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Balancing the scales of Morocco’s food exports

Farmers pick strawberries for export on a farm in Morocco's Kenitra province Reuters
Farmers pick strawberries for export on a farm in Morocco's Kenitra province
  • Exporters criticised for ignoring local food needs
  • Tomatoes and berries top exports
  • Water scarcity an ongoing problem

Free trade access to the EU and UK markets, and a longer – or at least different – growing season mean that Moroccan farmers are producing bumper exports that are helping to reshape the country’s economy around agriculture.

However, those exports are drawing criticism from those who believe the country should prioritise its citizens’ own food needs.

Morocco is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of tomatoes, after Mexico, the Netherlands and Spain, earning more than $1 billion in 2022.

It is also increasing its focus on berries. Where once the fruits were seasonal, Moroccan farms are now supplying Europeans, in particular, with raspberries, blackberries and blueberries year-round. 

Morocco is working with external companies to achieve this. The California-based berry business Driscoll’s, for example, has been active in Morocco for 10 years and has just begun construction of a new processing plant near Larache, on the country’s Atlantic coast.

According to the World Population Review, Morocco produced nearly 167,000 tons of strawberries last year, placing it just within the world’s top 10 producers. China took the top spot, with 3,336,690 tons.

The agricultural data and analysis site Eastfruit found that Moroccan berry producers exported just under 124,000 tons in 2023, generating $750 million in revenue as volume dropped slightly but prices rose. 

Frozen berries are now Morocco’s second-highest agricultural export earner, after tomatoes. Asparagus and olive oil have also been doing well.

Green Morocco Plan

At the heart of the export push is the Green Morocco Plan, which dates back to 2008 and aims to make agriculture the driver of the country’s economy. 

In that year, a worldwide spike in food prices hit Morocco particularly hard, provoking riots then and again in 2011. The country is still vulnerable. Last year, food inflation in Morocco rose to more than 20 percent, causing an alarmed government to cancel VAT on agricultural products and restrict the export of tomatoes. 

Morocco is not a wealthy country, and Moroccans are sensitive to food price increases. The United Nations Trade and Development organisation says Morocco’s GDP per capita was less than $3,500 in 2022, making it the 125th poorest country in the world (though still ahead of Egypt and Lebanon) and, according to the United Nations Development Programme, 6 percent of the population is “multidimensionally” poor while an additional 11 percent is classified as vulnerable. 

Agriculture is important to Morocco because, unlike many of its fellow Mena countries, it does not have significant hydrocarbon reserves, even though it has a sizeable phosphates sector

But water – and drought – constrain further agricultural development. Last year nearly 200,000 jobs were lost in the rural economy because of drought, according to the country’s Higher Commission of Planning. 

Faced with water scarcity, the Green Morocco Plan argues that replacing gravity-powered irrigation with drip irrigation is massively more efficient and brings up to 550,000 hectares into production. Morocco has committed to heavy investment in irrigation and rationalisation of farms, many of which were, and still are, small.

The results have meant increasing integration with European supply chains and a surge in exports.

“If you compare us to Spain in terms of yield and agricultural practice, we are as good or sometimes even better. But these crops are human-capital-intensive, so Morocco is cheaper,” says Soufiane Larguet, a farmer-entrepreneur and former director of strategy at Morocco’s ministry of agriculture. 

Ali Metwally, Mena economist at the UK-based ITI Consulting, says: “Potential investors must navigate considerable challenges, particularly those related to recurrent droughts and water scarcity.

“These environmental factors pose substantial risks to agricultural investments, underscoring the need for sustainable water management practices.”

Metwally says that although exports grew by nearly 10 percent year on year in 2023, imports grew by 8 percent, reducing net export growth to just 2 percent. Projections for 2024 indicate a shift to net imports.

A place for exports

Drought is a daily fact of life now in southern Europe, North Africa and the Sahel region of Africa, which sits between the Sahara to the north and the Sudanian savannas to the south. 

The Moroccan government has been criticised for exporting produce in a time of water scarcity.

It is an accusation the government rebuts, Mohamed Sadiki, minister of agriculture, fisheries, rural development, water and forestry, told an International Agricultural Forum in Meknes, northern Morocco, in April.

“Those who talk about us exporting agricultural products that consume a lot of water are ignorant of this issue,” Sadiki said. “When a citizen consumes bread, they must realise that grains consume more water than watermelon.”  

Sadiki said Morocco imports nine times more water through agricultural products such as wheat and animal feed than it exports.

Critics also claim that exports are being prioritised over providing Moroccan people with affordable food. 

However, “part of food security depends on exports,” Larguet says. “The farmer makes his money out of export and sells on the local market at a much lower price.”  Produce that is too mature to be exported in a timely fashion can still be sold locally.

The Moroccan government finds itself with the unenviable task of balancing the increase of agricultural exports with the sustainable use of water resources. 

The Morocco Economic Competitiveness Project at the US Agency for International Development has estimated that the true value of water based on revenue from agriculture is about 70 cents per cubic metre. But farmers only pay about 4 cents for irrigation water.

The government has, in fact, made some movement against thirsty crops: in 2022 it ended the subsidy for watermelons and avocados.

Larguet, for one, believes farmers need to pay more for the water they use, even if it is to his own business’s detriment: “I am a current and future exporter and I believe that agricultural exports should be taxable. Export is where the money is and that is where the natural resources are used.”

Ultimately, a range of solutions is needed, says Metwally: “Encouraging the cultivation of less water-intensive crops, improving irrigation efficiency and investing in drought-resistant agricultural technologies are crucial measures.”

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