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.