Women farmers find cactus plants are a real money spinner
By Sylvia Smith
BBC News, Sbouya, Morocco
It is just after dawn in the hills above the Moroccan hamlet of Sbouya and a group of women are walking through the thousands of cactus plants dotted about on the hillside, picking ripe fruits whenever they spot the tell-tale red hue.
But these woman are not simply scraping a living out of the soil.
The cactus, previously eaten as a fruit or used for animal feed, is creating a minor economic miracle in the region thanks to new health and cosmetic products being extracted from the ubiquitous plant.
This prickly pocket of the semi-arid south of the country around the town of Sidi Ifni is known as Morocco's cactus capital.
It is blessed with the right climate for the 45,000 hectares (111,000 acres) of land that is being used to produce prodigious numbers of succulent Barbary figs.
Every local family has its own plot and, with backing from the Ministry of Agriculture, the scheme to transform small scale production into a significant industry industry is under way.
Some 12m dirhams ($1.5m) have been pledged to build a state-of-the-art factory that will help local farmers process the ripe fruits.
The move is expected to help workers keep pace with the requirements of the French cosmetics industry which is using the cactus in increasing numbers of products.
Izana Marzouqi, a 55-year-old member of the Aknari cooperative, says people from the region grew up with the cactus and did not realise its true benefit.
"Demand for cactus products has grown and that it is because the plant is said to help with high blood pressure and cancer. The co-operative I belong to earns a lot of money selling oil from the seeds to make anti-ageing face cream."
Barbary fig oil is a lucrative market
Each member of the Aknari cooperative can pick between 30 and 50 pallets of the fruits in a morning during the season which lasts from July to December.
Many of them also work in the factory a short distance away where the fruit is peeled and then the pulp is separated and used to make jam.
The seeds which are ground to produce an oil are the most lucrative part of the plant.
The oil is used in more than 40 cosmetic products, and sells at a very high price as a pure skin oil.
It takes approximately a tonne of the tiny seeds to make a litre of oil.
Parts of the stem are ground into a powder, the flowers flavour vinegar and the pulp of the fruit has been found to lower cholesterol. Nowadays very little is left over for animal feed.
Keltoum Hammadi, who runs the Aknari co-operative, says that some of the processes are secret.
"In the cosmetics industry rivals never let the competition know their sources.
"All I can say is that we are working with a number of European laboratories to develop the use of the cactus for slimming."
Keltoum Achahour, manager of Saharacactus in the Sidi Ifni area, explains that her company is collaborating on other new products.
"We are a sort of umbrella for a number of women's cooperatives," she explains.
"By forming a group and incorporating we can protect the cactus, create a brand and ensure we get a fair share of the vast sums of money that the international cosmetics industry spends on research and development."
Exact figures are hard to come by, with each cooperative having its own speciality.
Their activities range from making soap to pickling leaves cut into strips, from packing top quality fresh fruits for use within Morocco, to selling on the road side from buckets to lorries that roll up in town early in the morning.
Consequently the exact size of the industry remains difficult to measure.
Boost for women
At present only 20% of the fruits grown for commercial use is processed in the region.
The vast majority is still bought in bulk by outsiders who cream off the highest profit.
They can buy a box for between 20 and 30 dirhams and sell it on for 100 dirhams.
The figs are being used to produce a wide range of products
But with greater financial involvement from the government, it is expected that within two years more than 75% of the production will be processed by the townspeople of Ait Baamram.
The industry is expected to grow by more 20% next year alone.
More than half of the land suitable for cactus production has yet to be involved in any commercial activity and with 9,000 plants per hectare (or acre) there is still a lot of room for expansion.
It is also an industry that has won women a lot of freedom.
Sayka Hafida, a member of the Aknari cooperative, says that her life has been transformed by this organic, naturally occurring plant.
"We still use the cactus leftovers for animal feed and we eat the fruit when it is fresh, and dry it for times when the plants don't produce.
"But I could never have imagined that I could get such a good income from it. You don't have to be educated to work in the factories.
"Our children are feeling the benefits. There is much more money around and it is women who are earning it."