Saffron is often colloquially called “red gold,” as it is one of the most expensive spices in the world, with an extremely labor-intensive production process. It has been used for several centuries for its culinary and healing properties. Today, saffron farming has become a great source of income and emancipation for women in some rural areas in Morocco, particularly Taliouine. The success of this farming venture suggests it could be applied in many other regions to improve the living conditions of local communities and contribute to the Moroccan economy.
A Flower Worth More Than Gold
The word saffron stems from the Arabic word zaafaran, meaning yellow in reference to the rich golden-yellow color saffron adds to food and textile. The saffron spice is extracted from the flower of Crocus sativus, and it is composed of the vivid crimson stigma and styles referred to as threads or strands.
There are various speculations about the origin of this plant. Some say it originated from Southwest Asia, and others claim that it was first cultivated in Greece. Currently, saffron is harvested as a crop in a number of areas around the world, including North America, Oceania, North Africa and, of course, Southwest Asia.
A highly coveted spice, saffron is sold in grams; one gram of pure saffron costs approximately 3 to 4 US dollars in Morocco and between 6 to 9 dollars in the United States. Saffron can be added to all sorts of dishes, from appetizers to desserts and main courses; it complements the taste of a variety of ingredients and adds a luxurious dimension to meals.
Fourth Largest Producer of Saffron
Morocco is the fourth largest producer of saffron after Iran, India, and Afghanistan, with 6.8 tons grown mainly in the region of Taliouine. According to data from the Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the allocated land for harvesting saffron has increased from 610 hectares (2.3 sq. miles) in 2008 to 1,826 hectares (7 sq. miles) in 2018.
Morocco is the fourth largest producer of saffron after Iran, India, and Afghanistan, with 6.8 tons grown mainly in the region of Taliouine.
Indeed, the saffron harvesting land has more than tripled in just ten years, exceeding the Ministry’s initial target by 35 percent (1,350 ha or 5 sq. miles). With such an increase, the production of the red gold has risen from 1,500 kg (3,307 lbs) in 2008 to 6,860 kg (15,124 lbs) in 2018. It generated a revenue of about 139 million dirhams in 2018 ($US 15.4 Million), or nine times more than in 2008 (16 million dirhams).
Taliouine: The Red Gold Capital
Saffron production in Morocco consists of both modern and small family-owned plantations mostly in the Taliouine region, known as the saffron capital of Morocco. The area is on the borders of the High-Atlas and the Anti-Atlas, more than 200 km (124 miles) from Marrakech and less than 200 km from Agadir in the south of Morocco.
Taliouine’s weather conditions – characterized by cold and clear winters, hot and arid summers, and humid falls and springs, along with its moderately acidic soil – provide a suitable environment for the cultivation of saffron bulbs that can only grow in certain regions of the world.
The town of Taliouine even hosts a festival to commemorate the saffron harvest and its role in enabling families, especially women, to be financially independent and contribute to the expenses of their household and the education of their children.
Women’s Major Role in Saffron Farming
The beginning of July of each year marks the start of the saffron production cycle in Morocco. The traditional planting of saffron bulbs necessitates two farmers; the first one digs up the soil and the second one plants three to four bulbs in one spot and leaves 10 centimeters (4 inches) between each group of bulbs.
After four months of watering the fields and eliminating the weeds, the process of picking the flowers starts. Women handpick the saffron flowers for about two weeks from late October or the beginning of November, usually before dawn to avoid the heat. They always involve their children in the delicate task of separating the precious strands from the flowers, which necessitates a lot of patience. The separated strands are then left to dry before they are packaged and shipped to the domestic and global markets.
From Poor Housewives to Financially Independent Entrepreneurs
Saffron production has changed the lives of illiterate women in some of the forgotten parts of Morocco, creating numerous job opportunities for those in the most remote rural areas. According to the World Bank, women are involved in 80 percent of the process of harvesting, refining, and packaging the saffron.
Women are involved in 80 percent of the process of harvesting, refining, and packaging the saffron.
In an Al Jazeera documentary on saffron farmers in Taliouine, Khadija Akhraz, Director of Iknaren Cooperative, stated that “Saffron is our job and our source of living. I hope that we will promote its production in the future.” Khadija is just one example of countless women who have been able to emancipate themselves through cultivating and producing saffron.
These women took advantage of government support programs to promote the cultivation of saffron through the National Initiative for Human Development, which inspired local cooperatives called Dar Azaafarane (Saffron Houses) in many places. This later developed into Economic Interest Groups (EIGs) aimed at helping cooperatives market their product, by adding value to their work and ensuring the sustainability of their projects. The EIGs help sell the saffron domestically and internationally, addressing a major challenge for the wellbeing of the local economy and the living conditions of more than 1,200 families.
One EIG in Taliouine incorporates a total of 25 cooperatives that deposit their production to be sold around the world. Moreover, the EIG ensures the quality and authenticity of the saffron by adopting a traceability system from farmer to consumer and, therefore, avoiding intermediaries and third-party traders.
One of the issues of this marketing method, though, is that farmers do not get paid immediately. Instead, they are paid six months to one year after delivering their crops, which is not practical for them as they need money sooner to cover their planting and harvesting expenses.
Talouine’s Saffron Ventures Should be Replicated
The success story of the saffron production in Taliouine has inspired farmers in other regions of Morocco to embark on the same journey. Mr. Ait Hadou Hassan, Director and Co-founder of Tin Issane Saffron Cooperative, in Ait Abdellah village in the region of Ouarzazate, is one of those farmers.
Eager to benefit from the government support program to develop his cooperative, Hassan has submitted many requests to the local authorities for the provision of saffron bulbs and training courses in the production and marketing of saffron. Yet his numerous requests fell on deaf ears each time, under the excuse that his rural commune is not included in the saffron support initiative.
Small farmers and new saffron cooperatives face another problem in developing their production. Most of them do not have the financial resources to obtain quality certificates from national and international standards organizations, to be able to sell their saffron internationally. Thus, they find many hindrances in marketing their product at reasonable prices. “They often have no choice but to sell their harvest to third-party traders and marketing intermediaries at cheaper prices (15 Moroccan dirham instead of 30 or 35 dirhams per gram),” Ait Hadou Hassan told Inside Arabia.
The Moroccan local authorities together with non-governmental organizations should look at the Taliouine success story of how saffron farming has improved the lives of many poor women, turning them into independent and active citizens, and put more effort into utilizing this strategy in other regions. Moreover, it must intervene to ensure fair practices in the saffron production industry, in favor of small farmers and cooperatives, to put an end to the greediness of third-party traders and intermediaries.