Women of Association Afous Gafous review orders and designs.
With every new wave of technology comes the optimism that it will radically change the status quo or create more equitable societies. However, the reality is that each wave opens up small windows where societies can capitalize on the promise of new technologies. If these windows are properly managed they can can lead to the optimism of the Twitter-fueled Arab Spring in 2011. If they are not, the same social media technologies can (and have) quickly become the same tools dictators use in 2019 to entrench their power or manipulate public opinion.
These windows touch on all aspects of every society world wide. For Morocco’s artisan community it is no different. The wider fair trade community has dreamed about using technology to cut out middlemen and empower artisans. Yet with each successive wave of new technology nothing really seems to change. Today, technology has created more middlemen than ever and artisans remain worse off than ever. Without making technology work for artisans and using it to amplify the growth of artisan communities, technology will only be used to deepen the status quo.
The Evolution of Anou’s Vision and Technology
Our vision at Anou is to create an artisan-centered craft economy in Morocco that works for artisans rather than against them. With each wave of new technologies our window for realizing this future opens a little wider for a brief moment in time. It is our job then to ride each wave to bring us closer to our long-term vision before there is no time left. Equally important, it’s our job to ensure that the artisan community own and control such technology so they are the ones who financially benefit from it. As we’re learning in other parts of the world, technology can bring about consolidated, unchecked power. Morocco’s artisan community is already being decimated by lumbering giants like Etsy who in their Brooklyn bubble are singlehandedly and ignorantly doing more to destroy Morocco’s artisan community than any one middleman ever could alone.
Since Anou launched in 2013, we’ve experienced profound shifts in technology. The first iteration of Anou’s marketplace was designed to take advantage of the first technology wave in Morocco: universal access to internet via cyber cafes and feature phones. This wave is what launched Anou. The big questions back then were how do we ensure artisans don’t upload viruses from cyber cafe computers into our database, or how do we create safe environments for female artisans to go to a cyber cafe to upload products.
Today, we’re in the middle of another technology wave of $50 USD smart phones and machine learning. In the past couple of years alone, almost all of Morocco’s communication has moved from voice calls and SMS to Whatsapp. There is no official number out there on this, but a safe guess would be to assume that at least 70% of Morocco’s SMS volume has moved to Whatsapp.
Over the past year, we’ve begun the work of overhauling a lot of our backend technology to take advantage of these changes. As such, we wanted to take this chance to show you all a small window into how artisan tools on the Anou platform are changing and how we’re putting these new technologies to work for artisans.
From SMS to Whatsapp
Currently artisans upload their products to Anou’s marketplace and get a product ID for each product they upload. When such an item sells, they would receive an SMS text with the product ID of what sold and the address to send it to. While easy, it was still challenging for artisans because they might not have forgotten which product goes with which product ID. Artisans could go to their account on Anou, and many do, but for some it’s just not easy enough. Some artisans tag each product with a physical tag and write the product ID on it, but that’s not easy enough either. Whatsapp allows us to change much of the communication processes and bring it all into an easy, visual process in a program they are already using in their day to day lives. Now, with recent updates artisans can simply send the product ID plus the tag emoji to Anou’s Whatsapp number and it will provide them with a detailed breakdown of the product and its picture:
Through the above tool, artisans can visually match the product ID with the image of the product they posted online. However, the better solution is to make sure that artisans have physical tags with the picture of the product on it. Now, if artisans want to easily create a tag, artisans just have to add an email to the end of the tag emoji and product ID and it will send the designated email a printable tag. For many artisans, they can simply send their tags to a local print shop in their village. The tags show the product, its local price with pictures of everyone who was help make it (here’s an example). It’s as simple as this:
Text-Free Tracking Numbers
When a product sells, artisans can now confirm the order via Whatsapp just by sending in the product ID number. This will generate an email to the customer letting them know the artisan has received the order and they’re getting ready to ship it to them.
Once the artisans ship their order though, things get a little complicated. One problem that we’ve always had is ensuring artisans submit the tracking number that they receive from the post office. With many semi-literate artisans, entering the tracking number (which is 13 digits long) can be a huge barrier — artisans sometimes can’t even locate the tracking number on the receipt. If an artisan’s local post office is good, they’ll help artisans locate the number and maybe even text in the tracking number for them but this isn’t always the case. If the artisans can’t sort it out, they’ll usually just ignore the step and their customers end up writing to us concerned that their product may have never been shipped.
