Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries

by High Atlas Foundation
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Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries
Community Fruit Tree and Medicinal Herb Nurseries

The rocky terrains of the High Atlas Mountains are hard to navigate even for the most seasoned motorists, but our driver Hassan, a native Amazigh, knows by heart all their twists and turns. On our way to Tadmamt, he was humming to the relaxing melodies by Johnny Cash on the radio, while guiding the car on the ground with such tenderness as if he were stroking off the wrinkles on Grandma’s face. We chatted on and off. He told me that he was a taxi driver for 25 years until five years ago, when he quit and started working for the High Atlas Foundation. “My life has changed so much since I took this job,” he remarked as he made another turn on the edge of a cliff, “For the better. Everything’s calmer now, and more stable.”

Our first stop was a nursery for walnuts and almonds. The nursery was already perfectly set up; the trip was just a routine check on its progress. There were 200,000 saplings in the nursery. On the higher patch of land grew the newly-planted saplings, still accumulating power to break the ground, while on the lower patch you could already see, here and there, tiny branches sprouting up in the plastic bags. A drip irrigation system was installed on both patches, and there were four technicians to make sure that everything runs smoothly.

Amina, our project manager, was talking to the farmers in Tamazight as the rest of us sat down for a tea break. One of the farmers cracked open some walnuts with a stone to serve as snacks. He was clearly skilled at the task, aiming at just the right angle and always succeeding with the first attempt. Over tea, my fellow volunteer Zineb, a young Moroccan with a degree in biology, told me about the incredible biodiversity in the High Atlas Mountains – all kinds of plants grow here, from cedars to kermes oaks. “The mountain bears more treasure than it receives credit for,” she said before we left.

Our second stop was also a nursery, and it was run by women. They received training only 19 days ago, yet they already managed to plant 14,022 seeds of olive trees and carob trees in the ground. Before they took up this occupation, these women, some of them as young as 18, were spending most of their time home, doing pretty much nothing. Right now, they have become a trained team of nursery workers and were preparing themselves for the intensive up-coming tree-planting that was no less than a battle against time.

The strategic council that greeted us that day was comprised of one older woman and two young girls in their early 20s. The objective of the day was to devise a plan that would somehow make possible the planting of 15,000 olive trees and 10,978 carob trees within March. It was some sophisticated operations management with many variables: they had to figure out who does how much of what at what time. To make matters worse, the attendance couldn’t be taken for granted – some women were still reluctant about joining, presumably encumbered by certain social expectations.

“We’ll just make two plans. One for when they show up, another for when they don’t,” suggested Amina, our project manager, who was undaunted by the situation. She just pulled out a notebook and drew up two schedules.

Tree-planting takes more than two hands and a good intention. It requires hard work, extensive knowledge, as well as careful planning. The women at the nursery have to procure enough plastic bags, fill them with soil before the seeds arrive, and soak the seeds in water to filter out the empty ones. And this is only the preparatory work before planting. Since all HAF’s co-ops abide by the organic principles, they will also have to prepare compost and hone their techniques in organic farming. But of course, they don’t have to go through all this by themselves; HAF will assist them throughout the process.

What started out as spontaneous workshops would soon turn into a fully-fledged co-op. Amina informed them about the two options: they could either receive compensation at the year’s end depending on the number of trees they successfully grow, or they could opt for a monthly “budget” instead. In either case, HAF would provide them with all the materials needed and conduct regular trainings. Still unsure about their newly acquired tree-planting techniques, the women chose the latter. “Next year we will switch to the first option,” the older woman said with confidence.

By the time we got back, it was nearly eight o’clock. “A demain,” Hassan said to me with a gentle smile. His lined face reminded me of the mountains, of their solemn presence and remarkable radiance. Her strength and grace becomes that of the people she breeds, and through them she lives, with infinite energy and all-encompassing love.

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I am a late career American businessman.  Currently, I volunteer about four times each year with NGOs in developing and middle-income countries.  I assist across a range of business disciplines (marketing, sales, strategic planning, and organizational improvement.) Over the past 10 years, I have conducted 55 volunteer assignments in more than 20 countries.

I am just now completing a 15 day volunteer business assignment in Marrakech, Morocco.  My client is the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), a United States and Moroccan NGO offering as its core mission 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 blockages to their growth – and propose follow-up activity to address their needs.  Each nursery had its own special set of needs. Some needs 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 is being 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 co-op management lessons 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 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 2,200 today.  The small but active remnant community has discovered that offering old cemeteries to HAF as tree nurseries actually helps to preserve them as historical and memorial sites for diasporic Jews to return to and visit. As long as no gravesites are damaged, the disused cemeteries actually receive refurbishment and ongoing care from a joint nursery/cemetery caretaker.

HAF does more that grow and distribute trees.  It provides social services to poor communities.  For example, one small village 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 organize a clean water source in the village.  Just one caveat: every household in the village must sign a contract that they will send their daughters to school 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.

