In a poor but fertile corner of southern Morocco, illiterate Berber women are tapping the surge in global demand for argan oil, a "miracle" product they grind from a special nut, which is helping to lift them out of poverty.
Sometimes known as "liquid gold" or "miracle oil" for its rich cosmetic, culinary and medicinal properties, the exclusively Moroccan export has caused a sensation in the West, where it is touted as a unique hair care and anti-ageing skin potion.
The rolling countryside between Essaouira and Agadir, resort towns better known for their Atlantic surf, is covered with argan trees, and distinguished by the bizarre sight of goats perched in their branches munching away on the pulp of the nut.
A profusion of cooperatives
Another striking feature of the landscape is the profusion of cooperatives that employ Berber women to produce the oil, from the tree to the bottle, and sell it as far afield as Canada and Japan, sharing the profits.
Indigenous, non-Arab Berber people make up a large portion of the local population. Zahra Knabo, who runs the Ajddigue cooperative, one of the very first, says there are now 137 of them, and hails the "evolution" they have brought to the region's Berber women who suffer from widespread illiteracy, poor health care and stifling social mores.
"In this rural area, women would traditionally herd the animals and gather wood from the forest. They were the first to wake up and the last to go to bed," says Knabo.
"Now most of the women working in the cooperative have money in their pockets. Some have completely financed their houses. They've been able to get electricity, televisions and fridges," she says. When it opened in 1996, Ajddigue had 16 employees and produced 200 litres (52 gallons) of oil monthly.
But around 60 women now work there, Knabo says, and monthly production has risen to 1,000 litres, with an annual turnover last year of four million dirhams (360,000 euros, $460,000).
Reflecting argan oil's growing popularity in the cosmetics industry, the group's two biggest clients are French and Italian, while the nearby Kaouki cooperative says its main customer, a British firm, started buying the oil in 2009.
Scientific proof of the oil's unique healing properties is elusive, but leading aromatherapists argue that, with its richness in fatty acids, antioxidants and vitamin E, it is a highly effective treatment for damaged skin and dry hair.
Impact on environment
But the argan oil boom is in its relative infancy and hopes remain high. Its positive impact on the environment has also been hailed as a success story, spurring conservation work to reverse the over-exploitation of the endemic tree, now found only in southern Morocco and parts of Algeria.
UNESCO, which designated 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometres) of the argan region a "biosphere reserve" in 1998, has highlighted the tree's function as a buffer against desertification, as well as its rich yields for the local community.AFP