Here is an example of a tracking slip. The tracking number is below the bar code (Tracking Number: LD635465289MA). If you’re not a great reader, then you can see how this sheet may just look overwhelming:
To solve the problems around this we’ve integrated cutting-edge computer vision machine learning algorithms right into Whatsapp. Now all artisans have to do is submit a picture of their tracking slip along with the product ID to Anou’s Whatsapp number. Our system will then analyze the picture, even in poor light conditions or with a poor resolution camera and identify the tracking number with 99% accuracy. With the tracking number in hand, Anou’s system sends it back to the artisans to confirm it worked and then notify the customer immediately. Here’s the analysis in action:
Computer vision finds all potentially relevant text, and then works through it all to extract what best matches the tracking number.
With machine reading technology as sampled above, it is easy to envision how the Anou marketplace will soon no longer require artisans to even know any product ID. Simply print out your tag when you post a product, then when the product sells online or in person, just take a picture of the tag and let the computer find the ID and the computer will figure out what you wanted to do. A completely effortless, text-free approach to managing online stores is in reach for any artisan who can send a picture via Whatsapp (Update: Text Free Invoicing and Text Free Shipping Confirmation have now been built.)
Enabling Every Artisan to Accept Credit Cards In Person
There have been so many more features we’ve integrated to make it as easy as possible for artisans to manage their own store, but our favorite and potentially most transformative tool thus far is integrating Paypal into Whatsapp.
One of the biggest limitations that artisans have is that many of them cannot take credit card payments for tourists/customers who visit their physical store. In person visits for Anou artisans has been increasing in the past year as we slowly roll out our initiatives to enable customers to schedule visits with artisans across the Anou community. Solving the credit card problem has been top of mind for a long period of time now as this is a major reason why people continue to buy from middlemen in Marrakech or foreigners online.
Now, via Whatsapp, all artisans have to do is type in the credit card emoji, with the product ID, plus the email of their customer, and their customer will be sent a Paypal invoice for the cost of the product artisans listed on their store (minus shipping). Once the customer pays, artisans will instantly receive a confirmation message with a cash emoji all via Whatsapp:
Almost overnight all artisans across the Anou community can now receive credit cards in their village. All they need is an internet connection, which now the majority have. Again, it is easy to see how we can complete this process without a product ID and just one simple emoji. For example, artisans could just ask the customer to clearly handwrite their email on the product tag, then the artisan could take a picture of that product tag, send it to Whatsapp and the computer will know that the artisan wants to send an invoice for the product on that tag to the customer’s email address. No text input required at all.
The Future of Craft and Technology
All of these examples and more are now rolling out and we’re going to be spending the next several months observing and getting feedback from artisans how to make all of these processes as easy and reliable possible. Yet even in this preliminary stage, the future of technology and it’s relationship with craft in Morocco is clear and never has it been more important to get right.
The Financial Times (paywall; apologies) recently reported that emerging markets such as Morocco will be the countries worst hit “by the anticipated wave of creative destruction driven by the march of automation.”
Our experience in Morocco supports this. McDonalds jobs, the entry point for many low skilled workers in America and what should be a stable job in Morocco, are already largely automated in Morocco. Buy a Big Mac at the McDonalds in Casablanca and you don’t even have to deal with a single human. Morocco, whether it has realized it or not, is in trouble because the majority of jobs that exist now or were used by other countries to develop are soon going to be made obsolete by machines.
Future Proof a Country?
Craft, however, is one of the few jobs in Morocco that can not only survive in the age of automation, but thrive. Morocco’s natural resources like phosphate will one day run out. But the country’s rich cultural heritage rooted in the Arab, Amazigh and Jewish people and located at the corner of Africa, the Middle East and Europe, gives Morocco an unrivaled and inexhaustible well of inspiration for creativity and design. It is little surprise brands like Dior are launching their new lines from places like Marrakech. Morocco’s culture and design is worth more than gold in an overly mechanized world hungry for authentic product made by humans.
Whether Morocco’s craft sector can thrive all comes back to the brief windows that technology can open. If cutting edge technology can be put to work for artisans and placed under their control, artisans are all but guaranteed to generate wealth, not just a fair wage, and ultimately secure the future of Moroccan craft.
But the race is on. The window to make this happen is small and Anou is doing everything it can to make this a reality. If technology is never developed, or it simply is used to support middlemen on Etsy or Instagram, then the 17% annual decline in total Moroccan artisans will only accelerate. In some ways, the biggest challenge in ensuring artisans benefit from technology is not just building such technology, but building it all before the time when there are no artisans left.
When you buy Moroccan craft, you can certainly buy from sellers on Etsy or Instagram. There’s a small chance some money will get to artisans, but it certainly won’t contribute to any systemic change. If you buy through Anou, you’re not only guaranteed artisans will be paid well but also contribute to building the technology the artisan community and Morocco need to thrive in an increasingly automated world.
At the end of the day, the future of Morocco’s craft comes down to you, the customer. We need your help. Make purchases where they matter, and make sure all your friends and family do too. The future of Moroccan craft and Morocco’s economy depends on it.