Kuwait’s Green Oil Revolution

Last century’s discovery and extraction of black oil made Kuwait, and the region, the economic and social powerhouse that it is today. A very different 21st-century scientific approach and process of extraction are generating another oil for the benefit of Kuwait – argan oil. It’s a green revolution being led by one of the nation’s leading real estate companies, the appropriately named Alargan, and this is no mere coincidence.

Part of many corporate social responsibility programmes under the wing of Alargan, the reintroduction of the tree to the region has taken on a life of its own, and drawn much global interest. Their partnership with the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR) to plant the trees was part of the objective to create more greenery in the desert, and to expand it to the oil extraction of the argan. A long-term project, there are currently 10,000 argan trees under management. Always, the argan tree lives up to its other name – ‘the tree of hope’. Khaled Al Mashaan tells us more.

“The whole idea started with KISR as part of their mandate to introduce new species to Kuwait. The argan is just one of them. The argan is a very slow growing tree when young, but then grows to become a resilient and beneficial tree. It has many different uses and many different benefits to the society it is used in.

It used grow in northern Arabian peninsula and north Africa, so was present in the region before, but for some reason it became extinct. Now it is only to be found in a very particular area of Morocco where there exist hundreds of kilometres of argan forests.

It was a very big challenge to be able to reintroduce this in Kuwait. Other countries have tried, but failed. Israel, France, Canada – all failed. These countries are the largest importers of Moroccan argan oil. So, attempt to reproduce it genetically in the KISR laboratories was a big breakthrough.

It was necessary to reproduce the argan genetically for the simple reason that it is forbidden to export the plant from Morocco. Moroccan’s consider it their ‘green oil’, and it is part of their national heritage and pride. They will never accept any exportation of plants – only the oil.

When KISR moved to their second stage, beyond the lab, we at Alargan we captivated by the project, and sponsored the second to fourth stages. With our involvement it went from lab to the greenhouse; from greenhouse to shedhouse; and from there it was planted outside. This process is known as the ‘hardening’ process. Our collaboration with KISR started in 2011, and the first planting to the fields was in 2013.

The first crop of fruit was achieved at the end of 2014, and the first production of oil was from the seeds of 2015 and 2016. This first extraction was done only last month (March 2017).

We were very careful about extracting the oil. The traditional method of production involves the grinding of the fruit. As they grind, they add water, then sieve it to extract the oil. The new way uses machinery. The advantage of the first process is that it delivers ‘cold pressed’ oil. The negative side is that it is diluted with water. Cold pressing conserves all the antioxidants the natural way. The machinery manufacturers advised us to take the central shaft up to 80 degrees – this additional heat would mean we were able to extract more oil. However, I’ve maintained a temperature of not more than 50 degrees. What I do is warm the seeds slightly – it’s a cold process. I extract less oil but it’s more natural.

Argan is generally sold as two types of oil. One is produced from an unprocessed and natural seed; this is the finest and is used for cosmetic products. The second type is a roasted seed – when they are roasted you heighten the aromas, and you’re able to produce more oil. This type of oil is edible, and can be used on the hair and body too. An advantage is that it is also less expensive. We are still testing the roasted seeds.

Our relationship with KISR has been a great success. We’ve developed a very resilient tree and grow it in the best of conditions. We’ve had little incidence of plants dying overall, and experience not more than 2% annually.

On the farm here we use water drawn from a well. The water has a salinity of 7,000 particles per million. Just to give you an idea, the potable water we drink at home has below 500 particles per million. If we left this untreated, argan simply would not grow – it needs sweet water. We also used recycled water – but that’s not enough – so we’ve installed a reverse osmosis system that produces 100,000 gallons per day.

The problem with reverse osmosis is what to do with the ‘prime’ water, the reject. It creates 40% sweet water – which we use, and 60% very salty – which is a potential problem. Often people would reinject this waste in to the ground – but this pollutes the soil. Some let it flow naturally across the surface of the ground, but this adds a lot of salt to the earth.

We did something different – the ‘prime’ carries around 12,000 parts per million. We wanted to reduce that before spreading it on the ground. So, we divert it to our lake, and we dilute it with the water that comes from the well. We reduce it to around 9,000. Some plants can take this salinity too, so we use it to water them.

A key detail about our agran is that we are growing here without chemicals – organically. The oil we produce is 100% pure. Even the ‘waste’ from the process has uses. Some can be used as animal feed, and the hard shell of the seed can be used as a replacement for firewood.

The biggest challenge we have is that we’ve run out of space. KISR allowed us to plant the trees two metres apart, but they should even be 5 metres apart, minimum. Our facililty here is 100,000 square metres, and we’re using 50,000. We need to move these plants to a larger facility, one that is 400,000 square metres. We’re talking with KISR to see if they, or the government, could provide us with this land. We can’t expand here.

What are the other advantages? With the production of argan, it’s giving Kuwait a potential new source of hard currency. This is another oil. Kuwait’s green oil”

Simon Balsom