In response to finding toxic chemicals in dyes and materials artisans used in Morocco several years ago, The Anou Cooperative launched a trial initiative called the Atlas Wool Supply Co.
Our goal was to provide artisans and the wider craft community in Morocco with high quality wool, dyes and other materials that were safe for artisans, their environment, and their customers.
Since then, we have shipped tens of thousands of kilograms of wool and materials to artisans across Morocco. We’ve also developed deep expertise in wool, dyes, and their environmental impact gleaned from years of learning from mistakes, difficult lessons and trial and error.
The world since then has changed as well. Rising global temperatures, rapid rates of land degradation and a global pandemic. This has pushed us to ask ourselves : how can we create material that is not only safe, but material that actually regenerates the land and environment where artisans live?
Moving forward with Africa’s first carbon negative wool
Today marks the next phase of the Atlas Wool Supply Co. This past week in the High Atlas Mountains, we broke ground on building Morocco’s only integrated wool and yarn mill that aims to become carbon negative.
Set in Ait Bouguemez, the future mill is not only the first of its kind in Africa, it’s also the first significant economic project in the area. This matters because Ait Bouguemez belongs to a region usually forgotten in economic development initiatives, where employment opportunities are limited and heavily dependent on tourism.
In parallel, in the upcoming weeks, we will also complete the construction of our carbon neutral dye studio, as well as a flagship yarn store in the old city of Fez.
As construction continues, we will slowly be opening our physical and digital stores to a select number of (patient) customers willing to join this journey and take part as beta testers. If you’re interested in taking part, you can register on the Atlas Wool Supply Co website.
As we work to our official launch later this year, we will continue to share our progress on the blog and via our newsletters. Please help us spread the word by forwarding our newsletters, sharing our Instagram content and website.
Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the Atlas Wool Supply Co thus far and thank you for your continued support.
Moroccan vintage rugs don’t really exist. This simple fact is all you actually need to know when determining whether that person who is selling you a Moroccan vintage rug is fundamentally honest about what they do and the impact their work has on the artisan community. This alone should be the blog post, but let’s dive deep into the weeds of the vintage world and provide clarity about what vintage actually means.
The term vintage is used to refer to something from the past of high quality, something that represents the best of its kind from a certain era, and to some degree, a bit rare. While debateable, 20 years seems to be the consensus around when something becomes vintage.
For Moroccan rugs that are actually older than 20 years, or pre 2000, they are often actual collector items collected by people who actually know. There is a direct correlation between the age of a rug and how likely it is to end up in an actual private collection. Older, vintage rugs are simply not going to end up on Instagram and Etsy at a price lower than what it actually takes artisans to weave a rug today.
So how is it possible that Etsy and Instagram are seemingly endless feeds of vintage rugs? Something isn’t adding up.
The Process of Rug Vintage-ification
Looking at that endless list of rugs on Instagram and Etsy, it certainly looks like those rugs are really old. But the reality is that the faded, sun swept worn look is manufactured through a process that conceals both the rug’s actual origin and the people who made it.
These vintage-ified rugs go through a multi-step process to achieve that look and feel. The first step is to have the rug made by living, existing artisans usually under the direction of your standard Moroccan ‘middleman’. The primary hubs where these rugs are made are in Khenifra, Kenitra and Taznakht. The artisans who make these rugs earn as little as 5 dirham a day and they sometimes may be a part of some loose collective of people, a cooperative in name only, or just weave at home. These artisans do not design. They are simply given print outs from Instagram and asked to remake the intricate and often time consuming designs you find online. The lack of jobs and opportunities in these areas is what drives artisans to work for less than 5% of minimum wage.
What happens after the rug is made depends on the complexity of the middleman operation. It is important to note that the complexity tends to fall along gender lines. The vast majority of middlemen of rugs, are in fact women.