And now as I wrap up my volunteer assignment I thank HAF for 15 pleasurable and professionally satisfying days.

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On Monday, 20 January, the High Atlas Foundation commemorated the annual day of tree planting when most of the members of the Foundation came out with Moroccan and foreign volunteers to plant organic trees in the various Moroccan provinces: Al-Haouz, Agadir, Youssoufia, Rabat, and Fez. This day saw the distribution of about 11,350 almond, pomegranate and fig trees.

The question arose as to why it took place on that specific day, and the answer is that it is Martin Luther King’s Day, celebrated annually on the third Monday in January. King is best known for his struggle and his call for solidarity and brotherhood between whites and blacks in America. Previously, Dr. Yossef, the president of the High Atlas Foundation (HAF), has said, "The aim of this day is to improve a spirit of cooperation by planting organic fruit trees and medicinal plants in Morocco." The symbolism of this annual event is to commemorate King’s mission with the coming together of HAF staff, volunteers, local community members, and others in this same spirit for the betterment of Morocco.

As a member of HAF, I had the good fortune, accompanied by my co-worker, Sanae, to leave my fingerprint on this day by helping to plant 1,000 pomegranate trees produced by the nurseries of the High Atlas Foundation in partnership with Ecosia in Lalla Takerkoust commune.

 Headed by Mrs. Naima, Al Elefa Cheese of Lalla Takerkoust Cooperative is the meeting place for farmers and some active youth in the region to work together in solidarity.

I will not say that it was easy to talk with people with more agricultural experience than I, but I told myself that I was representing our foundation in this region. This was no place for fear, and I needed courage and self-confidence to speak and lead the discussion between the attendees. It is really a beautiful feeling.

Indeed, I succeeded in talking about the Foundation and the projects it promotes for sustainable development and to help the fragile, needy villages in Morocco. I spoke in particular about the annual day of afforestation and announced that 1,000 pomegranate trees would be distributed to the farmers of the region on that day.

Before we started planting trees, we loved getting to know more about the cheese cooperative. Mrs. Naima is a saleswoman in the pharmacy and always at the service of the village women, helping. The establishment of a cooperative was the way to ensure a stable income for the nearly 20 widowed and divorced women, a number that is increasing. This cooperative sources milk from seven other cooperatives that specialize in raising 300 goats. Since they are suffering from marketing problems, they are joined by the Farmer-to-Farmer project, which aims to work with these cooperatives and develop them in several areas, including marketing and production.

I also took this opportunity to discuss with them the Imagine workshop that aims to empower women to discover their own capabilities. In fact, that workshop played a big role in enabling me to speak today with courage and without fear in front of people I have just met and assume the task of representing HAF and carrying on the annual day of tree planting.

The partnership between HAF and Ecosia ensures that this year almost 300,000 organic fruit trees will be planted from among the eleven HAF nurseries. The fruit trees include argan, carob, olive, almond, walnut, pomegranate and fig, among others. These nurseries will be working every day toward our target goal of planting almost 1,222,000 trees in all the regions and provinces of Morocco, in partnership with more cooperatives and associations to help farmers. In addition, HAF works with schools to encourage our youth to be faithful and interested to their country.  

We have resumed the planting process with the farmers of the region who previously prepared the land and pits for planting. Mr. Hassan Charrouf came back from Casablanca and Mr. Mohamed came from Safi to learn more about HAF and attend the planting day in Lalla Takerkoust commune. I was very pleased that they have traveled long distances in order to participate in this day. Also, I will not forget their efforts with us in facilitating the process between the nurseries and most of the farmers who benefited from the trees.

Tree planting day on the 20th was a special day for me: I had the opportunity to talk and do what I like to do in this life, to plant trees and help in the development of my country.

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After our team had a traditional breakfast in the town of Asni, we needed to go further into the atlas to help the greenhouse nurseries expand. Our first destination was a nursery in Imigdal. They had one greenhouse and a few terraces. There were approximately 30,000 fruit trees, with a variety of food species. It was challenging for the nursery caretaker to water the fruit trees in the dry season due to the scarcity of water. Our team, including a farmer-2-farmer volunteer from the United States, had a meeting with the caretaker to ask questions and discuss solutions to the water problem. Bill, Our american visiting expert provided 4 solutions to help:

1. Bill first proposed to cover the basin so the water would not evaporate and there would not be any dirt particles that would affect the water, however; the water pressure would increase greatly, but there is a possibility to introduce a water pressure reducing valve for around 400 dollars.

2. The second proposal is covering only ½ or of the basin. This would decrease the amount of evaporation and bad particles, but it would not eliminate them, nevertheless; we would not have a water pressure problem.

The caretaker told us that there is a competition between our NGO and another NGO about the amount of water taken from the basin. I then asked how much water he uses. He could not give me an exact answer so I proposed that he use a flow meter to determine how much water he uses, so we could compare the water usage between the two NGO’s and work out an agreement.

