Rural and Urban Economic Development Through Women’s Empowerment


By Eliana Lisuzzo
HAF Project Assistant


The High Atlas Foundation (HAF)—headed by a distinguished Board of Directors, Advisory Board, and operational team of both Moroccans and Americans—is a U.S. and Moroccan 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that was created by former Peace Corps Volunteers in 2000. HAF facilitates and builds people’s capacities in participatory democratic approaches to catalyze economic growth and endorse grassroots development in disadvantaged communities in Morocco. We have successfully worked in 23 provinces in Morocco by effectively building trust with the government and local people by responding to the self-prioritized economic development needs of communities and civil society.


HAF cultivates networks of empowered women agents of change to achieve economic growth and abilities. By conducting workshops that integrate a rights-based approach (RBA) to Moroccan family law (Moudawana), HAF fosters women’s self-discovery, a necessary step in the process of increasing female participation in the economy. HAF implements its Imagine women’s empowerment workshops, innovated in conjunction with the U.S.-based Empowerment Institute, which now incorporates both the RBA and economic planning approaches. These workshops focus on helping women achieve their self-identified economic goals through cooperative development. Women become educated on their rights and their potential outside of their strict traditional boundaries. Otherwise, as we have observed, their decision-making may be detached from their own economic needs and interests.


Since 2011, HAF has engaged in cooperative-development to advance women’s financial independence, expand networks, and support changing women's economic roles in their communities. HAF’s women’s empowerment programs address these challenges in helping women to achieve self-confidence, independence, self-identified goals, and economic participation. These capacity-building programs have been funded by the Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs (OES), and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Further, the programs have been implemented with our university partners: 1) Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at University Sidi Mohammed Ben Abdellah in Fes; 2) Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences at University Cadi Ayyad in Marrakech; 3) Center for Human and Social Studies and Research at University Mohammed I in Oujda; and 4) Young Moroccan Leaders of the Hassan II Agronomic and Veteran Institute in Rabat. Our university partnerships have led to the establishment of Centers for Sustainable Development and spaces for participatory democratic citizenry, which respond to the development needs of each local context.  To date at the Centers, we have trained approximately 1,000 students, building their skills in facilitating participatory planning and decision-making in communities, and have provided experiential learning in decentralized socioeconomic development management.


Since 2016, 40 women university students have participated and are trained in facilitating the women’s empowerment workshops that include the integrated self-discovery, rights based, and economic cooperative development components. As students from Marrakech University mentioned, "We see the issue of using rights, including economic, as a shared responsibility or even as national mission." Moreover, students were well informed of the different articles of Moudawana which incorporate economic development, and are highly motivated to shift their knowledge to others. During the same period since 2016, 380 rural women experienced HAF’s women’s empowerment workshops in the regions of Marrakech, Al Haouz, Essaouira, Mohammedia, Oujda, and Boujdour.


In 2016-17, utilizing a combination of both quantitative and qualitative tools (mixed methods), a survey tool was designed and adapted by HAF to capture data in the form of leading women’s group discussions. The survey, delivered in Darija or Tashelheit, had four main parts: general information (age, level of education, and distance of their home village to the city); assets; needs and personal perspectives on different socioeconomic subjects; and participatory planning of economic actions. The purpose was to investigate barriers preventing women from possessing the knowledge and accessing resources to transcend their traditional roles and engage in economic development. Women reported that lack of independence due to social norms prevents them from leaving their villages and thus from pursuing financial opportunities. Moreover, traditional gender roles uphold men as the designated breadwinners in society. One woman reported, “Gender has its own responsibilities, men are responsible for money, we take care of the house, cook, clean, help the children.” While most women expressed frustration with these limitations, some women were unable to imagine having such independence. Lastly, women lack the opportunities, such as training, to learn and enhance their existing skills in order to become financially independent. Through our rigorous collection of data and evaluation, HAF ultimately found that the barriers to economic participation women face are: 1) lack of access to education, 2) social norms, and 3) technical reasons such as lack of training or access to information. Further, an ongoing challenge in rural communities is ensuring that women are included in decision-making. Hence, they lack the confidence to express their point of view, their needs, or wishes.