Middlewomen-led supply chains of vintage rugs follow more simpler means of vintage-ification. A middlewoman will buy a rug from some other weaver, but before taking it instruct them to cover the rug in dirt, and then to walk over it in their home for a period of time and lay it out in the sun for an extended period of time. Dyes available for purchase by artisans are not of much quality (look for powdery bags of bright colors on images on Instagram) and are not light fast. So placing dirt on the rug and sun placement can get a rug to have a much older feel. Anou is well versed in this process because every cooperative we’ve banned from Anou for reselling rugs followed this process extensively. This was generally a tip that members of a cooperative we were working with were simply buying and reselling rugs on Anou.
For middlemen, the process is often much more advanced. Once a rug is woven, the rug goes through an extensive washing process designed to stress and age the rug. Through a lot of extensive research, we’ve been able to reverse engineer these processes and have largely determined that there are two primary ways. The first is through the use of simple household bleach. The catch is that you need a lot of it. To replicate the vintage process through bleach, you often need to use a 1:1 water to bleach solution for one full wash interval of the rug. It can take 100 liters sometimes to fully soak a large wool rug, and each rug that goes through this process is washed 1-3 times on average.
Keep in mind Bleach doesn’t bio decompose, so for every rug you see on Etsy and Instagram, that’s countless liters of bleach poured directly into the rivers that the artisans who made the rug depend on. The amount of times a rug is washed and goes through such a bleaching process can vary. Other chemicals, heavy in sulfur, can also be used to cut down time to create faded looks on rugs but increase the toxicity to levels we don’t quite understand. We’re still testing the effects of these other means. Ultimately, if you Google Moroccan rug washing and you’ll see people are wearing boots for a reason.
Once a rug is dry, the rug then is often literally blow torched to burn out plastics that are often found in Morocan yarns and also helps promote color fading and the general feel of the rug. These processes aren’t necessarily a secret, there are ample videos on Youtube of people showing off this process on Youtube.
Other Forms of Domestic Production
With oceans of bleach and literal blow torches, how can such distortion be believed for so long? One reason why people might believe that all those vintage rugs on Etsy and Instagram are real is because one might assume that artisans still weave and weave things for their home and family. And as these rugs age they might get rid of them. This is correct. However, this alone doesn’t justify the vast volume of vintage rugs for many reasons.
First, is that your average artisans doesn’t necessarily value traditional design and traditional materials. Visit rural areas where many rugs are produced, and their homes may be adorned with rugs, but those rugs will be made of cheap acrylics because these are cheaper and they are perceived to be modern.
Second, traditional designs are much more complicated to make and require time and money to make. Today’s genuine artisans have neither, so they don’t naturally gravitate towards the complexity of traditional work. Even well off artisans often don’t touch traditional designs. The most successful cooperatives on Anou, who earn a meaningful wage don’t gravitate towards complexity of traditional designs without the coaching of a design mentor.
The complex rugs that we perceive to be vintage and traditional are really of a bygone era because the generations that created these gallery quality rugs no longer exist. Since those generations, the market for traditional rugs and such designs has placed such a low value on them, that subsequent generations have not taken up the craft. The rather cruel irony is that in an age where Moroccan rugs are now a global phenomenon, the vintage-ifcation of rugs promoted by Instagram and Etsy have led to a commodification of Morocco’s culture and eroded any market that was once able to support the genuine product of traditional Moroccan rugs.
Today’s intricate and traditional rug designs are made in the middleman supply chain made by people desperate for money. In other words, there are not enough people simply weaving memories in their home to support the stories sold on Instagram.
The only place where genuine vintage rugs still exist are in people’s homes. These rugs are most often woven by family members who, with each passing year are more likely to have passed on. Let’s be real, no one holds on to anything for 20 year and gives it away without the breaking of some emotional attachment. So to think of the despair and grief a person or family must be going through to make a decision to sell or give away something made by previous generations is simply indescribable.
