Saturday, March 22, 2008

MOROCCO: Liquid gold ...

I was clearing through my old editions of the Australian Financial Review when I came across an article hiding in the Travel section of the December 21-27 edition. The article was reproduced from the New York Times and was given the headline of “A holiday that guarantees you strike liquid gold”.

The liquid gold in question was the oil of a nut called argan. The argan tree which produces the nut can be found in a coastal town of Morocco called Essaouira, once a Portuguese fishing village now populated largely by Berbers.

Essaouira apparently was once a huge hippy hang-out, boasting of the patronage of such greats as Cat Stevens and Jimi Hendrix. Today, the town is more famous for its liquid gold, the paste produced from the argan nut which has become a major source of income for local Berber women.

Morocco may not be the most democratic nation on earth, but its King (Muhammad VI) is regarded as having a more enlightened attitude when it comes to women’s rights. The King has started supporting the formation of coops managed by women which produce argun oil that then makes its way into various skin cremes. Apparently the argan oil and paste have a high concentration of Vitamin E, not to mention phytosterols which are good for treating scar tissue and lacklustre skin.

So how is the oil/paste made? Amy Larocca writes in the AFR/NYT story ...

Approaching Essaouira’s sandy-colored ramparts, passing the olive groves and grazing donkeys, you see signs announcing women-run argan cooperatives: Argan Co-Op, Women’s Argan Collective, Miracle Oil. And so on. If you pull over to a cooperative, the Berber women — and it is only women who make argan oil — will often invite you in to watch them work. In most of the cooperatives, the older village women sit in the courtyard and work as the younger bilingual girls walk you around, giving a tutorial about the process. (Pull over too many times, though, and be prepared to hear all about the process again. And again.)

The nuts, which look like a cross between a walnut and an almond, are picked out of the fruit of the squat, gnarled argan trees that dot the yellow hills above Essaouira. Depending on the season, there might be goats up in the branches, munching on the fruit. The nuts destined for salad oil are roasted on an open flame over a large steel drum, like chestnuts, which brings out their distinctive peppery flavor; those that will be used for skin- and hair-care products are left raw.

The women first crack the shells with sharp stones. They then place the kernels between two Flintstone-size slabs of rock, grinding them into a brown paste, which resembles chunky peanut butter. The paste, kneaded by hand to extract the oil, transforms into a solid hunk and is sent to nearby factories, mainly in Agadir, where more oil is extracted by a press. Some is made into soaps, creams and shampoos, but it is the pure oil that is most sought after.

And how are the coops managed? How do they get funding? What kind of support do their receive from local and overseas investors?

... thanks to the substantial efforts of the Moroccan King Mohammed VI (who has been praised for his efforts to promote women’s rights) and the local government, the oil is being exported worldwide, moving from the mud-and-stone co-ops into spas and Sephoras around the world.

Because the extraction of argan oil is a labor-intensive task perfected by the Berber women native to the area (it takes a few days to produce one liter), the government has established a fund for the cooperatives. Outside groups, like the government of Monaco, have gotten involved as backers. Women from the villages nearby are invited to work half days (so they can still tend to their families) in exchange for fair wages and good working conditions. Eventually, the cooperatives should pay for themselves. Unesco has designated the 10,000-square-mile argan-growing region as a biosphere reserve.

Meanwhile, more Western cosmetic companies are starting to distribute this “liquid gold,” as it is often called. Liz Earle, who runs an organic skin-care line in England, uses argan oil that she buys from two of the cooperatives in Essaouira in her Superskin Concentrate.

Yep, globalised capitalism can benefit the otherwise economically vulnerable. And it seems not all Muslim monarchs are despots.

Words © Irfan Yusuf 2008

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