Successful results of HAF’s empowerment workshops include the Aboghlou women’s cooperative, established in partnership with the PUR Project. Aboghlou has now become  a self-sustaining and profit-making cooperative, employing STEM knowledge and produced over 200kg of dried calendula (a popular Moroccan medicinal herb) that was exported to L’Oreal in France. There are similar examples of thriving cooperatives that have resulted from our program. After participating in the workshop, one group secured bureaucratic support to start their own cooperative and earn income. As they had the relevant knowledge to start a crafts cooperative, they became highly motivated to start the process after the program. Notably, women who are members of a cooperative indicated that this provided them an opportunity to exit the village, become more equal to men, and more financially independent.


A 2017 evaluation report by an external researcher[1] indicates HAF’s project strengthens women's capabilities including independence, gaining STEM and other skills and knowledge, and capacities to improve their realities. Women in cooperatives reported that they have found communication and utilizing the participatory democratic procedures in identifying economic solutions for development to be important. A group of 35 women addressed illiteracy by hiring a female university student and starting a literacy program in their village; and 65% of participants have joined parent associations and are actively involved in efforts to improve local schools for their children’s benefit.


In 2018, HAF and MEPI also implemented the initiative in the Oujda-Oriental region. A women’s cooperative founder in the village of Zagzal who participated in the training reported that attending was vital in learning about the legal components of running a cooperative as well as how to market her products and cooperative to both customers and other women who may be interested in becoming a member. A women’s cooperative in Esasouira that sells argan products was able to plant 2,000 new trees thanks to a partnership with HAF and Fre skincare. In addition to the income that these trees will generate, the partnership provided training in women’s empowerment, educating the members about their rights, and provided school supplies for their children, to help combat the high dropout rates that are still pervasive in rural Morocco. The cooperative’s founder explained that earning the income brings women purpose in their lives and enables them to invest their earnings in their homes and in their children. In Boujdour, HAF helped establish a cooperative for single mothers and constructed gender-segregated bathrooms and clean drinking water systems at seven schools.


HAF has four experienced empowerment facilitators and is currently training three more. HAF’s established partnerships with Moroccan institutions of Higher Education Communities are fundamental in making possible the widespread implementation of this project with students who receive training and then support implementing with women in rural communities in four regions. Moreover, HAF has 25 paid staff members, and may have five Moroccan and/or international volunteers working from its main office in Marrakech at any given time. In addition, HAF has regional managers whose roles are to assist in the process of local economic development through cooperatives, civil associations, and municipal councils.


[1] Kramarski, G. (2018) “Promoting Human Rights to Support Development in Morocco,” Jerusalem Post.

HAF Integrates Cultural Preservation and Human Development

By Eliana Lisuzzo
HAF Project Assistant

The High Atlas Foundation (HAF) is a United States-Moroccan nonprofit organization committed to facilitating community-identified initiatives that catalyze sustainable human development in Morocco. One initiative we are extremely proud of is Cemetery Preservation in Essaouira that rehabilitates Jewish cemeteries and makes them more welcoming for families and visitors, to encourage respect of passersby, and to educate the next generation in the spirit of this rich past. In 2013, then U.S. Consul-General Mr. Brian Shukan said about our efforts, "By making the cemeteries most welcoming, encouraging more visitors to discover these cemeteries for the first time and helping the current generation to remember its rich roots of their peaceful coexistence, this project will help preserve the illustrious past of Essaouira for future generations."


Another project in which HAF works to preserve Jewish Heritage is our interfaith initiative, HOUSE OF LIFE, which simultaneously alleviates poverty. We implemented the pilot for this project in Akrich. HOUSE OF LIFE facilitates the free loan of land adjoining Jewish burial sites in order to establish organic tree and medicinal nurseries for the benefit of farming communities. This initiative resulted in the cultivation of 120,000 almond, fig, pomegranate, and lemon trees. HOUSE OF LIFE not only addresses poverty but also establishes attractive cultural sites that increases Jewish tourism, as many Jewish people seek blessings from the Jewish saint Rabbi Ha Cohen, and make a pilgrimage to the cemetery to pray at his tomb. We have been granted six more sites near Jewish saints to grow nurseries, consequently advancing cultural preservation and people's development. Like WMF, we are committed to maintaining Jewish cultural sites, particularly in places with limited resources, and motivating others to do the same. We raise public awareness and interest in Jewish heritage and strengthen the local community's capacities to conserve the sites. 
In addition, HAF has worked towards preserving other cultural sites such as the Christian Franciscan Church in Essaouira. After restoration, the city government transferred the church to local civil society to serve as a location for public workshops, family education, and a meeting point for interfaith relations and development stakeholders. This project helps preserve Morocco's cultural past, and reflects the Moroccan model of social integration. For more information regarding HAF's cultural projects and other human development initiatives in Morocco, review our website:

