I had waited over an hour to meet Saida. I could feel the hot afternoon sun baking my skin, as I looked for an opportunity to take some street photos in the quiet town of Hanchane. Here, like many of the small towns just outside of Essaouira, a few houses and shops sprawl along the dusty highway. Behind them, more argan trees speckle the red hilltops. I was growing accustomed to waiting, in a culture where time has a different significance. I certainly can’t judge it as an outsider, but I could already see what Ulysses and Zoubida meant when they spoke of facing the challenges of trading between two very different cultures. Saida finally arrived in a small blue taxi that was carrying five other women to various towns from Essaouira. She gave me a heartwarming smile, and invited me to come into the cooperative. Stepping in I recognized the familiar nutty scent that I first noticed emanating from the Ulysses’ basement. Except here it was accompanied by the rhythmic clicking of approximately 20 women cracking argan nuts with small rocks.
Saida Attar is the business manager and among the founding members of the Argan El Kheir women’s cooperative, who produce argan oil. She told me she came into this line of work from a business position in Essaouira. As a woman, she feels very strongly about some of the wonderful change the growing industry is bringing to Berber women in rural regions of the country. She explained to me that she had originally considered founding learning courses for women to achieve literacy and business skills, but when she came across the cooperative in her hometown, she felt inspired to apply her skills to building it up.
“I’m going to be honest with you: having papers and seals doesn’t make a good company. You cannot believe everything you see on paper and certificates. With both cooperatives and businesses, you can go online and search for argan oil producers. Everybody is pushing their ‘social’ side, but you cannot believe everything you read.” Saida explained to me that she has seen businesses be awarded with certificates for their policies towards improving the lives of the women that work for them, but some of them pay their employees no more than 10 Dirhams a day. That is less than a Euro.
Her phone rang, interrupting our conversation. She apologized to me, explaining that she was awaiting a call from an Austrian client. After the conversation, she clarified to me that her cooperative consists of 60 women, who all had to contribute 100 Dirhams (approximately 10 Euro) to join the cooperative. This gave the company a capital of roughly 6000 Dirhams (or 600 Euro). The difference between an enterprise and a cooperative is that in a cooperative every member has a say in how the business is run and equity in the profits. When it comes to making a decision, every member has a vote. Women in this cooperative earn around 250 Dirhams a week, about 10 times more than when the cooperative first started.
Before I left the cooperative, she shared a thought with me: “Argan is the image of Morocco; of Moroccan women. Too many people sell low quality oils and give the business a bad reputation. I want to see us all: enterprises and cooperatives, approach this market hand in hand. That is my dream.”