Argan Oil Cooperatives in Morocco: the Good, the Bad, and the Unbelievable
When we visited Morocco in October of 2012, one of my main goals was to learn about the well-known women’s argan oil cooperatives in Morocco that exist everywhere in the southwest. I was excited to see how women are given opportunities to succeed and to introduce their traditions to the rest of the world through their Argan Oil. It seemed almost too good to be true that in a developing country, women were forging ahead and providing for their families comfortably and with pride.
We started visiting the "co-ops" and seeing the women sitting in the front rooms, cracking open the pits of the argan fruit between two rocks. Sometimes the women were chatting with each other. But the majority of the time, there was a silence and an awkwardness that made me feel guilty to be there.
At the majority of the "co-ops," there was a lone man walking around, watching everything silently from a corner. He would disappear when we entered, but would always be present somewhere in the distance, watching. At first, I couldn’t understand why the men were here, after all, this is a “women’s co-op”. But I soon realized that the word “co-op” does not necessarily carry the same meaning in Morocco as it does to me in Canada. Aside from the lone man, there was always one woman there to greet visitors. She generally spoke some French, Arabic, and a little English. I started asking these women about their work situation. Did all of the women there own a piece of the business? Was it divided equally? I got varied answers to those questions. It seemed that the women were simply employed by a manager or an owner who paid them hourly or daily to crack open the pits of the fruit. It was interesting too because most of the work was done through machines. The women sitting in the front were there to crack open the pits, and nothing else. It was a show for the tourists.
As the woman greeter would introduce us to the products in the Argan Oil store, the man would come closer and would listen to what was being said. The greeter often seemed very nervous. It felt as though she had a quota to sell and the owner was watching. We felt guilty most times, and ended up buying some overpriced soap or a bottle of diluted “Argan” Oil. I didn’t want the poor greeter to get in trouble with her boss (and it really seemed as though she would!)
There was one "co-op" in particular that answered a lot of questions for me. The owner himself was there to welcome visitors. He explained to us that he was the most successful Argan Oil producer in the area. He alone provided over $10,000/month in Argan Oil to international companies. He did not reveal which companies they were, however. He said employed over 150 local women and paid them a small hourly wage to crack open the pits of the fruit. He had the women on rotation so that if one woman didn’t want to work, he had ten more waiting in the wings. When asked if the women were part-owners of the "co-op", he laughed and explained that they worked for him alone. It was a truly bizarre experience speaking with this man because he was a capitalist and was incredibly proud of how little he paid his workers and how much money he made. It was very disheartening.
During our trip, we visited a LOT of these "co-ops". And we found only one that was true to the word “co-op”. There were no men hanging around. And the women were happy and chatting in a large, beautiful room, separate from the front entryway. At this co-op, the women all owned a share, and one woman took the shift of greeting visitors. This greeter changed every few hours. The facilities were clean and the women were actually owners. At last, we had found ONE true co-op. As it turns out, this was one of the original co-ops of Morocco. Because of that, it was protected by the government. There was no way anyone could come in and take over. It truly belonged to the women of that town.
It’s funny to me because so many companies in Europe, the US and elsewhere are so proud of the fact that they are supporting women’s co-ops in Morocco. They proudly explain on their packaging that their products support these operations that supposedly give women a true opportunity. However, we were only able to find ONE in our search of the Argan-rich southwest of Morocco. Out of the dozens that we visited. I’m sure there are more, and with more time to search, we would have found a few more. But in two weeks, we saw only ONE. How many of these companies have actually gone and visited the "co-op" they “support”? Have they ensured that the women are actually owners? Are the women actually getting opportunities or are they being exploited?
We certainly spent a lot of time with Saadia, seeing how she operates and how she treats women who work for her. We do not have a co-op. We pay our women a generous wage according to Canadian standards. They have a safe and comfortable environment in Essaouira, where they can produce our oil by hand away from tourists. I am so proud of that. It is what separates us from other companies. I encourage other companies to look into the co-ops they support and truly showcase how they operate. Show the world that the company truly does care about Moroccan women. Maybe if more companies did this, the power could go back to Moroccan women. Maybe the co-ops could become owned by the women again.