Leaving behind a successful career as an investment banker, Myriam Baïssa has transformed the Argan Oil industry in Morocco by introducing ethical sustainable farming practices to support her business Akhal Beauty.
Baïssa tells Kochie Business Builders (KBB) when she first visited Morocco two years ago she was shocked by what she saw taking place in the Argan Forest. According to Baïssa, there were countless dead Argan trees and the Argan farmers were living in sub-par living conditions, with no electricity and outside toilets.
“Those villagers were Argan harvesters and yet it seemed their living conditions did not match up the success of Argan oil which can be found in so many of our personal care and skin care products today,” Baïssa said. “After researching the industry, it became evident that the biggest losers of the Argan supply chain were the people central to the harvesting and making of the precious oil itself.”
It seemed to Baïssa, for the harvesters the popularity of the miracle beauty oil was a “blessing and a curse”. Whilst the Argan oil industry now provides employment for close to 3 million people in Morocco, the lack of regulations has caused workplace abuses. The lack of sustainable farming practices was also punishing for the environment.
“The Argan forest was subjected to a lot of damage over the 20th century when wood from the Argan trees was still used for fires and as a building material in Morocco. Those practices have now stopped but Argan trees typically take up to 15-years to bear fruits and their reproductive process is much slower than other trees. A dead Argan tree is extremely difficult to replace so the best way to protect the forest remains to sustainably use it so that a tree never dies prematurely,” Baïssa said.
[Image] Akhal Beauty founder Myriam Baissa.
“Because local indigenous communities are embedded in the Argan Forest and they rely so much on it for their food as well as livelihood, any threat to that environment is a threat to those communities.”
For Baïssa, a Moroccan Australian, the trip prompted her to question her own use of beauty products and set her pondering how she could do things differently. The result is Akhal Beauty: an organic, ethical, and sustainable skincare range that harnesses the transformative powers of potent ingredients whilst supporting those Moroccan indigenous communities that harvest the Argan oil; protecting their environment, and giving back to those most in need.
Baïssa tells KBB her decision to opt for an organic sustainable product was driven by ethics and a concern for health and wellbeing.
“We are all overexposed to chemicals through the many products we use daily. While each chemical used in those products may be safe for use, the effects of sustained exposure to a combination of chemicals can be dangerous. The more we overload our body with toxins, the more susceptible we make it to things like endocrine disruptors. I have myself suffered from regular hormonal imbalances and other health issues, which disappeared when I overhauled my lifestyle to cut the chemical-laden products I was using in my kitchen, bathroom, and laundry. Going organic is the healthier choice and we want our customers to be healthy, happy, and glowing.
“I also believe it to be the right thing to do for our environment and people.
“When you buy an organic beauty product, you take a stand for practices designed to encourage soil and water conservation and reduce our footprint on the environment.
“Most personal care products use ingredients derived from petroleum, a by-product of oil. Using them supports a fossil fuel industry that is damaging to our planet. Buying organic beauty products which are petroleum free is one way to invest in our collective future.”
Baisse tells KBB being sustainable and ethical is Akhal Beauty’s raison d’être.
“One of our goals is to demonstrate that a positive supply chain can benefit every stakeholder involved, from our co-ops in Morocco, to our retail partners in Australia and above all our customers who get value and quality without compromising on their ethics.
“Our definition of sustainability is broader. We look beyond this generation and invest in tomorrow’s citizens through our “buy one, fund one” policy. Giving has been a feature of our business from day one. The concept is simple: for every bottle that our customers buy, we donate $1 to educational initiatives in Morocco’s rural south. We chose these initiatives specifically because they assist local children to finish high school which provides them with better opportunities than their parents had thereby contributed to the longer-term sustainability of indigenous communities.”
[image] One of the student recipients benefiting from Akhal Beauty’s education program.
Of course setting up a truly sustainable business takes hard yakka. Baisse tells KBB setting up her supply chain took considerable effort.
“I wanted to find partners who would give us oversight over every aspect of the production process from harvesting to bottling. I needed to be able to stand 100% behind the products that Akhal Beauty was bringing to market. I also wanted to make sure that we were living our values every step of the way,” she says.
In the early stages, she faced a lot of push-back from companies and cooperatives with fewer scruples.
“I asked a few too many questions and there are cooperatives and companies I met on my travels in Morocco who felt uncomfortable lifting the veil on their operations including refusing to answer questions about wages paid to their workers. That didn’t cut it for me. I was looking for full transparency and I would not settle for anything less.”
After many trips through dirt roads, a few too many sweet mint teas and months of negotiation, Baisse his Aussie beauty product is changing the lives of Moroccan farmers said she finally found the right partners whose standards and ethos aligned with Akhal Beauty.
“I work with independently organised women who get the full value of their hard work. They harvest and process our ingredients and take great pride in producing a superior product that honours the forest they depend on. Ethical and sustainable beauty is not the easier path to follow but it is achievable!”
Whilst it was a long road to find the right partner, Baïssa believes she’s found a recipe for success.
“In five years’ time, we want Akhal Beauty to be a case study demonstrating the viability and success of ethical and for-purpose businesses. One of our objectives is to demonstrate that customers if given the choice, will prefer to spend their money on a product that is made ethically and makes a positive impact on this world beyond fulfilling its intended use. To achieve this we must continue to have commercial success as the more products we sell the more positive impact we have on the communities we support.”