set up. Through their work, the women provide up to half of their household income, something of which they are proud.