Cooking for a cause

Inside the Marrakesh restaurant serving up a solution for Morocco's marginalised women.

Fridays at Amal mean one thing: couscous. Great, steaming vats of it, which are soaked for two hours by the restaurant’s team of trained women chefs, before being infused with traditional Moroccan spices.

“We always have double the number of customers on Fridays,” says Nora Fitzgerald Belahcen, founder of the Marrakesh-based restaurant and social enterprise. “Fewer people are taking the time to make couscous at home these days, so I feel like it’s a way of keeping the tradition alive.”

The goal of Amal, a bright, airy café in the city’s Gueliz district, goes beyond just keeping local cuisine on the menu. The restaurant doubles as a training institute designed to help Marrakesh’s poor, socially stigmatised women gain industry skills, a job and an income.

Against a backdrop of growing women’s rights – new laws forbidding forced marriage, sexual harassment and violence against women took effect in Morocco in 2018 – Amal has seen more than 200 women pass through its six-month training programme, with 80 per cent moving on to full-time positions, either within Amal, or other outlets. The customers that throng Amal’s tables are not only buying a meal, they are also helping a push for social change.

“The bottom line is that the food is very good, and reasonably priced,” says Belahcen, who was born in Morocco to American parents. “At the same time, customers feel the spirit of the place. It's beyond merely eating a meal. They come to support and honour the women on their journey.”

Such has been the success of Amal’s restaurant, which serves local and international dishes to around 80 customers a day (it consistently rates in the top three restaurants in Marrakesh on Tripadvisor), that the social enterprise has expanded to include a catering company. Opened in 2016, the operation serves 100 to 150 school lunches per day, as well as catering several large events a month – including the high-profile opening of the Yves Saint Laurent museum in the city.

Cooking classes for tourists also help to bolster revenue, and contribute towards an overall monthly turnover of around $25,000 – of which, says Belahcen, five to 10 per cent is net profit.

Amal’s trainees include single mothers, divorcees, widows and orphans – many of whom have been shunned by their families and Moroccan society – as well as women who have not had access to education and live in poverty.

The latter group includes the many Moroccan women who were sent as children from rural areas to the cities, to work as maids in the homes of upper-middle class families. Known as ‘little maids’, they were farmed out by their families in exchange for a small monthly wage, trading their childhood for 14 to 18-hour working days, with no access to education. “It was a kind of indentured servitude,” says Belahcen.

In 2009, there were between 60,000 and 80,000 girls aged between seven and 14 employed as maids in Morocco, according to INSAF, a Morocco-based NGO that has been instrumental in all but ending the practice. Legislation curbing the use of child labour has helped, but its legacy lingers.

“These women missed out on their entire education,” she says. “They’re the sacrificed generation. It’s not like they messed up and are getting a second chance. They were never given a first chance.”

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Amal 21 café offers employment opportunities to women with additional needs.

"It’s not like they messed up and are getting a second chance. They were never given a first chance."

Many of Amal’s apprentices come via partner NGOs in the city, including a shelter for single mothers, and a charity for widows and orphans. Others find it through word of mouth. “A lot of it happens on the bus,” laughs Belahcen, who opened a second training centre in Targa in 2016 to meet demand. “Someone will see one of our students wearing her orange and green uniform and they'll ask about it.”

Amal’s training programme teaches the full spectrum of culinary skills. Its biannual cohort of 30 students is split between its two centres, and trainees are paid a stipend to cover living expenses during that period. They also receive daily classes in subjects including English and French, life coaching, health and hygiene – and even entrepreneurship. “They need to be very disciplined to stick with it,” says Belahcen.

Those who succeed are supported by Amal to find work in Marrakesh’s many hotels, restaurants and riyads. “Job placement is a huge part of what we do,” she says. “I feel like any institution that works in job creation in Morocco is a social enterprise, because that’s a big problem here.”

