Category Archives: Morocco

Tree Nurseries Have Needs Too

I am just now completing a 15 day volunteer business assignment in Marrakech, Morocco.  Two years ago I conducted just such a gig in Marrakech as well. My client this time is again, the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), a United States and Moroccan NGO. HAF’s core mission is the operation of 11 tree nurseries in Morocco. These nurseries provide fruit and nut trees at no- or low-cost to communities, schools, hospitals, and small farmers. Recipients of the trees earn revenue from the resultant fruits and nuts, use the trees as windbreaks, and, at schools, provide lessons in agriculture for students.

My specific assignment has been to evaluate four of HAF’s tree nurseries, determine their needs – – especially impediments to their growth – – and propose follow on activity to address their needs.  Each nursery had its own special set of needs. Some are beyond my expertise so I am developing recommendations to HAF to bring in expert volunteers to support areas where I am deficient.  For example, HAF will need a cost accountant to establish tracking of financial results and to calculate payback of greenhouse construction. Other needs include soil analysis, nursery operations, and cooperative leadership and management.

One of the nurseries I evaluated, Tassa Ouigane, is run by a women’s cooperative. This female co-op was granted the franchise to manage the nursery about one month ago without any prior training.  To ensure that this group is not being set up to fail, HAF has already conducted lessons in cooperative management for the women as well as introductory nursery operations classes.  I did my small part by delivering marketing and sales instruction.

The Moroccan Ministry of Agriculture has established a goal of planting one billion trees in the country.  I suspect no one thought to run the numbers to determine that planting so many trees would actually take close to 1000 years.  But on the positive side, it does provide an attention grabbing aspiration. And HAF is doing its part to chip away at that one billion tree goal.

After viewing four existing nurseries for HAF, I was asked to conduct a site visit to evaluate land for a prospective new nursery.  But there was a special twist to this land.  It is currently occupied by a 300 year old Jewish Cemetery.  The Jewish population of Morocco has dwindled from 250,000 after World War II to about 900 today.  The small but active remnant community has discovered that offering old cemeteries to HAF as tree nurseries actually helps to preserve the cemeteries as historical and memorial sites for diasporic Jews to return to and visit. As long as no gravesites are damaged by nursery activity, the disused cemeteries actually receive refurbishment and ongoing care from a caretaker who oversees both the nursery and the cemetery.

HAF does more that grow and distribute trees.  It provides community services to poor villages.  For example, one rural hamlet in the High Atlas Mountains has no nearby source of clean drinking water. Consequently, the village girls (but not the boys) spend 16% of their time fetching water from a distant source. Of course such a time consuming daily task cuts into their education.  In fact, not a single girl in the village attends school beyond the sixth grade. HAF has offered to pay for and install a clean water source in the village.  Just one caveat: every household in the village must sign a binding contract that they will send their daughters to class beyond primary school.  All families must sign on before HAF will pay for the water. As of my writing, HAF is expecting their collective response any day now. Positive we hope.

One morning on the road to visit a tree nursery we stopped for breakfast at a roadside café. And this wasn’t just any roadside café. Their standard breakfast is famous in these parts. One doesn’t order, you just sit down and they bring you mint tea, chick peas, lentils, fried eggs, olives. Also no utensils, but bread to sop up the breakfast offerings. Quite delicious. Oh, and one more item: boiled cows’ feet.

Now I’m not a big consumer of beef but I figured this was mostly just fat and keratin. Anyway, my hosts were digging in so I followed suit.  What starts as a cow’s hard hoof, once boiled, is soft and mushy.  It is gelatin, mostly used in pet food but sometimes served in Moroccan roadside eateries. It is also an ingredient in marshmallows.  Look it up, I did. I do not plan to repeat this gastronomic experience, but at least I tried it once.

I suspect some readers of this space carry a degree of alarm about (my) personal safety while working in a Muslim country.  I will even admit to a minor pang of worry as an American prior to accepting this assignment.  But now it is time to put everyone’s minds at ease.  It is time to put safety in perspective. The US has the 39th highest murder rate in the world out of roughly 190 countries.  Morocco has the 144th highest.  Conclusion: safer in Morocco.  The US suffered 65 terrorist events on its soil in 2019, with 95 deaths.  Morocco experienced 0 such events and 0 deaths.  Conclusion: safer in Morocco.

The only thing is that I felt socially pressured into eating gelatinous cows’ hooves in Morocco. Conclusion: less pressure in the US.

Mint Tea All Around

Marrakech. One of fascinating Morocco’s special fascinations. In fact this place is so special Crosby, Stills, and Nash wrote a song about it in 1969: The Marrakech Express.

Wouldn’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express

Wouldn’t you know we’re riding on the Marrakech Express

They’re taking me to Marrakech

All aboard the train, all aboard the train

I did not arrive on the Marrakech Express but instead flew Boston to Madrid to Marrakech, which I suspect is faster than the circa 1969 train in this North African country.