We faced another challenge with water limit: We had to leave a percentage of water to go down to the main river because there’s still an ecosystem the water has to nurture. The NGO’s could not split all of the water in the basin, but they had to split a percentage of it.

A team member gave an idea to implement solar panels on top of the basin, hence this idea would be achieving two objectives at once because it would be creating solar energy and covering the basin at the same time. However, this plan was not elaborated because we had to stay on budget.

These challenges forced volunteers to think outside the box, even though some materials were limited, we still persevered to find a solution.

Furthermore, we then asked the caretaker if his water supply in the wet season is sufficient, the caretaker told us that he had a surplus of water during this season.

1. Bill had thought of preserving this water for the dry season, so he thought of including a second tank to save water for the summer months.

2. The last solution was given by the caretaker: it is a pipe from the basin to the greenhouse. This is probably going to be the most expensive solution, and we would need a lot of machinery and equipment from the municipality.

We continued to discuss each solution in detail, with their pros and cons. Our team came to the conclusion that they would bring in a water expert to see which option meets the needs of the nursery and stays within budget, while supporting the ecosystem.

I enjoyed learning that HAF sells these fruit trees for twenty cents each when the city market sells them for about a dollar. The price symbolizes that revenue is not important for HAF. The truth is that they want to help grow revenue for communities because, after only six years of growth, they could benefit from selling the fruit on these trees. Once the trees are transported to communities, people and soon to be farmers could gain about 7000 dirhams in revenue per tree each year. HAF wants to build a financially stable future for the people in the rural communities and make sure they are able to support themselves in the coming years.

The second nursery we went to was a women's co-op in Ouirgane. After my trip, I talked with the team and they told me that it took them a year to defend women's rights to be farmers and to take over the men's co-op. It has only been a week and the rural women had been working hard in the garden. They expressed their motivation to grow their business; in the meeting, these women were concentrated on Bill’s lesson, they were attentive, and asked thoughtful questions. At the end of his lesson, the women were able to summarize it all. They were asking for a deeper understanding of roles HAF thought they should implement into their system such as president, vice president, treasurer, and agricultural expert. This gave them a sense of order and importance, because it was the formal way of working. I believe this co-op empowers these women because it is a business of their own that they want to grow.

This is a summary of Bill’s mini-marketing lesson that the women learned :

1. Identify the customer

2. Ask what they want and what the problem is

3. Listen to their needs and show how your product can generate income and solve their problem

The team identified earlier that they needed to learn how to cultivate the fruit trees. They decided that they would have the other nursery caretaker from Imigdal come to the women's co-op and teach them how to produce crops efficiently and organically.

I was happy to see the confidence this project gave the women. They were going to become businesswomen and were motivated to grow, their dedication proved that they wanted to be successful, and inshallah they will be.

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On a sunny, winter morning, our team leaves the HAF office for Al Haouz province. Today, we will visit two nurseries with an American business expert – a USAID Farmer-to-Farmer Volunteer – who will devise a plan for each cooperative to help improve productivity. Our team includes our driver, the project manager/translator, the management and evaluation officer, the business expert, and me. I am here to observe only and to give my impressions. What I see is people from small villages who are earnestly trying to improve their lives and those of the people in their community. They are open to receiving help and advice. They want to do their best.

For the caretaker of the nursery in Imgdal, Hassan, the issue is water. They have moved plantings from the traditional, uncovered terrace method to a temporary greenhouse of pipe-and-netting construction with an irrigation system he designed. The carob, argan, almond, pomegranate, walnut, cherry, and grape saplings are thriving in this new setting, but the plan is to create a more stable structure with plastic walls. The supplies are starting to come in. The rich, organic compost is set aside. His biggest concern is how to secure a reliable supply of water for irrigation from the river below. The river water is free for their use, but the pumping process will cost money.

The eight-woman cooperative in Tassa Ouirgane has a different story. Theirs is a more lush, verdant area with plenty of water. It is an idyllic setting as we exit the vehicle to the 2:00 Duhr call to prayer. Walking to the nursery of healthy olive, fig, and other trees, I notice two shy little girls watching and giggling from behind a large tree trunk. The women admit that they have only taken over management one week before from the men’s co-op, and what they most desire is training for how to market the already-growing plants. They want to expand to include medicinal plants, and though there are challenges for them, they are committed to making this work.

As we return through the mountains to Marrakech, making our way along the switchback roads, I think about these people and what they are trying to accomplish. What makes it worth it? How does one measure the intrinsic value of a tree? I am reminded of a poem by William Carlos Williams, “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow, glazed with rainwater, beside the white chickens.” So much depends upon the wheelbarrow next to the greenhouse, the tool held in a woman’s hand, the water from the spring or the river. So much depends upon a tree.

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Organization Information

High Atlas Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @AtlasHigh
Project Leader:
Yossef Ben-Meir
President of the High Atlas Foundation
Marrakech, Morocco
$40,749 raised of $50,000 goal
517 donations
$9,251 to go
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