Throughout this journey, we will be documenting people, projects and ideas that we find inspiring – whether they relate to climate change, agriculture, rural transport, cooperative projects, human rights or humanitarian welfare (or anything else that interests us!) – in a series called “spotlight”. Here’s the first: on the argan tree, the women’s cooperatives who extract oil from it, and the tree’s importance in preventing desertification. If you like, you can listen to some audio we recorded in one of the cooperatives (”The merry nutcrackers“) as you 

Towards the south of Morocco, away from the irrigated farmland of the north and its crops of potatoes, sugar cane, cereals, tomatoes, strawberries and field scale vegetables, we entered an area dominated by cereal production and extensive livestock farming (sheep, cattle and goats). Here, we regularly passed farmers carrying milk churns balanced between their legs as they drove their little Peugeot scooters to the local dairy co-operative. Threshing machines chugged away next to big stacks of cereals, which were transported there by tractor, donkey or camel.

Argan trees  Listen to Africa

Still further south, the mixed livestock gave way to goats, who are able to survive on the scrubby shrubs and trees found in this arid region. We spent many hours in the shade of thorny trees, sitting out the heat of the day, listening to larks singing away and watching goats climb the trees to reach their fruits. Having more than a passing interest in most (all!) things agricultural and natural, we set about finding out more about the trees. All the trees and bushes were the same species and, not recognising them, the first thing to find out was what they were. The first person we asked told us they were argan trees, and he went on to explain that oil is extracted from the seed by women, and is used for cooking, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.

The argan tree (Argania spinosa) is a slow growing, spiny tree or shrub (growing up to 7-10 metres) endemic to south-western Morocco where it grows over an area of about 320,000 square miles.

As well as producing oil, the trees themselves provide forage for animals (the climbing goats) and fire wood for local communities. The waste pulp from the extraction process makes a highly palatable animal feed. It’s very much a multi use tree, and it plays an important part in the local economy, providing a much needed income for rural households.

Goats grazing under argan trees. Listen to Africa

Its roots consolidate the soil and its canopy provides shade for other plants and crops, helping to maintain soil fertility and structure, and reducing soil erosion by wind and (infrequent but heavy) rainfall. As such, it’s important in the battle against desertification and, to a certain degree, in mitigating the effects of climate change. The production of argan oil has been taking place for centuries on a small cottage industry scale and, traditionally, women have always done the processing – an extremely labour intensive job. Nowadays, oil production has largely moved from homesteads to women’s cooperatives, and this pooling of resources and cooperative investment is helping to create a thriving industry in the arid south-west of Morocco, making a significant contribution to the economy and living standards in the region. The highly marketable products are sold in upmarket retail outlets around the world.

Traditional method of extracting argan oil

Argan oil is extracted from the kernel of the fruits of the argan tree. This labour intensive process starts with the removal of the outer layer of the ripe fruit to extract the nut, either by hand or by feeding the fruit to goats and removing the undigested nut from the dung. The nuts are then cracked using a small rock as a hammer against a larger rock (anvil) to remove the oil-bearing kernel. The kernels are air dried in clay containers, lightly roasted, left to cool and then ground into a paste using a hand turned mill. This paste is mixed with water and hand squeezed to extract the emulsion. Due to the high water content, the oil doesn’t keep well, so it need to be pressed regularly and have salt added to preserve it. While this method is still used for home consumption, the inconsistency of the end product means that most commercial production is now carried out in cooperatives.

Cooperative method of extracting argan oil

With the pooling of resources and the ability to collectively invest, some of the production stages in cooperatives have been mechanised, allowing a greater output and a more consistent end product. This volume of production has allowed rural women to market their products nationally and globally, command higher prices and significantly increase their income. The following is an indicative example of the production in one of the cooperatives, but levels of mechanisation vary.

The removal of the outer fruit on the whole has been mechanised, so after harvesting, the manual work starts with the cracking of the nut. This is done in large rooms with sometimes dozens of women sitting on cushions, all with their own sacks of nuts in front of them, tapping away with a rock at an incredible speed to extract the kernels.

The room is filled with the sound of the rhythmic tapping and constant chatting, turning this lengthy part of the process from a solitary or small group task into communal and sociable work. At the end of the day each person has their kernels weighed and logged in a ledger. The women are free to work for as long or as little as they want or can, allowing them to fit the work around their other commitments.

After the kernels have been extracted, cooking grade oil is lightly roasted and then ground into a paste (most co-ops have mechanised this step). The paste is then mechanically pressed, meaning there is no need to add water and the purer oil produced is then filtered and bottled. Oil for cosmetic products is not roasted, but is pressed and filtered before being processed into the end products.

In recent decades, there has been a decline in argan trees, due partly to several years of lower than average rainfall and partly to population pressure, especially overgrazing by livestock and firewood collecting. But the population view the argan tree as a valuable resource worth protecting. Replanting programmes have now been introduced and, although initially these weren’t altogether successful (due to inappropriate management), they’re now improving. This, along with the increasing marketing of the oil and cosmetics as a high quality product in a world market, means the future looks promising for argan.