Inside the production of argan shells

By Kathrin Schilling, Founder & Director, BioPowder
Monday, 24 July, 2023

Inside the production of argan shells

With sustainability and supply chain traceability becoming important trends in the natural cosmetic ingredients area, both manufacturers and consumers wish to take a look behind the scenes of beauty products.

The BioPowder team pursues a clear mission in this regard: building trusted partnerships with selected raw material suppliers. It is building a reputation as an upcycling business of local by-products in Spain while nurturing close ties with Moroccan argan processors.

Argan is known mainly for its rich, nutritious oil, but there is more to this plant which grows exclusively in a limited area in Southern Morocco. It has a shell with multifunctional properties that serves as a raw material for BioPowder’s fine cosmetic micro-powders.

Apart from being a raw material for exfoliators, argan shells have microparticles that are innovative sensory powders, natural pigments and a source of antioxidants. Numerous bioactive compounds can be extracted from the argan shell using sustainable methods.

Argan shells exclusively come from organic farming. There are no argan tree plantations or farms, rather, argan trees grow in a protected area of around 820,000 ha in the Essaouira/Agadir region, which holds UNESCO Biosphere Reserve status. No agrochemicals are used and most harvesting organisations are certified under Ecocert or USDA standards.

Argan is harvested and processed by a cooperative system run entirely by local women. From the 1990s onwards, these cooperatives have been created with the aid of foreign NGOs, to preserve the argan forest and to create a stable income for women and their families. Around 300 cooperatives employ approximately 4000 women, coordinated by an umbrella organisation called Union des Coopératives des Femmes pour la Production et la Commercialisation de l’huile d’Argane (UCFA). UCFA’s role is to ensure centralised production and sale of argan oil to guarantee sustainable practices and fair conditions.

Commercialisation of the argan shells is a relatively recent initiative. The shell constitutes the kernel of the argan fruit, which bears the seed that is processed in the oil mill. It is manually crushed and has long been used as a biofuel due to its exceptional density and high calorific value.

The BioPowder team developed its niche in this area. Founder Kathrin Schilling first came to Morocco in 2014 and has built strong relationships with the cooperatives. Argan production is seasonal and promotes a strong sense of community and trusted communication, reflecting BioPowder’s values and mission.

Argan processing practices have evolved in spite of traditional farming and proven techniques. On one hand, this is due to changing demands towards argan oil on the international market. On the other hand, the circumstances of the natural ecosystem are not always favourable for the output of both argan oil and shells.

Argan fruit harvesting has shifted from a traditional method to a systematic manual picking by the local farming community. For quality purposes, certified cooperatives now only accept handpicked argan fruits, as opposed to argan fruits that have been eaten by goats who subsequently excreted the kernels.

In recent times, the argan harvest has been compromised by climate change and lack of rainfall. With 2023 set to be the fourth consecutive year of drought, argan output has reached a record low that will put the cooperative system at risk. Additional sources of revenue are currently being explored besides statutory changes to facilitate new entrepreneurial ventures of women in the sector.

In contrast to highly industrialised olive oil production, argan oil remains an organic niche product. Due to small available volumes, it is difficult to upscale production and focus should be on resource efficiency, quality and continuity. Preservation of the trees throughout times of drought is important. Access of the cooperatives to modern oil mill machinery helps enhance the output while maintaining a fair carbon footprint.

The BioPowder aims to counter the effects of drought and facilitate production by providing incentives for meticulous sorting, clean storage and timely preparation of the available quantities.

BioPowder is pursuing a long-term approach to argan shell sourcing and processing. Agreement with cooperatives is indefinite and a stock of argan shells is maintained all year round for continued availability of argan shell powder. Dedicated transport is necessary to collect the shells from each outlet and export them to BioPowder’s Spain manufacturing plant. The team is considering setting up a local powder production plant in Morocco in the years to come.

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