By Caroline Culmo, Rohan Krishnan, Anjali Mahajan, and Elisa Zhang
After nearly a year of working with the High Atlas Foundation on the development of a business plan for value added-walnut processing as volunteer consultants from the University of Pennsylvania, our team had the opportunity to visit several of HAF’s agricultural cooperatives and walnut tree nurseries in the Al Haouz province of Morocco. While visiting these sites, we spoke to local growers and processors in order to understand the progress of existing projects, goals for future development, and barriers that remain to maximizing economic and social returns for rural communities.
We began our trip with a visit to the House of Life Fruit Tree Nursery in Akrich. We were amazed by the innovative agricultural techniques that have allowed this nursery to sustainably grow and thrive. After a tour of the nursery and burial ground of a Jewish-Moroccan saint, we enjoyed a traditional Moroccan breakfast with the caretaker and another volunteer from Slovenia who has been in Akrich since January conducting anthropological research. In addition to issues related to sustainable agriculture, we discussed structural barriers to girls’ education in the region.
From Akrich, we continued our journey and made our next stop at HAF’s walnut processing facility in Al Haouz. This visit was particularly meaningful as it imbued our work from the past several months with a concrete, perceptible dimension. Seated at the front steps of the facility, in a small courtyard with a breathtaking view of the High Atlas Mountains, we received a highly detailed account of the various steps involved in walnut-processing operations, from the initial purchase of raw walnuts from local growers to the packaging, labeling and certification of finished products. This conversation was invaluable to our finalization of the business plan, helping us to verify and adjust our assumptions to fit the specific social, economic, and environmental context of the local community.
Our final visit of the afternoon was to the Takhrkhourt Women’s Cooperative. After sharing some laughs over stories of their time attending primary school together, the young women emphasized to us the sense of inner peace and happiness that they had found in their work at the cooperative. They disclosed that after years of staying at home, the opportunity to go to work each day and to witness and enjoy the fruits of their labor has been enormously fulfilling.
The following day, we visited the Aboghlo Cooperative in Asni. The women here shared with us their experiences in HAF’s Imagine Workshop, an empowerment program that provides training in communication, coalition-building, and conflict mediation. We were struck by the strong sense of camaraderie among these women, and the candor and conviction with which they articulated their needs for improving working conditions.
At another cooperative higher up in the mountains, our conversations centered around the continued challenge of securing funding for solar panels and sustainable water systems to support the continued growth of tree planting initiatives in the region. We learned about HAF’s youth environmental training and educational programs which focus on the importance of planting trees for sustainable carbon reduction, food security, and stable income for village communities. Additionally, we spoke to a women’s cooperative about their personal goals and aspirations, from finishing their studies to pursuing careers in programming and fashion design.
Our final visit was to one of HAF’s largest nurseries, which has been operational for 13 years and is tucked away in a shaded terrace of incredibly beautiful and verdant land. We were shown the advanced irrigation system that waters the trees and learned about HAF’s ongoing effort to transition away from a gas-powered water source to solar-powered irrigation.
Our visits to HAF’s sites these past two days have been incredibly informative and serve as a powerful reminder of the reasons we remain committed to this work and the lives and livelihoods that are at stake.
Caroline Culmo, Rohan Krishnan, Anjali Mahajan and Elisa Zhang are undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania and team members in Penn International Impact Consulting, a student-run organization at UPenn that partners with NGOs from developing regions and seeks to empower them in achieving their social missions.