In a poor remote town called Talsint, an area that once used to be one of the most prized rug producing areas of Morocco, the process of separating people from their cherished family heirlooms occurs in almost regular fashion. But it’s worse than you think. Every so often rug sellers descend into Talsint and knock on the doors looking for people in need and willing to sell their family’s rugs. And instead of money, families are so desperate they are willing to trade the rugs for cheap synthetic blankets and other basic essentials. The rugs they collect, all get loaded into a car, and are driven to a warehouse in Meknes and sold on some random Etsy account. When we see genuine vintage rugs the only story we can see is one of grief and despair.
Finding a solution for this is incredibly complicated. Take your average Instagram seller of rugs. You might overlook an interesting pattern. These sellers claim that they are ending artisan exploitation, or that they enable you to buy direct from artisans, or even ignorantly claiming to be Everlane of Morocco. But look at their shops and the majority of what they will sell are actually vintage pieces. Some shops explicitly label them as vintage, or even more depressing, as family heirlooms. Look even closer, and you might notice that all the imagery of the rugs they sell are mixed with images of artisans, but a minority of those pictures actually show the artisan making what is being sold because most of the top selling product are vintage-ified rugs that weren’t made by the artisans they showcase.
The sad reality is that many artisan cooperatives require immense amounts of time and training to meet specific levels of quality. As we discussed above, the generations of deep artisan skill has passed and it needs to be rebuilt. Instagram brands that are good at marketing can’t afford to do the real work of artisan development. So they supplement their business with selling vintage-ified rugs made by people they don’t even know, and then use the proceeds from what is exploitive labor to give back to a small community of their choosing. This creates the veneer of change, but instead simply accelerates the decline of the artisan community.
Worse, the brands themselves don’t even know the damage they are creating. Anou does extensive work in verifying artisans and it is one of the hardest things we do. While we’ve now been doing this for nearly a decade, we still don’t always get it right. It is difficult, unglamorous work.
Mohammed (not his real name) is an artisan within the Anou community and owns a beautiful workshop deep in the High Atlas. While Mohammed doesn’t make jewelry, he sells some replicas of traditional regional jewelry for tourists that pass by. The area where the workshop is located used to be home to one of Morocco’s largest jewish communities in the High Atlas Mountains and were renowned for their jewelry prowess.
Every now and again, women from the area will come carrying pure silver jewelry crafted by the jewish communities that have since left. In desperate need of money they ask if Mohammed can hang the jewelry up on the wall and try to sell it to a tourist. Mohammed accepts the jewelry, says he’ll do what he can. After the woman leaves he puts the jewelry in a hidden box out of the eye of any tourist. Mohammed has no intention of ever selling them. He believes that the heritage of his homeland is not for sale and he waits to give the piece back to the woman when she is in a position to hold on to it.
A hidden box isn’t a solution for obvious reasons but the reality is that there are no simple solutions. If we want to ensure that a woman in desperate need doesn’t have to sell precious family heirlooms then we need to address the systemic reason why the woman is in such a desperate situation to begin with. The woman doesn’t need a fanciful story, she needs something structural to change.
In many ways the women who come to Mohammed’s workshop are a loose parable for the artisan community. Many artisans who are desperate for work are willing to work in obscurity for 5 dirham a day and sell off their most valuable asset — their culture and skill. Sellers on Instagram take the reality of artisans, hide it in a box where no one can see it. But instead of safe keeping, sellers just ignore the deeper rot and profit from an environment where artisans are willing to nearly work for free.
Ultimately, the women in Mohammed’s area don’t have the clout or ability to create structural reform. The artisan community, however, if organized does. Etsy and Instagram sellers have proven they won’t do what is necessary to reform the artisan sector. 10% charity donations in return for selling vintage rugs is only accelerating artisan decline. As it unfortunately goes with all marginalized communities, real change will only come from the artisans themselves. This is why we believe the work behind Anou is so key.
