The Twin Missions of a Moroccan Scientist
RABAT—Behind a dark wooden desk, in a small office on one of the more drab streets of Rabat’s wealthy Agdal district, sits one of Morocco’s most progressive scientists.
From her window you can see a row of buildings, which were once painted white, but now boast the sort of chipped façades that hint at a more celebrated past. The inside of her office is as nondescript as the view. The only real embellishment is a framed photo of the scientist, Zoubida Charrouf, with the King of Morocco, who very much approves of the social change she and her research have brought.
She spends half of her week in this room, where she manages her commitments to the women employed in at least 30 cooperatives, which produce argan oil in the south of the country. The oil is sold to cosmetic companies and the sales allow the women and their families a measure of economic independence. This project has brought her equal parts praise and criticism. What’s left of the week she’ll spend two kilometers away in a faded but well-kept laboratory at Mohammed V University-Agdal. Here she studies the plant species that yields this sought-after and fashionable oil, which is often used in beauty products or applied to the skin and hair in its pure form. On a fairly regular basis she also travels down to the semi-arid desert in southwestern Morocco, where the tree grows.
Making sure the cooperatives run smoothly and understanding the science of the oil they produce makes for an arduous work schedule. “I work until midnight everyday and then I like to start at 8 a.m. or sometimes 8.30 am the next day,” she says.
Charrouf’s professional life is driven by an intertwined mix of belief in gender equality and scientific research. “She’s very easy to get along with as long as you agree with her,” joked Dominique Guillaume, a French organic chemist at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardennes. Guillaume has collaborated with Charrouf for 20 years and together they have penned many research papers and a book about the argan tree and its oil.
Her students agree that while she may be a pleasant and caring character, she isn’t one to suffer fools gladly. “If a student isn’t curious, they’re not going to get along with Zoubida,” said Hanae El Monfalouti who got her Ph.D. in 2013 under Charrouf’s supervision. El Monfalouti’s husband, Badreddine Kartah a current Ph.D. student of Charrouf’s, nods in agreement.
Charrouf is polite and considerate—though perhaps not gregarious. She was generous with her time, a commodity in short supply for her, and granted a lengthy interview. Her responses to questions were remarkably succinct; she always answered a question in full and never digressed.
Charrouf grew up in the rural outskirts of Rabat with her parents, four brothers and two sisters. She remembers that her father, who died when she was young, would tell her stories about his time herding sheep. Two of her brothers followed her into higher education but both of her sisters play more traditional female roles at home.
Charrouf’s research centers on the argan plant, which takes about 50 years to produce sufficient fruit for harvesting and can live in excess of 200 years. The thorny tree also lays claim to an ancient genetic lineage dating back millions of years.
By the time Charrouf was about to get her doctorate, the tree was threatened by a diminishing habitat. The species is native only to forests in southwestern Morocco and a stretch of land in Algeria. But back in the 70’s, these regions were experiencing desertification and deforestation. “Morocco was loosing 600 hectares of the forest per year,” explained Charrouf.
Charrouf had researched the argan tree for her thesis and had a hunch that the species’ survival depended on making it economically important. She figured that if people saw a chance for income from the argan tree, they’d have to care about the health of the whole forest too—and this is where the oil comes in. Back in the 70s and 80s, argan oil was typically extracted by hand through a painstakingly laborious manner and it was cheap and done by women on the streets. “One liter took 20 hours to extract and was worth about 3 euros ($4),” she said. In Agadir’s souk you can still see older women kneading the oil out of argan pulp. The oil wasn’t easy to get hold of either: “You needed to have family in the South,” said Charrouf.
Charrouf saw not only the ecological predicament of a fading forest, but also social and economical issues at play alongside it. “I wanted to know how we could transform this environmental problem into an economic solution to rejuvenate the forest and empower women.”
