“Before, they worked at home roasting and crushing the nuts and giving the oil to their husbands to sell. Now, by working together, they are able to earn money for themselves, to support their children and their families,” Karima said.
Another threat to the Berber groups’ success is now making itself felt from companies “disguised” as cooperatives looking to cash in on the trend, Knabo and others familiar with the market said.
In the heart of Essaouira’s medina, Khadija, 21, runs a small shop selling bottles of the golden liquid on behalf of five female producer groups, one of many argan oil outlets in the historic port city targeting the tourist trade.
“Unfortunately, a lot of false cooperatives have been set up recently, working with businesses in Casablanca. They lie about their activities to get the official certificate of approval,” she alleged. “We need the state to stop giving certificates to these false cooperatives. There are dozens of them in the region of Essaouira, and they are undercutting our business.”
However, the argan oil boom is in its relative infancy and hopes remain high.
Its positive impact on the environment has also been hailed as a success story, spurring conservation work to reverse the over-exploitation of the endemic tree, now found only in southern Morocco and parts of Algeria.
The cooperatives have carried out reforestation projects backed by the Moroccan government and millions of euros in EU support that also encourage the Berber women to appreciate the importance of the tree for future generations.
UNESCO, which designated 26,000km2 of the argan region a “biosphere reserve” in 1998, has highlighted the tree’s function as a buffer against desertification, as well as its rich yields for local communities.