According to the World Bank, women make up only 26 per cent of the workforce in Morocco. Overall unemployment figures for the country stand at around 9 per cent. “It’s been fantastic on that level, to create these jobs,” she adds.

Smaller spin-off projects include the Sign Language café, which employs two of Amal’s former apprentices who are deaf – and was funded by part of a $15,000 donation from the IMF, following a visit from Christine Lagarde to Amal in 2018 – and the newer Amal 21, a café that employs seven women with Down syndrome. Both ideas came from people working within the organisation, says Belahcen. “Amal is not only empowering our trainees, but also our staff to carry an idea through. It’s not a top-down thing.”

Amal today is a well-known cog of Marrakesh life; but it started small. Belahcen traces it back to a chance encounter she had with a woman begging on the street in 2006. “This woman had a light in her face,” she recalls. “There was something that called upon me to engage with her. Her kids were hungry; she didn’t have any money to buy milk. We had kids the same age. There was no choice but to act.”

For several years, Belahcen raised money and donated directly to a growing group of needy women. “It was very much the old model of charity,” she says. “I wasn’t aware there was another way to do it, or that I was capable of it.”

The change came after a trip to the pioneering Association Soldarité Féminine, an established nonprofit founded in 1985 that trained single mothers in its Casablanca restaurant. It inspired Belahcen to pivot her approach, beginning with a small-scale initiative to teach needy women how to make and sell baked goods. Its success gave Belahcen the confidence to launch Amal in 2013.

“That was a huge step for me,” she says. “At one point, we had $40 in the bank account. I remember thinking, if we could just get enough customers to pay these women their day’s labour, there was hope.”

Startup costs reached around $40,000, of which Nora managed to fundraise $30,000 through contacts. But the turning point came when the Swiss foundation Drosos swept in six months into the project with seed funding and, as importantly, strategic acumen.

“Not only did we have their financial support,” she says, “but at the time, I had this very nebulous idea of a project related to food that helped women. Drosos made it much more specific: how many women do you want to train? What are your human resource and equipment needs? What are your KPIs? It went from this project that was guided purely by my intuition, to something institutionalised.”

Drosos helped to fund the restaurant for three years (it broke even after the first year), and has since helped to support the catering company as part of a second three-year partnership. With the latter growing at a steady clip, Nora feels that Amal is poised to expand even further.

“We’re thinking of setting up a new division to spearhead new projects,” she says, “and also to better monitor existing projects. We want to know: are the skills we’re teaching these women what they need for the labour market? Is there something else that we need to be doing? How long are they staying in their jobs?”

The ripples of empowering Amal’s women fan far and wide, with some of the women now able to free themselves from abusive partners on whom they were dependent financially. Similarly, having an income allows many of the single mothers to continue to care for their children. “Their mother is going to school, therefore they will go to school,” she says. “There are a lot of positive models there.”

Not every trainee will stay on track. And Nora learned a tough lesson early on when, after five years of trying, she was unable to help the woman she met on the street that day. “She didn’t want the life that I’d imagined for her,” she says. “I realised that you can’t want something more for somebody than they want it themselves.”

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Amal's trainees spend six months learning the full spectrum of culinary skills.

"[Nonprofits] can be key in working with both the government and private sector to drive development."

But as societal norms start to shift, so does Morocco’s development landscape, which is gradually moving towards a more sustainable model. “There is a currently a transition from development 1.0 in Morocco,” says Nora, “which is trying to help people financially, to training people and having social enterprises.”

Nora sees nonprofits as being a key part of that change. “They have fewer constraints than the private sector,” she adds, “so they can be more innovative. They can be key in working with both the government and private sector to drive development.”

Despite having no previous experience in development work, Nora has managed to grow her idea into a thriving, noisy, steaming reality.

“A restaurant is difficult to run,” she laughs, “and development work is also challenging. On paper, it shouldn’t work.”

And yet, the people keep coming. “Good things attract good things,” she says. “Amal means hope. And you really get that sense – that the future is going to be better than the past.” — PA