Muslim-Jewish goodwill blossoms in Morocco

The High Atlas Foundationʹs fruit tree nursery project

Since 2012, the Moroccan Jewish community has been helping local farmers by donating land around ancient cemeteries for the planting of fruit tree nurseries. The aim: ending systemic rural poverty by transitioning from grain to crops more suited to local growing conditions. By Yossef Ben-Meir, director of the High Atlas Foundation

In 2010 Morocco launched a national project to restore its Jewish cemeteries. Approximately six hundred Hebrew "saints" are buried in various parts of the kingdom. Many were laid to rest over a millennium ago and 167 of the sites have seen work begin on the preservation of graves and their immediate surroundings. Starting in Marrakesh, the Jewish community began lending land to the High Atlas Foundation near seven of these cemeteries, with the idea of planting organic fruit tree nurseries for the bene­fit of farming families and schools.

Other public and private donors to the High Atlas Foundation community tree nursery initiative include the Moroccan High Commission of Waters and Forests and the Fight Against Desertifi­cation, provincial of­fices of the Ministry of Education, as well as universities and co-operatives. Yet it is the land contributions that are vital for the success of sustainable, organic and integrated agricultural development using community tree nurseries.

Moroccan farmers are currently transitioning from growing traditional barley and corn to more lucrative fruit trees, meaning saplings are in high demand. According to Morocco’s Agency for Agricultural Development, staple grains are grown on about 70 percent of the countryʹs agricultural land, yet they account for only 10-15 percent of agricultural revenue.

Farming families – who generally own small plots unsuited to cultivating barley and corn – are deprived of education (particularly at secondary school level) and health infrastructure, while communities lack livelihood diversity. In many rural areas, for instance, fewer than half the girls continue their formal education after primary school. Dormitories, clean water and sanitary facilities would go a long way to improving conditions in rural schools.

Jewish cemeteries provide a new lease of life: in 2014, a pilot nursery on Jewish communal land was created near the village of Akrich, near the seven-hundred-year-old tomb of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. In the past three years, 150,000 (33,000 in 2018) almond, fig, pomegranate, argan, carob and lemon seeds have been planted in the nursery and – once matured into saplings – transplanted to private plots

Across the nation, drinking water remains the top priority of rural communities, though the same is also true of some city neighbourhoods, including the Marrakesh mellah, as the cityʹs Jewish quarter is known. For villages in the High Atlas, for instance, irrigation infrastructure would have a transformative impact, both economically and environmentally. For most rural communities, however, it remains to be implemented.

Employment opportunities for the majority of rural and urban youth are also chronically scarce. The planting of fruit trees is one way in which farming families are looking to end systemic rural poverty. Other vital measures include processing product, co-operative building, attaining greater market access and securing organic and carbon credit certi­fications.


Multi-cultural interfaith initiative

Growing fruit trees from seedlings on land lent by the Moroccan Jewry and distributing them to marginalised rural communities is not only helping to meet a major development priority, but also constitutes a multi-cultural interfaith initiative.

For those benefitting from these historic cemetery sites, the project has served to deepen their appreciation, reinvigorating relationships between the Muslim farming families and Jewish community members. After all, it takes two years to grow tree saplings from seed and Moroccan farming families simply could not afford to give up cultivating their land for two years, just to transition to fruit crops. The donation of new land for community tree nurseries, from which the two-year-old saplings are transplanted into families’ agricultural plots, overcomes the argument that there is not enough land for fruit tree production.

Thanks to enhanced food security and sustainable development for farming families, the Moroccan Muslim-Jewish initiative is generating goodwill, fostering social unity and encouraging further cultural preservation initiatives. That the farming communities themselves identi­fied fruit trees as a project priority, while also determining the varieties they preferred to grow has maximised the sense of solidarity and the measure of sustainability.

In so doing, the project is responding to the expressed needs of the people and helping to deliver the results they seek. This illustrates how social bene­fits are maximised when people’s participation is incorporated into the development-cultural process.