Charrouf had looked at other case studies across the globe and drew inspiration from work done with the jojoba plant in Egypt. Before the 70s, jojoba had been largely ignored, but it was beginning to enjoy recognition as a useful ingredient in beauty products. When the cosmetic industry realized that jojoba oil had an economic purpose everyone was suddenly interested in the plant, said Charrouf. “The solution was clear,” she said, “we needed to give argan oil value.”
For that to happen, Charrouf needed to both scientifically prove the oil’s worth and organize the women in Morocco’s rural south. Many people at the time didn’t approve of the idea of women working in cooperatives. “Men would tell me that I’m disrupting their home and that the women should return to their place,” she said. These reactions weren’t limited to the poorer countryside. “It would make me feel very sad when young people from Casablanca would say similar things,” she said.
“It is frankly amazing what she’s able to do with so many people wanting her to fail,” said Guillaume.
Despite a less than warm reception to her idea, Charrouf teamed up with Guillaume to get the ball rolling on the research part of her proposed solution. One of the first things they set out to do was determine if the quality of argan oil was altered by the introduction of extraction machinery. “We needed to prove that all of the good stuff can be obtained by mechanical presses,” said Guillaume. They compared the quantities of various compounds in oil extracted by the traditional method with that of the machine method. “We demonstrated that if you use presses you actually have better argan oil,” said Guillaume.
The second important thing they did was to develop a certification process for the oil. They wanted to reassure potential wholesale buyers that they could be confident that they weren’t being swindled.
A compound called campesterol forms a minor part of argan oil. The certification method that Guillaume and Charrouf developed, which is used by cosmetic companies before they export the oil, detects the correct concentrations of this compound.
Charrouf’s hard work began to pay off. “She has been published not only in Moroccan journals, but also the highly prestigious American journals,” said Guillaume. “She has been able to take a primitive argan oil industry and turn it into a science.”
But scientifically justifying a more sophisticated production method proved to be the easy part. It was much harder for her to convince women (or more accurately, their husbands) that they’d be better off in organized cooperatives with modern machinery.
Charrouf did eventually cobble together a group of 16 women, but it wasn’t until 1996; all were either divorced or widowed. Without a man to veto their decisions, they were able to form the first cooperative. But the slow pace of progress got to her. “She would sometimes tell me she’d been depressed for a number of months because of the constant negativity, but she would always rebound eventually,” said Guillaume.
In the mid and late nineties, Travis J. Lybbert, an associate professor of agricultural and resource economics, from the University of California, Davis, went to Morocco to study the impact of Charrouf’s economic activism. “In those first years she was taking a lot of heat from her critics, who were convinced she had a financial interest,” said Lybbert. “She always felt as though she was being mistreated and became almost obsessive about her image.”
It was at this point that Guillaume advised Charrouf to give up and save her energy. “I never thought she’d get enough women to break the stronghold of the men, but she refused to give in,” he said.
Ultimately, however, she triumphed. “There’s no doubt that her cooperatives can be called a success too,” said Lybbert. “Without her I believe the argan industry would have still evolved to what it is, but I doubt it would have been founded around the interests of women.”
Juggling her commitments to cooperatives and science has taken its toll. “She’s overworked and always tired,” said El Monfalouti. Charrouf herself acknowledges that she may one day have to choose between the two careers, insisting that when the time comes she’ll opt for the lab.
Guillaume worries that she’ll never be able to make the decision either way, “She can’t choose. She should, but she can’t. She believes her science and social work is good for Morocco, for her it’s patriotic.”
Argan oil now has a wholesale price of between 25 and 30 euros ($33 to $47) per liter. But it was only after the success of the first 16 women became known that people came around to Charrouf’s idea. “Men began coming to the cooperative to ask if their wives could join,” says Charrouf, laughing.
The backlash that Charrouf received has begun to abate and she has met her King four times. He’s helped her to raise money and cut the ribbon to open one of the cooperatives.
“Things are much better now, but there’s still a lot to do,” said Charrouf.
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