The artisan community’s long-term success in changing the sector though can be accelerated by you, the customer. When you buy rugs or craft, think critically about what is being sold and the stories surrounding it. Where possible, try and make sure you’re buying from genuine, artisan owned businesses, not people claiming to be helping artisans. Anou can be of help here. Alternatively, you can buy from some businesses that truly do support artisans. The difference here is that you have to do the work in understanding if the business brings deep added value to artisan communities. Running a Shopify/Etsy store, posting pictures on Instagram isn’t enough. As Anou has shown, artisans can do this too now. There isn’t enough margin in such standard businesses to genuinely support the development of the artisan community. If this is all too much to think through, just avoid people or business selling vintage Moroccan rugs or heirlooms.
Lastly, change is dependent on sellers. It’s difficult to be self critical when you think you are doing good. But do the work of evaluating just how your business works and whether it is of benefit, and make the difficult changes that need to be made. And if you cannot make those changes, partner with those who are doing the work that is actually needed.
The Future of Vintage
A fair question to ask is whether creating rugs that look vintage is bad? Not necessarily. Styles will change, and artisans shouldn’t be locked into a specific way of finishing a rug. The problem is that as of today artisan and environmental ruin is hidden behind the term vintage. If buyers and sellers can bring research and transparency to the sector, it will open to the door for artisans to bring such styles to market in a way that benefits everyone. The Anou Cooperative has been hard at work trying to make sustainable washes available for the wider community and their customers.
The first step to all of this, is to acknowledge the simple truth that vintage rugs as you think you know it do not exist. The second step is then to ensure that when buying rugs be sure to buy from artisans and ensure artisans are earning the full value for their work. It is only until artisans earn the full value for their work will they be willing to invest the creative development of their work.
This blog post is long, but the solution at the end of the day is short. If we can just follow these simple steps, perhaps we can create a future where there is more excitement about the future of artisans who are living today rather than faceless knock-offs of a past that never existed. We fundamentally believe that this future is possible, and we hope you do too.
In the beginning of March we suspended most of our operations and froze shipments. This down period gave us time to assess the situation surrounding the pandemic and ensure that we put no artisan at risk. Such decisions are never easy, but it was made easier when many of our incredible supporters continued to place orders and custom orders even though the date when work would resume was uncertain. So to all of you who made orders in the past couple of months — thank you.
During this downtime, we spent time reconfiguring how Anou could resume operations in our new normal so that artisans could generate income but at minimal increased risk. Some the changes we’ve made or are in progress include:
We’ve begun to work with our partners to develop drop off shipping at national post offices so artisans no longer need to wait in line or pay cash to ship products.
We’ve also moved our dye facilities from Fes to a rural location. Due to the software we’ve developed, we can easily move our dye work and dye orders can be completed by members of single artisan family.
Custom orders, or any other production, will be restricted to single homes. Cooperative buildings or meeting areas will not be able to be used until further notice pending government approval. Using software integrated with Whatsapp, artisans can just as easily update their customers from their home as they could from their cooperatives.
We’ll maintain quality control checks on all our shipments by having artisans send their orders to a network including of our Fes HQ and artisan leader villages for inspection before shipments are turned over to our shipping partners for fulfillment.
With these changes in place, our supporters may experience delays in their shipments and custom orders and our timelines may not be as precise. Further, many of the shipping options we offer our customers are not available and at the time of writing we only can only ship priority. As shipping options come back online they will be updated in our checkout process.
In the coming months, we’ll continue to invest in Anou’s technology to create a seamless experiences in our new normal. Thank you to all who have and will support Anou through this adjustment. Your support will enable us to get artisan businesses back to normal as quickly and safely as possible.