Reinvigorating interfaith relationships: "the Moroccan Muslim-Jewish initiative is generating goodwill, fostering social unity and encouraging further cultural preservation initiatives. That the farming communities themselves identified fruit trees as a project priority, while also determining the varieties they preferred to grow has maximised the sense of solidarity and the measure of sustainability," writes Ben-Meir

"House of Life" pilot nursery near Marrakesh

In 2014, a pilot nursery on Jewish communal land was created near the village of Akrich, located in Al Haouz province south of Marrakesh, near the seven-hundred-year-old tomb of Rabbi Raphael Hacohen. In the past three years, 150,000 (33,000 in 2018) almond, ­fig, pomegranate, argan, carob and lemon seeds have been planted in the nursery and – once matured into saplings – transplanted to private plots. They are now being grown by approximately 1,000 farmers and 130 schools in Morocco, entirely for the growers’ benefi­t.

The pilot project’s cost of $60,000 was donated by Wahiba Estergard and Mike Gilliland, of Lucky’s Market and Jerry Hirsch with the Lodestar Foundation. Younes Al Bathaoui, the then governor of Al Haouz province, coined the Akrich nurseryʹs name – "House of Life" – after the name given to cemeteries in Hebrew. Jacky Kadoch, president of the Jewish Community of Marrakesh-Sa­fi, was instrumental in granting this land and other parcels for ten years, while the Secretary-General of the Jewish Community of Morocco, Serge Berdugo, enabled the vital expansion of this land-for-tree nursery project.

The ­first trees from the Akrich pilot site were handed to local children and farmers by the governor in 2016, joined by the U.S. ambassador to the Kingdom of Morocco, Dwight Bush Sr.


A second nursery in Ourzazate

The proposed second nursery was located beside the thousand-year-old tomb of Rabbi David ou Moche, in the province of Ourzazate in January 2018. The project’s fi­rst year will see the construction of agricultural terraces. The new arable space will encompass one hectare, upon which will be grown, from 500,000 seeds, one-metre tall saplings of walnut, carob, fi­g, pomegranate, cherry and almond.

At maturity they will be donated to local associations, ­five thousand farming families and two thousand schools. Some trees will be dedicated to addressing devastating erosion afflicting the immediate area.

Together with local partners, the High Atlas Foundation will monitor tree growth as part of securing carbon credits, the revenue from which will be invested in further tree planting. Replication of nurseries across hundreds of parcels of land adjacent to cemetery sites throughout the country would generate tens of millions of saplings and plants every year and afford a better life to millions of people.


An initiative with international potential

The initiative is inspiring similar projects across the Middle East, with its combination of Muslim-Jewish collaboration and local-international and private-public partnerships. Although the Jewish community in Cairo these days numbers just six members, their strategic approach to preserving their ancient cemetery is to promote development within the local community.

Morocco’s intercultural nursery project has also been visited by Palestinian and Israeli groups and featured in the media – let us hope it provides a pathway toward productive and deepened intercultural collaboration.


Yossef Ben-Meir

© High Atlas Foundation 2018

This article is taken from a longer essay entitled "The Moroccan Approach: Integrating Cultural Preservation and Sustainable Development".



Changing the world across generations: The story of Fadma, Amina and the Izourane Cooperative

Jenny Spencer
HAF’s intern.


Ask an American college student what they want to do in their life and inevitably, at some point, they will say some version of “to make a difference.” Ask a young professional why they are transitioning in their careers and you are likely to hear “I want to find more meaning in my work.” Despite high levels of education, we young Americans struggle to find opportunities to create positive change in the world.


In 2014, Unesco ranked Morocco among the 21 poorest countries in education. According to USAID, the likelihood of a first grader going on to complete high school is less than 15 percent. But there is no shortage of opportunities to create lasting change here. This week, on a volunteer trip with the High Atlas Foundation to distribute school supplies donated by Fre Skincare, I had the opportunity to meet a woman who was doing just that.


In the 1990s, Lalla Fadma Abjar moved from the city to Tidzi, a small village in the semi-desert Sous valley of southern Morocco, 25 km from the beach town of Essaouira. At that time, just over a quarter of women in Morocco were literate, and this was of course much lower in the rural areas. Lalla Fadma was one of the few.


Around the same time, Moroccan professor Zoubida Charrouf recognized the extent of the decline in the ancient, hardy Argan tree, whose dry bark is reminiscent of a juniper and whose fruits could be mistaken for olives. While it once covered all of North Africa, preventing desertification and providing many benefits to communities across the region, by the 1990s the Argan tree could be found only in the Sous valley. To motivate local communities to protect the argan forests and to empower women, Professor Charrouf began developing women’s argan cooperatives and marketing and raising awareness of the products internationally.


