Agricultural production a source of growth in Morocco’s southern provinces

Despite having different climate conditions from the rainy plains of the northern part of the kingdom, Morocco’s southern provinces have been able to establish a small but active agriculture sector that takes advantage of large aquifers and high temperatures. As a result, agriculture – and animal husbandry in particular – represents a growing proportion of the region’s economy and a key sector for jobs in the three southern regions. Expanding the sector’s income will require better agricultural practices, revamped infrastructure and comprehensive policies to manage essential water reservoirs. These issues are being addressed by public policy and private investment.

Economic Weight

The south’s agricultural sector has had to grapple with arid conditions, and as a result is based on desert-farming traditions that depend on oases for water. Thus, an emphasis is placed on growing sustainable levels of organic, high-quality produce, as opposed to the mass cultivation and industrial crop production that are possible in other areas of the country. For the southern provinces, agricultural output will have to be based on high-value production, with restraints on water consumption. “The southern provinces have developed what can be described as niche agriculture, but this has a lot of potential in terms of exporting high value-added produce,” Henri-Louis Védie, a professor of economics at Hautes Etudes Commerciales, told OBG.

Comprising 7% of regional GDP, the agriculture sector is still not as prevalent in the southern provinces at it is for Morocco overall, where it made up 16% of national GDP in 2014. Headline growth in recent years and increased export activity suggest that a focused strategy to improve inefficiencies in the sector will go a long way in establishing agriculture as a long-term economic earner for the region. The sector contributes around Dh2.3bn (€250m) per year to the southern region’s economy, according to 2013 figures by Morocco’s Economic, Social and Environmental Council ( Conseil Economique, Social et Environnemental, CESE). The sector employs about 20,000 people, and represents a source of income for anywhere between 75,000 to 100,000 people, roughly 10% of the population.

The government strategy to enhance agricultural conditions across the kingdom, the Green Morocco Plan, has identified regional strong-points and aims to build on those to increase production and exports. These include expanding garden farming for international exports, increasing animal farming and developing value-added activities linked to camel breeding and beekeeping as well as milk and date production. A successful initiative has been to utilise Saharan soils to grow high-quality melons and tomatoes. Over the past decade, companies such as Groupe Tazi, Soprofel or Agridak have focused on growing high-end agriculture products such as tomatoes and melons using drop-by-drop irrigation systems.

These will all depend on different approaches to specific conditions on the terrain, as the three southern provinces have developed similar but diverse agricultural sectors. The three southern region’s different climate and development conditions have set distinct priorities for agriculture development. The furthest south, bordering Mauritania, the Dakhla region has made a name for itself through quality production of fruits and vegetables that are exported to the EU and the US, as well as animal farming. In the Laâ youneBoujdour region, agricultural production has focused on camel and poultry breeding. In the Guelmim-Es Semara region, state programmes are geared towards helping family agriculture develop value-added products – Agence du Sud, for example, supports female cooperatives in making biological products such as couscous, camel meat and argany oil.

Animal Herding

Animal production, namely camel and sheep, has traditionally represented one of the main agricultural activities for the inhabitants of the southern provinces. Today, it accounts for 67% of the sector’s GDP in the region, according to 2013 figures by CESE. Furthermore, livestock breeding in general translates into 79% of sector profits and 74% of sector wages. Under the Green Morocco Plan strategy, authorities are aiming to increase the volume of camel farming, with potential benefits that can go beyond agricultural output. Besides providing meat, milk and wool, camels are viewed as beneficial for other sectors of the economy, such as tourism, and as sturdy desert animals that can assist farming practices.

The Agency for the Promotion and Economic and Social Development of the Southern Provinces of the Kingdom (Agence pour la Promotion et le Dé veloppement Economique et Social des Provinces du Sud du Royaume), known as the South Agency, launched a Dh250m (€27.2m) camel programme that aims to increase not only production levels, but also added-value that can be derived from the camel herding. The project has focused on better control of camel herd flows, increasing fodder production volumes, training for herders and camel breeders, and capacity improvements for slaughterhouses and dairies. Sheep and goat production in the Es-Semara region has also received attention, especially after a reduction in average rainfall that started in 2013. In 2014 the Ministry of Agriculture, Rural Development and Maritime Fisheries launched a Dh20m (€2.2m), three-year programme for the sector. The funds will be used to expand water access through the improvement of the region’s water access points, increase fodder production and medical prevention for livestock.

Similar to what happens in the fisheries sector, agricultural development in the south is limited by the distance that separates growers from markets and inputs that can be more easily obtained in the northern reaches of the kingdom. A further challenge is posed by insufficient logistics platforms to support production and distribution. This is nonetheless changing, through private investment initiatives creating support industries. Johra Plast, for example, has announced the construction of a Dh5.7m (€620,000) plastics production unit in Laâyoune, which will aim to supply the agricultural and construction sectors in the three southern provinces with materials and packaging.

Agro-Industrial Production 

Associated industries are responding to the needs that are expected to arise from private investment in agro-industrial production capacity. The region is also attracting investment for the export of agro-industrial production. This is critical to help push for the establishment of logistics services that can help local industries become more competitive. Mineral water producer Ouelmès is investing Dh60m (€6.5m) for a bottling unit in Bir Guendouz and a 5000-sq-metre logistics platform in Dakhla. The unit is targeting export markets further south, such as Mauritania and Senegal.

