DUBAI: Rejuvenating Morocco’s historic date palm industry has swelled the income of millions of agricultural workers, but the crop’s renaissance has also caused environmental problems that three young Moroccans are determined to solve.
Mohammed Harakate, Meriem Nadi and Ayoub Habik are cofounders of Alternative Solutions, a startup that takes palm waste and transforms it into environmentally friendly wooden sheets that can be used in construction and interior design.
Although easy to summarize, the process of creating the company — which began operations in 2017 — and honing the manufacturing process were anything but.
“We’ve done well to survive two years already in Morocco. Launching a startup, especially social impact businesses, isn’t easy,” said Harakate, 27, chief executive of Alternative Solutions.
Morocco was once among the world’s biggest date producers before a fungus known as Bayoud disease killed more than 12 million palms in the 20th century.
The country began to revitalize the industry soon after 2000, with annual production hitting 128,000 tons in 2016.
The government aims to increase this to 160,000 tons by 2020, and has helped to plant millions of new trees, with the crop providing the income of 14 million Moroccans.
But rejuvenating the industry is also causing environmental problems. The Draa-Tafilalet region, located in the Atlas Mountains, produces 85,000 tons of dates annually, plus an estimated 75,000 tons of associated waste.
On a work trip to the region, Harakate saw first-hand the environmental problems that this waste causes.
Usually, it is either left to rot on land that could otherwise be cultivated, or it is burnt, spewing carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
However, cutting away the waste leaves and wood makes the trees healthier and increases date production.
Some farmers, with nowhere to dispose of the waste, often fail to cut back the trees sufficiently, which can lower production and even cause them to die.
So the young entrepreneurs decided to find a better solution, hence the company’s name. Renting a warehouse in El-Jadida city, 100 km southwest of Casablanca, they designed machinery that could process the palm waste — via a complicated five-step process — into 0.5-meter-square boards that are certified by French quality assurance firm Ceribois.
Alternative Solutions then sells these boards to interior design companies and real estate developers, which use them to make tables, chairs, flooring, wall mountings and other furniture.
“The idea is to find ecological, alternative solutions for what to do with waste materials,” said Harakate. “The wood panels are just the first of many products we’ll launch. Once we can manufacture that to sufficient scale, we’ll diversify.”
The company’s expansion plans include making furniture in-house from the recycled palm wood, as well as converting palm fronds into handicrafts and organic feed for livestock.
Currently, it can recycle 40 percent of palm waste, but once it begins reusing the leaves it will be able to recycle it all.
“Our first challenge was to build the machine that could process the palm waste — we did it through reverse engineering,” Harakate said.
“The next challenge was finding funding. After that, it was a matter of finding customers to buy our product.”
The firm currently produces 100 square meters of wood panels per month. Once the company receives more funding, it will increase production.
It aims to attract 2 million Moroccan dirhams ($208,000) of new funding in 2020, enabling it to expand to Europe and North America.
The company has so far received 750,000 dirhams from various backers, including the Moroccan Center for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship, the World Bank and Bidaya Funds, a green-tech incubator.
Alternative Solutions has four fulltime employees, and works with NGOs in Draa-Tafilalet to arrange delivery of the palm waste to its factory. “The aim is to also create permanent jobs in Draa-Tafilalet in the long term,” said Harakate.