In 1998, UNESCO declared the argan forest in the valley to be a biosphere reserve, and a movement began. As one of the few literate women, Lalla Fadma was sought out to establish one of the first cooperatives in the region. She bought the land herself and, with a small group of women, created the Cooperative Feminine Izourane Ouargane and began processing the “liquid gold.” For the first time in their lives, they earned income and had a place to socialize outside their homes.


Now, Lalla Fadma’s daughter, Lalla Amina Amchir carries on her mother’s work, expanding the opportunities for women and their families. There are now 40 women in the cooperative, most of them widows or divorced. In the last 2 years, Izourane women’s cooperative was able to plant 2,000 new trees thanks to the partnership with HAF and Fre skincare. In addition to the income that these trees will help to generate, the partnership provided training in women’s empowerment, educating the members about their rights, and provided school supplies for their children, to help combat the high dropout rates that are still pervasive in rural Morocco.


With only a third-grade education, Lalla Amina administers the cooperative herself. She proudly showed us the impeccably organized cabinet where she stores the financial records. She explained how she has worked hard over the past two years to complete the seemingly endless series of paperwork required to become certified by the ONSSA which would enable the group to access a more consistent and reliable market, with greater guarantee of payment. Hopefully, the Izourane cooperative will receive the certificate soon, as this will also help to differentiate them from the many argan shops lining the road, which Lalla Amina explained are actually for-profit enterprises masquerading as cooperatives, but which do not truly support the women.


While the argan industry has become increasingly established over the past two decades, Lalla Amina and the other cooperative presidents have done all of this work with very little support. The Ministry of Agriculture provides some trainings on administrative matters, but these are offered only in French, a language not spoken by most of the presidents. Similarly, while an association of presidents exists in name, no activities are carried out to enable the presidents to practically support one another.


While she perseveres through these challenges, Lalla Amina sees the fruits of her efforts and the benefits of the support of partners like the High Atlas Foundation every day. She explained that earning income brings women purpose in their lives, and invest their earnings in their homes and in their children. In addition, the provision of school supplies, donated by Fre Skincare helps to ensure that kids go to school and have the resources that they need to learn.


As we distributed backpacks and notebooks to the 30 children on our visit, Rachid, a HAF project manager, asked each child what they want to be when they grow up. Most aspire to be teachers or doctors. Thanks to Lalla Amina, as well as the support of HAF, Fre Skincare, and Izouran’s other partners, these dreams are increasingly likely to become a reality. When they do, whether the children will know it or not, each of them will carry a piece of the dedication, work ethic, and empathy of Lalla Fadma and Amina, and they will continue to change the world.


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Dear all,

Germanwatch and the High Atlas Foundation have the pleasure to invite you to a webinar on energy access, with a focus on Morocco and Africa more broadly. The webinar will be held on the 18th. September 2018 from 1 pm to 2 pm Central European Summer time on webex (12:00h Morocco time today). Please find the link:

Access to modern energy services is an essential pre-requisite for human development. Without energy, it is challenging, if not impossible, to promote economic growth, overcome poverty and expand employment opportunities. This has been recognized by the international community, with the Sustainable Goal 7 on "access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all". Yet, more than 1 billion of people still do not  have access to electricity today.

One of the continents where energy access is still lacking for many is Africa. But there are many positive stories as well: Morocco is one example of a country that is considered an energy transition pioneer. Despite the country’s well-known focus on large renewable energy projects, much progress has also been made on decentralized renewable energy access in some rural parts of Morocco.

In our discussions among NGOs, we  frequently say that providing universal energy access should be a focus in the implementation of the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI. But what exactly do we mean by that? What should be our key demands as NGOs? And what are some examples of concrete approaches that AREI could support? We would like to use this webinar to discuss these questions with you, based on an overview of current energy access definitions and debates and a case-study on energy access in Morocco.

The webinar will begin with 2 presentations of 15 minutes each:
- Marine Pouget, Germanwatch: Is energy access only a question of "on/off"? What about the quality and affordability of energy?
- Yossef Ben-Meir, High Atlas Foundation Morocco: An Moroccan perspective on energy access: status quo, challenges and opportunity with energy decentralisation in Morocco
After the presentations, a 30 minutes discussion with the participants will be organised.

We hope you can join us!

Best from Bonn and Marrakech,

Marine and Yossef

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