I have spent three weeks here with the High Atlas Foundation. HAF is a United States and Moroccan NGO working in twelve of Morocco’s 62 provinces (equivalent to a county in the US.)  My assignment has been to address my client’s crop nursery business, conduct a strategic analysis, and write a business plan.  This business plan will help them focus on a manageable number of trees and plants to be offered to a targeted set of customers.

At present my client offers ten or so trees (e. g. almond, fig, cherry, walnut, pomegranate) and ten or so herbs (fennel, lavender, peppermint, etc.) – – all organic – – to an unwieldy collection of schools, municipalities, farmer co-ops, and government bodies.

It is tough to be successful and efficient while trying to offer all things to all people. Collectively we hope to hone the business to a laser-like focus on fewer products and customer types…or if not a laser focus, at least a better targeted flashlight beam. Anyway, we will need to select the trees most valuable to HAF nurseries and most practical to HAF’s beneficiaries.  These beneficiaries receive the trees as a donation, free of charge, from HAF.

In order to hone our laser-like focus we created eight selection criteria and evaluated the candidate trees and plants against the criteria which included:

  • Rapid growth to fruit production age (so that recipients can more quickly reap the benefit of their fruit and nut trees)
  • Modest water requirements (in this arid country)
  • Long orchard life (some walnut orchards can produce nuts for nearly a century)

What to plant? It takes one to two years for the fruit and nut trees cultivated by HAF to reach seedling stage – – a couple of feet tall – – so that they can be delivered to a farmer for replanting in his field.  HAF must make its tree planting selection well in advance of receiving an order from a farmer. The trees will have been growing in the nursery for six months to a year before customers place an order.  One can’t exactly unplant an incorrect decision six months into the tree’s growth, so HAF has relied on the art of crop selection…they really didn’t have a perfectly scientific technique to apply.  The evaluation criteria we introduced add a degree of scientific technique to HAF’s art.

In case you were wondering, olive, pomegranate, fig, carob, and walnut came out highly ranked. And if you are still wondering, I have been eating the fruit of those trees for the past three weeks here in Morocco.

On a separate note, date palms and olive trees, besides producing valued fruit, are used ornamentally and for shade here in Marrakech.  It just so happens that the fruit of both trees – – yes, olives are botanically a fruit – – are ripening now and dropping their fruit on the sidewalk.  It is sort of squishy underfoot. But that just adds to the charm of the place. However, truly defining the charm of the place is the old town or medina. Parts of this winding labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys are over five centuries old.  Perhaps the most charming slice of the medina is Jamaa el Fna, the old town’s medieval square. Every evening it is complete with snake charmers, monkey handlers, dozens of outdoor dining stalls, henna artists, and costumed water sellers treating customers as if they had just crossed the Sahara in camel caravan from Timbuktu to arrive parched in Jamaa el Fna. And then there are the hordes of touts all expecting a tip for trying to coax the tourist into an encounter with a snake charmer and his musically mesmerized cobra, a monkey man, the water sellers, and couscous laden food stalls. It really doesn’t get much more fascinating than this.

In Muslim countries such as Morocco not much alcohol is consumed, tea serves as a stand in. Mint tea is far and away the social beverage of choice.  It is nearly impossible to attend a meeting without being offered a glass of hot, sugary, mint tea.  In the souk, Marrakech’s giant marketplace, any vendor worth his snuff will coerce a passing tourist into his shop, ply him with mint tea, and pitch his handcrafted jewelry, carpets, leather bags, wood carvings, and countless other quality crafts.  I made it out of the carpet seller’s shop after just two glasses of tea. I was also $130 lighter and one small carpet heavier.

I visited two tree nurseries. Before talking business we drank sweet mint tea.  Every morning in the HAF office we break at 10:30 for sweet mint tea.  I recently read a book about healthy things to put into one’s body.  Sugar was not on the healthy list. In fact, this book convinced me that sugar is the devil, at least nutritionally speaking.  But in Morocco one must live with this devil (in the form of sweet mint tea.)  It would be socially awkward not to. I’ll cut back when I get home. I promise.

Finally, back to the labyrinth of Marrakech’s old medina:  One Sunday afternoon I got hopeless lost and couldn’t find my way out. So I contracted a 10 year old local kid to guide me back to a recognizable landmark.  I clearly said “Le Boulevard Mohammed V” in my American accented, mangled French.  And the young boy said “Oui,” so I knew I was being guided to my landmark. I trailed the kid for 15 minutes through alleyways, twists and turns, and narrow passages until he proudly delivered me, not to Le Boulevard Mohammed V, but instead to his school, L’ecole Mohammed V.

I knew I should have taken French and not Latin in high school.