Costing as much as $300 per liter, Argan oil is one of the world's most expensive edible oil. 20 years ago, the production of argan oil was isolated to local villages in Morocco. Since then, the formation of women-run cooperatives has transformed the production into a billion-dollar industry.
So, why has argan oil become popular and what makes it so expensive?
Argan oil is predominantly used in high-end cosmetic products and Moroccan cuisine. The oil comes from the seed of the argan tree. The Amazigh people of North Africa have been using the argan seeds for centuries, and the production methods haven't changed in years.
The first stage of production is the collection. Once collected, the argan fruits are sun-dried and de-pulped by hand. The leftover argan nut needs are then cracked to retrieve the oil-rich kernel inside.
To obtain a liter of argan oil, we need 40 kilograms of the fruit, or about 20 kilograms of the nuts, to obtain one liter.
The next stage is the grinding process, which is often done by hand. This method takes two hours. Machines are used for larger orders and In five minutes, it can produce one or two liters.
Argan oil is not like other oils. The best quality is known as "red gold" because it is very expensive. Argan oil requires a lot of effort to produce. For one woman to produce one liter of argan oil, it would take her approximately 24 hours.
The argan tree in the late 1980s was in dangerous decline. Efforts to transform the environmental problem into an economic solution were taken helping the Amazigh women who are the primary producers of argan oil, to create cooperatives.
The rapid rise in popularity of argan oil not only brought profit to the region, but also revitalized an entire ecosystem. In just one generation, the international market for argan oil has risen from just 200 liters to 4,000 metric tons in 2019. By 2025, the state's ambition is to sell over 10,000 metric tons. To facilitate this increase, the area for producing the oil has expanded more than 100 miles south of Essaouira and is due to expand north.
As with any costly ingredient, argan oil products are often adulterated. Both cosmetic and culinary argan oil is often labeled as "pure" despite the undisclosed percentage of Argania kernel oil being mixed with a host of chemical compounds. Also cheaper, mechanically extracted oil has begun to appear on the market for as little as $22 a liter, threatening the stability of the local cooperatives.
With the help of the cooperatives, the traditional skills held by the Amazigh women have created a booming industry. But even though this income has granted some financial independence in a male-dominated society, the women normally make less than $220 a month - below Morocco's recommended national minimum wage.