Groupe Zine has announced a Dh22m (€2.4m) investment to establish a conditioning and stocking area in Laâyoune. The platform will be used to store tea, couscous and dough to be exported to neighbouring markets such as Mauritania, Mali and Senegal. Meanwhile, another company aiming to increase sales into African markets is agro-industrial producer Alimani, which is investing Dh20m (€2.2m) to set up a biscuit, madeleine and juice production unit in Dakhla, geared towards export markets further south. These are arguably low investment amounts, but they are important because they underline the southern region’s potential to become an agro-industrial production powerhouse for the country, particularly considering its proximity to sub-Saharan Africa.

Oasis Development Project

Agriculture development is also being helped by the Southern Oasis Development Programme (Programme de Sauvegarde et de Développement des Oasis du Sud, POS), a multi-faceted plan to improve economic, environmental and social sustainability of the Guelmim-Es Semara region’s oases. Launched in 2006 through a partnership between the South Agency and the UN Development Programme, the POS has already invested $27.9m into 710 projects in a variety of areas, ranging from date production to agro-tourism. “We studied the environment and national resources of this region and were able to create clusters surrounding these resources in order to give the people of the region an economic activity that will help them generate a steady income and participate in the sustainable development of their community,” Saloua Dlimi, commercial manager for the POS at the South Agency, told OBG.

The programme specifically targets the processing of several of the region’s natural resources into marketable goods with a potential to be sold across the country and to export markets. Goods like dates, honey, olive oil, cereals and cactus-derived products have traditionally sustained people in oasis regions. The challenge now is to turn them into value-added products that can provide an income for inhabitants. Some of the regional products can represent a significant value after processing. “One litre of prickly pear oil is sold at around €1000”, said Dlimi.


One of the programme’s main priorities is to create jobs, especially those based on the sustainable development of tourism and agriculture, two sectors that present the best opportunities. As of May 2015, over 5500 jobs had been created by the POS, according to local media. This is pivotal for the southern provinces, especially for women. According to the CESE report, the unemployment rate reached 15.2% in 2013 but was over 35% for women. “We focus on expanding the social and economic development in the Guelmim-Es Semara region, so one of our priorities was to follow the cooperatives, especially the female cooperatives, to help them turn ancestral know-how into an economic activity that not only allows them to generate income but also spreads beydane culture, first throughout the kingdom, then around the world once they have acquired the tools to penetrate international markets through the training organised by the South Oasis Programme,” Dlimi told OBG. Part of this is done through the grouping of the region’s more than 170 cooperatives, most of them made up of women, under the same umbrella.

Industrial Areas

To set up processing capabilities, the POS has established a 25-ha industrial zone, the Ouaâroune Cactopole, and is hoping to attract domestic and foreign investors willing to develop, market and distribute the region’s produce. The Dh19m (€2.1m) industrial area is located 10 km from the Guelmim regional airport, and 200 km from the city of Agadir, which boasts a port and international airport. Under the current design the industrial park will aim to attract food processing industries, packaging units, and training and research and development activities related to the sector.

Already in the master plan are areas for specific purposes, like a facility for producing camel milk, a fodder production area, a research and innovation centre, a multi-grain mill and a fruits and vegetables packaging unit. “According to our studies, the industrial park can potentially generate 250 direct jobs and an additional 200 indirect jobs. The current area covers 25 ha, and we have already started the development of an initial section of 10 ha,” Dlimi told OBG.

The industrial park aims to develop small-scale agricultural practices that sometimes operate irregularly or are informally associated with formal industries. This will be challenging, due to the region’s lower availability of infrastructure and available human resources which prevent constant levels of investment. However, according to the South Agency, the POS programme could help develop clusters out of oasis agriculture. Processed cactus and derived products can represent Dh850m (€92.5m) in value and 15,000 tonnes in potential fruit exports, and export of 15 tonnes of cactus oil. The programme is also supporting marketing practices for the region’s agricultural produce and spin-off products by investing in entering retail outlets and allowing local agricultural produce to feature in international fairs.

Environmental Sustainability

Although the modernisation of the region’s agriculture sector is providing a crucial lever for broader economic development, the ongoing expansion will pose challenges for the region’s environmental sustainability, particularly in terms of water consumption. The Green Morocco Plan has outlined specific targets for increasing livestock and animal husbandry-related production, for example, with a clear aim to developing water-intensive red and white meat industries. As a result, improvements will have to be made in accordance with better management of water resources.

Desert farming has always depended on access to mineral water deposits found in a network of underground systems, but greater demands for irrigation might endanger these. According to the CESE, irrigated water consumption is expected to grow from 9.93m cu metres in 2010 to 20.1m cu metres in 2020, and to as much as 30.19m cu metres a decade later. This will require a well designed government policy that includes local knowledge and practices in the use of groundwater fossil water reserves.


Financing mechanisms for the sector will also need to be enhanced. Although the government, through the South Agency and other institutional bodies, has been able to channel fiscal support to smaller farmers and improve practices, other measures might have a positive impact on increasing the ability of farmers to get a bigger part of financing from private investors and banks. One of the major weaknesses of the business environment in much of the southern provinces is the lack of adequate land deeds. This can be especially negative for agricultural development. Although the government provides subsidies that allow farmers to more easily access modern equipment such as dripping irrigation and machinery, the lack of land titles prevents them from securing the financing for investments and government support, according to the CESE report.

The agricultural sector in the southern provinces has proven an ability to expand as a reliable source of economic sustenance. However, to enable farmers in the region to better compete with players in international and national markets, modernisation efforts and value-chain creation will need to be accelerated.