After 27 years of marriage and three children I found myself divorced and looking for a new direction in life. I fell ill with glandular fever and its after effects. The only thing that helped me was Traditional Chinese Medicine so I became determined to study it and help other people in turn. I trained for five years as an acupuncturist and Chinese Herbalist finishing with working in a hospital in China in 1994.
Several trips to Morocco in 2000 to study with a renowned herbalist opened up a new path. For breakfast we dipped bread into argan oil and ‘amlou’ (crushed almonds, argan oil and honey). I had never heard of argan oil. I was told it has many health benefits and is traditionally prescribed to lower cholesterol and protect the heart, liver and gall bladder.
Back home in the UK at the Centre of Economic Botany at Kew I learned there was grave concern for the trees’ future. I decided to import and market the oil to promote its benefits. This contributes to the conservation of the argan tree and the lifestyle of the Berber women, who make their living from it. A fair income helps them appreciate their unique heritage and protect the trees for future generations instead of using the wood as charcoal and for building.
The next stage was to start production with strict quality control and good working conditions for the women. I set up a company in Morocco and built an ethical-trade production centre in the heart of the argan region. We brought electricity and water to the area. We never received any funding though the original aim was to employ as many women as possible full time, set up literacy training and open the centre as an ecotourism attraction.
Argan oil results from the laborious extraction of argan seeds by time old methods, the fruit is stripped then the hard nuts are cracked between two stones to reveal small kernels which are lightly toasted giving the oil a rich nutty and slightly smoky flavour. In all two days work and 3kg of seeds are needed to produce a single litre.
As a food, argan oil is 80% unsaturated, rich in omega 6 and 9, and contains double the vitamin E of olive oil. It contains rare plant sterols with anti-inflammatory properties, useful for rheumatic joint pain.
Berber women have used argan oil for centuries to nourish and protect their hair skin and nails as well as a food. It is traditionally used to treat acne, dry eczema, psoriasis, chicken pox, scars and also to massage painful joints and muscles.
I discovered that argan could be produced as a skin care oil with untoasted seeds by using a cold press. High levels of Vitamin E, anti-oxidants and saponins contribute to the rejuvenating properties of argan. It helps restore the skin’s water lipid layer and increases nutrient levels in the skin cells. Gentle enough for babies, it soothes skin which has been exposed to the elements and helps prevent stretch marks in pregnancy.
The Argan tree which once covered North Africa, is now found only in S.W. Morocco. It sustains the Berber people and their livestock during drought, each part of it providing valuable food without harming the tree. It can live 250 years growing in wild semi-desert soil, its deep root system reaching to the water table, binding the soil and helping to prevent the northern advance of the Sahara. In drought condition it becomes dormant and regenerates when the rains come. Fortunately it is now protected by UNESCO as a Biosphere Heritage.
In Morocco I have been honoured by being elected to the Mohammed VI Foundation for the Preservation and Research for the Argan. Research continues and thankfully reserves are now being planted. This year, (2006) for the first time, decline has been stabilised with a pledge from The Dept of Water and Forests to plant 1050 hectares.
– Ruth Hajioff MBAcC MRCHM