Winding up the gravity-defying bends of the Atlas mountains, I am on the way to Ifrawnlhna, one of the 17 female-run Argan-oil cooperatives that supply cosmetics brand Lush with the oil it puts in its products. Sitting next to me, the cooperative’s former president, Fatima Amehri, describes how far things have come in the 23 years since it was first created. Established and run solely by women, the cooperative allows the women to work together to harvest and process Argan oil in Morocco, before selling it for a fair wage. But the journey has not always been easy and the female founders have had to fight hard to get to where they are. “In the beginning, we had to persuade the men to let the women come,” says Amehri. “We had all the men in one room and all the women in another. We told the men that the women wouldn’t join the cooperative unless they had the men’s blessing. We made them think they were in control,” she winks and laughs. “Now, the cooperative is so successful everyone wants to go.”
The major difference of UCFA – the elected union that allies all 17 cooperatives together – is that it puts the women who work for it in charge of their work life. Together, the 17 elected presidents (one of whom is selected to take the lead) set the price, manage how much the workers can deliver and help each cooperative receive the ECOCERT and Fair Trade status it needs to receive a fair price. Crucially, it’s the women who are paid for their efforts. Speaking to me about how life has changed since joining, Zahara, one of the workers at the Ifrawnlhna cooperative I visited, explains how she would collect the fruit and make the Argan oil, but then her husband would sell it at the market and get the money. “Now, she gets the money,” explains Amehri.
Having a steady income has given the women of the cooperative financial freedom and, rather than living from meal to meal, it has allowed them to invest in quality of life. “Some of the women have used it to save up for a washing machine,” says Amehri, who explains that this gives them time to spend with their children. It’s through the fruit, which has soared in popularity as both a cosmetic and food ingredient, that “life has changed for the better,” adds another worker, also named Fatima. The flexible working hours mean that Fatima and her fellow colleagues can come to the cooperative whenever family life allows. “We get to decide our own time,” she says.
On my visit to the cooperative, we woke early with the women to see what a normal working day is like for them. At dawn, the women leave to collect the Argan fruits that have fallen from the trees, carry them back to the cooperative balanced on their heads and leave them out in the sun to dry. Next, the women remove the hardened pulp and, using a rock, crack open the shell inside to reveal the Argan kernels. From here, the kernels are either sent off to the UCFA laboratory in Agadir to be cold-pressed into cosmetic-grade Argan oil using machinery (this is the oil that Lush uses in its products), or the women toast the kernels, grind them by hand into a paste and knead the paste to separate it into the golden, food-grade Argan oil that is used to flavour bread or to cook with. It’s difficult, labour-intensive, skilled work, but the women (who, at Ifrawnlhna, range from as young as 25 to as old as 80) are masters of their craft, working nimbly and chatting throughout the day.
Notably, nothing is wasted. Once the oil is separated from the nut, the leftover pulp is used as animal feed, explains Amehri. What’s more, she tells us how the cooperatives work with the local government, which funds schemes to make sure that the work done at the cooperative is sustainable. For example, the cooperative replant around 300 hectares of saplings every year to replenish the supply of Argan fruits. “Each generation plants trees for the next generation,” says Amehri, and these trees are nurtured like children.
The cooperative is granted state benefits, too. Because of the benefits they create for the workers, for trade and for the country, they’ve been made tax exempt, which means the women who work for them get to keep everything they earn. And, at many of the cooperatives, the government has financed solar-powered energy systems that help to pump water to all the houses in the villages, where previously inhabitants would have to travel to a single watering hole. In this way, the cooperative has benefited all of the people who live in these villages, not just the workers.
The workers are also afforded two years of state-funded education, provided in lessons that take place twice a week at the local school, where they learn the basics of literacy and maths. It’s been transformational to the women’s lives. “Now, we can read signs in the city, like place names or where the pharmacy is,” they say, “and in buildings we can find our way to the toilets by following the notes on the walls.” Most importantly, they can read exactly how much Argan oil they’ve produced and how much they’ve earned.
For the 1,000 or so women that work across these cooperatives, the Argan oil produced here has given them a chance to take control of their lives and their money. It’s extended to them a freedom that was never available before. Looking across at the row of women de-shelling fruit in front her of, Amehri bursts with pride. “Argan oil is a symbol of female emancipation,” she says, gesturing to them with a smile.
4 of the best argan-oil buys
Lush’s brand-new foundation comes in 40 shades, from the almost-white 1C to the super dark 40N. It’s made up of 45% coconut oil, as well as Argan oil, to help nourish skin, and feels nicely lightweight. The texture is buildable so you can blend in a very light layer and add extra coverage where you need it. As for packaging, it’s partially dipped in a wax seal to save on waste, plus 10% of the profits go towards funding literacy classes and a dentist on the island of Nias (where the coconut oil is made).
This rose-jam scented shampoo bar smells deliciously rosy and leaves hair soft and silky. What’s more, the naked packaging means no paper is wasted.
This creamy peach highlighter makes use of Argan oil to help boost glow. You can pop it wherever you want an extra bit of radiance (for instance, it works particularly well on the tops of cheekbones, on the cupids bow and on the brow bone). Plus, it comes in other colours if you prefer pearly pinks or bronzier shades.
Blended with Argan oil, rose absolute, Brazil nut oil and vanilla pod, this sweet, floral smell has a gorgeous, soft, melted-caramel texture and spreads on to arms and legs like a dream. A good one to stave off dry skin, now that it’s colder.