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ESSAOUIRA, Morocco: Argan oil from Morocco is highly prized by the cosmetics industry, but is now mostly produced by older workers, raising questions about how long the artisanal practice lasts.
A dozen women, seated on the floor of a workshop inland from Essaouira, a port city on Morocco’s Atlantic coast, are busy deftly shelling argan nuts, crushing them and extract the oil.
It is an age-old and labor-intensive profession, but increasingly shunned by young people in the North African kingdom.
The women, mostly over the age of 60, manually pulp the small yellow fruits at the Marjana cooperative, while others use hammers to crush the sturdy shells and remove the nuts.
The fruits are then sorted, roasted, crushed and pressed for their oil, used in cooking but also long renowned for its moisturizing and anti-aging properties for skin and hair.
“It’s hard work that requires experience and above all patience,” said Samira Chari, who, at 42, is Marjana’s youngest artisanal worker.
The founder of the cooperative, Amel El Hantatti, explains that the physical nature of the work is one of the reasons why “young people no longer get into this profession”, despite the lack of local jobs.
The otherwise arid landscape of the region is home to vast orchards of argan trees. Tourists who stop to see the production process and buy Argan products are warmly welcomed by Marjana’s all-female staff.
The argan tree is so important to the region between the cities of Essaouira and Agadir that in 1998 UNESCO declared the region a biosphere reserve and later added the cultivation of the tree to its list of intangible cultural heritage.
Argan oil is the main source of income in this part of southern Morocco, where few other crops survive the low rainfall and scorching summer heat.
It is also widely used in Moroccan cuisine and has been certified Appellation d’Origine since 2010.
Hantatti founded the cooperative in 2005 and says it now employs 80 women, some working in production and others in sales.
But today, she says, “I’m really afraid that the artisanal production of argan oil will disappear”.
The young workers of the cooperative prefer to work in the gift shop, selling argan soap, shampoo and moisturizer.
One of them, Assia Chaker, 25, says: “I tried to work for a few days with the craftswomen but I couldn’t continue, it’s hard and very tiring.
“I like being in contact with people and practicing other languages with the tourists who come to the shop every day, instead of spending all day crushing and pulping argan nuts.
“Anyway, one day the work will be done by machines,” she added.
But Hantatti said the process is difficult to mechanise, insisting that “oil extracted by machines will never have the same flavor that women produce.
“It contains all the positive vibes of these artisans, their laughter, the stories they share as they work. There is a spiritual quality that makes it special and unique.
The cooperative produces up to 1,000 liters (about 265 gallons) of oil per year and works with tour operators who bring groups of visitors when they visit the popular coastal region.
Morocco produces around 5,640 tonnes of argan oil per year, according to official figures, of which around 40% is for export.
The sector’s turnover tripled between 2012 and 2019 to around $115 million, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
But Essaouira producers say the next generation has little interest in learning their trade.
“All I’ve known all my life is argan oil,” Samira said as she toasted nuts in a large clay oven. “For me, it’s as essential as oxygen and water.”
The divorcee has not had the opportunity to go to school and works 10 hours a day to support her children.
Samira learned all the steps of argan oil production from her parents, skills traditionally passed down from generation to generation.
But she says her children have no desire to enter the industry – a choice she understands.
Yet, with a growing body of scientific research supporting its health claims, argan oil remains an important part of the local economy and a sought-after commodity around the world.
The Moroccan government has also given more attention to the sector, including constructing 13 reservoirs to collect low rainfall and help alleviate ever-worsening droughts in the region.
Rabat aims to double the production of argan oil by 2030, hoping to support the emergence of a “new generation of the rural middle class”.
But with fewer and fewer young people getting into the craft, time will tell if another generation will learn the traditions associated with the tree.