Natural Ingredients: A Sourcing Journey to the Land of Argan

Kathrin Schilling

Published: 05 September 2023

Sustainability has become the number one buzz word, and there is hardly a way around natural cosmetic ingredients. Besides, the cosmetic industry has recently seen another trend: supply chain transparency. Conscious consumers are keen on taking a look behind the scenes of their beauty products, and so are manufacturers.

In this regard, the BioPowder team pursues a clear mission: trusted partnerships with selected raw material suppliers. While building a reputation as an upcycling business of local by-products in Spain (e.g. olive oil side streams), the team nurtures close ties with Moroccan argan processors.

Argan has mainly become known for its rich, nutritious oil – basically the “superfood” of personal care ingredients. But there is even more to this unique plant, which exclusively grows in a limited area in Southern Morocco: a shell with multifunctional properties that serves as a raw material for BioPowder’s fine cosmetic micro-powders.

Argan shells are truly multifunctional: apart from being a raw material for exfoliators, their micro-particles are innovative sensory powders, natural pigments and a source of antioxidants. Moreover, numerous bioactive compounds can be extracted from the argan shell with sustainable methods.



Raw and clean argan shells ready for processing

Cooperative director Aicha under argan tree

Cooperative director Aicha under an argan tree

Argan Processing: A Success Story of Women’s Cooperatives

In contrast to most by-products, 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. Consequently, no agrochemicals are used and most harvesting organizations are certified under Ecocert or USDA standards.

Argan is harvested and processed by a unique cooperative system, run entirely by local women. From the 1990s onwards, those cooperatives have been created with the aid of foreign NGOs, first and foremost to preserve the argan forest and to create a stable income for women and their families. Nowadays, the around 300 cooperatives employ roughly 4000 women and are coordinated by an umbrella organization called Union des Coopératives des Femmes pour la Production et la Commercialisation de l’huile d’Argane (UCFA). UFCA’s role is to ensure centralized production and sale of argan oil to guarantee sustainable practices and fair conditions for the women. A considerable percentage of the argan oil sale's proceeds is invested in rural development project of the Amazigh (Berber) region.

Commercialization of the argan shells is a relatively recent initiative. The argan shell constitutes the kernel of the argan fruit, which bears the oily 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. Biofuel use continues up to now on a local scale, besides new and more profitable applications – above all as a speciality raw material for cosmetic ingredients.

This is where the BioPowder team has developed its niche. Our founder, Kathrin Schilling, first came to Morocco in 2014 and has since built strong relationships with the cooperatives. Everything is managed with a personal touch, she highlights, and business partners have become friends over time. The artisanal nature of the argan production promotes a strong sense of community and trusted communication. Argan processing is a very seasonal business after all, which requires foresightedness and a longer-term vision. The involved people are a great reflection of BioPowder’s values and mission, and we constantly strive to offer maximum support.


Our founder Kathrin Schilling learning to crush the argan kernels

Our founder Kathrin Schilling learning to crush the argan kernels

The local logistics team having a typical Tajine for lunch

The local logistics team having a typical Tajine for lunch

Sourcing and Processing Challenges: Nature’s Rules vs. Best Practices  

In spite of traditional farming and proven techniques, argan processing practices have evolved. On one hand, this is due to changing demands towards the 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.

To ensure that argan products meet the highest quality standards, argan fruit harvesting has shifted from a traditional method to systematic manual picking by the local farming community. In earlier times, a significant share of ripe argan fruits was eaten by goats that subsequently excreted the kernels. What has been considered a unique phenomenon of the ecosystem, however, can be detrimental to the quality of the kernel (fermentation) and ultimately the oil. This is why certified cooperatives now only accept hand-picked argan fruits that have not passed the goats’ digestive system.

Moreover, climate change and the lack of rainfall have compromised the argan harvest in recent times. According to official sources, 2023 is the fourth year of drought in a row. 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 argan sector.

In contrast to the highly industrialized olive oil production, argan oil remains an organic niche product. There is hardly any way to upscale production due to the small available volumes. Hence, the focus should be placed on resource efficiency, quality and continuity. Preservation of the trees throughout times of drought is of fundamental importance. Besides, access of the cooperatives to modern oil mill machinery helps enhance the output while maintaining a fair carbon footprint.   

BioPowder Strategy and Support – A Long-Term Vision

In view of the above, the BioPowder team is determined to reinforce their sourcing commitment. To counter the effects of drought and limited output, premiums above the local market rates are paid to facilitate production. This provides incentives for meticulous sorting, clean storage and timely preparation of the available quantities.

Women sieving and separating argan shells

Women sieving and separating argan shells

Impressions from the argan oil mill

Impressions from the argan oil mill

BioPowder clearly pursues a long-term approach to argan shell sourcing and processing. Agreements with the cooperatives are indefinite, and a stock of argan shells is maintained all year round for continued availability of argan shell powder. One area with potential for optimization is logistics. Argan cooperatives are located in rural areas in some distance to major highways and ports. Dedicated transport is necessary to collect the shells from each outlet and export them to our manufacturing plant in Spain. Looking at the future with optimism, the team considers setting up a local powder production plant in Morocco in the years to come.

Supporting sources:

Coopérative Féminine Al Amal, Tamanar, Morocco

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