A hard but sweet-smelling slog on Mt Atlas – Morocco’s Valley of the Roses

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A worker spreads rose petals outside a house in the city of Kelaat Mgouna (or Tighremt NImgunen) in Morocco’s central Tinghir Province in the Atlas Mountains on April 26, 2021. AFP

To earn a dollar, rose picker Izza in Morocco's Atlas Mountains wakes up at dawn to collect three kilos of flowers – eventually distilled into precious oil costing $18,000 per kilo.

"We earn just enough to live on," she says, her hands gloved against the thorns and her head covered against the hot sun bearing down on the Valley of the Roses in the kingdom's south.

The harvest begins at dawn, and it takes about six hours – before the sunshine damages the shocking pink petals – to fill the big bags that the women carry on their heads to the weighing station.

Izza Ait Ammi Mouh, a Berber woman of "about 40" – she doesn't know her exact age and can't spell her name – doesn't complain.

The work allows her to feed her family of five, picking 20 kilos (45 pounds) to take home just under $7 a day during the short April-May season.

A kilo of essential oils requires between four and five tons of flowers.

The heady aroma of the Rosa Damascena, a variety introduced in the days of the caravan trade, perfumes hedges and fields irrigated by two wadis between the mountains and the Sahara desert.

Everything revolves around roses: the names of hotels, cosmetics sold in countless stores, necklaces offered by children in the streets.

The annual festival in the town of Kelaat Mgouna – with a rose statue at its centre – attracted thousands of visitors before Covid-19.

'Lucky to be poor'

"The rose is the only way to work in the valley," says Najad Hassad.

The 35-year-old happily left her job in a packaging factory to manage the Rosamgoun cooperative, a small distillery set up by two sisters who grow roses.

The work is much better paid, 2,500 dirhams ($280) a month, almost the official minimum wage in Morocco, instead of 400 dirhams a month at the factory.

And the unit of five employees feels "like a family".

The distillery produces rose water and essential oils sold in the cooperative's store, along with cosmetic derivatives such as soap, creams, perfumes and ointments.

Rochdi Bouker, head of the Moroccan growers and processors association, Fimarose, sees the rose as "an engine of local development", banking on the global vogue for natural raw materials and organic products.

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The heady aroma of the Rosa Damascena, a variety introduced in the days of the caravan trade, perfumes hedges and fields irrigated by two wadis between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. AFP

It aims to register an "organic" label for the valley to boost the value of local roses on a world market dominated by Bulgaria and Turkey, the leaders in rose-based perfumes.

"We are lucky to be poor," he said. "We don't treat our valley, or very little – (it) isn't filled with pesticides or insecticides".

To increase income and combat an exodus from rural areas, Morocco must "develop the derivatives that bring in the most" income, essential oils and "concrete", an extract obtained by solvent which, once filtered, is highly prized by the luxury perfume industry, Bouker added.

'Looking for more'

Moroccan rose exports are currently restricted mostly to rose water and dried flowers.

Essential oils account for only about 50 kilos of annual exports and "concrete" for 500 kilos, a fraction of the industrial volumes sold by Bulgaria and Turkey, according to Fimarose.

"Here, the main buyers are tourists passing through," explains Mohamed Kaci.

The 40-year-old started with a still, and he now employs 30 people in his company, "La Valle des Roses", specialising in cosmetics.

But "unfortunately, Covid-19 is blocking everything," he says.

With the pandemic, the price of fresh flowers has sunk by about 30 percent in the past two years.

The downturn came after a buoyant period, driven by the agriculture ministry's efforts to develop the sector.

"We're looking for more and more investors," says Hafsa Chakibi.

The 30-year-old Franco-Moroccan set up her own business, Flora Sina, in 2016 on the back of a university degree in chemistry, banking on the appeal of organic produce, small volumes and "traditional" distillation in copper stills.

Her "pure and natural" rose water has quickly found customers who are "looking for something more" in Canada, China, Britain, France and the Netherlands.