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.