Have questions for us? Just email us at email@example.com
After a year and a half vetting process, we are excited to announce The Anou Cooperative founder Dan Driscoll has been named as an Ashoka Fellow. Ashoka is a global organization that searches for and vets social entrepreneurs with systemic solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Dan’s vetting process was unusually long but for good reason. First, Ashoka has rarely awarded fellowships to expats and in recent years has effectively stopped this practice all together. Second, Ashoka places high scrutiny on artisan focused business and non-profits as they are rarely innovative nor are they built to address systemic problems that artisan communities face. In Morocco, these concerns invite even greater scrutiny because of the sheer number of expat or non-artisan businesses that crowd out the ability of artisans to develop the advanced skills and vision required to develop meaningful solutions of their own.
Ashoka knows that any solution to a problem that afflicts a community starts and ends with members of that very community. This is ultimately what set Anou and Dan apart in the vetting process. Ashoka’s global board approved Dan’s nomination to become a fellow by pointing out how impressive it was that Dan’s goal was not to use his work and creativity to profit but to phase himself out by creating an artisan focused entity where the full benefits would stay within the artisan community.
While we’re excited that Dan’s efforts in establishing Anou have been recognized by Ashoka, we believe this is more of a recognition of all the work that artisans have invested into getting Anou to where it is today.
The goals from the early days of Anou were to create a fully artisan owned and managed entity that would serve as the vehicle for Morocco’s artisan community to 1) change how people and businesses buy craft, and 2) realize needed changes so craft could sustain the livelihoods of artisans and future generations. These are no easy goals. Yet we’ve made tremendous strides towards them because of the endless work of countless artisans.
As we move towards the next decade, it will be the work of countless more artisans that will help finally see through the vision of Anou. Ashoka’s recognition brings us all one major step closer to realizing this future. Thank you to Ashoka, the team at Ashoka’s Arab World Office, and all of those who nominated Anou to Ashoka over the years.
We launched Anou many years ago in order to rethink how the craft economy in Morocco should work. What has become increasingly clear since those early days is that to create a craft economy that works for all artisans we would eventually have to rethink the role of retail as well. Now after a year of planning we’re incredibly excited to announce that we will be opening Morocco’s first artisan run store in Fes in early 2020, and then a second store in Marrakech in 2021.
Our vision isn’t just to create another store. In fact, there almost seems to be an inverse correlation between the number of new stores in the old cities of Marrakech and Fes and the number of artisans that still live and work there. Instead, our vision is to create a space that reflects the wider values of The Anou Cooperative and ensure that authentic artisans will always have a place in the increasingly gentrified medinas of Fes and Marrakech.
To realize this, we are aiming to build a creative space where customers can not only buy products directly from artisans but explore craft first hand and learn about the people, design, materials and processes that go into everything displayed. The space will enable visitors to sign up for workshops with artisans or schedule visits to artisan workshops across the country. Further, the stores will be staffed by artisans from the Anou community because who else would be better to learn about a product than the artisan who made it.
The store will be directly connected to Anou’s artisan office, so customers can see first hand the work artisans do to make Anou work. The office will be built so that customers and designers can sit down and collaborate with artisans to create new ideas and products. Equally exciting the store will also be connected to Anou’s dye house and yarn shop so that all visitors can see the materials being made first hand while having every color imaginable at their fingertips.
We hope that through the store we will be better able to educate visitors on craft and increase sales for artisans. Similarly, we hope that the store will serve as a live training ground for artisans so that in the near future Anou will be able to send highly capable artisans abroad to run pop up shops and directly communicate with customers no matter what country they are in.
Ultimately, by pursuing this vision we hope we can create an artisan run store that all artisans are proud to be a part of. We’re excited to have you all on this journey in making this a reality.
Realizing our upcoming Fes space would not be possible without Cafe Clock. Cafe Clock has provided Anou rooms and the roof of a riad that is currently under renovation. We are also indebted to Matthew Long, a furniture and store designer, who graciously volunteered to help design the space for Anou.
Over the coming months follow us on Instagram and Facebook as we chart the progress until the opening day of Morocco’s first artisan store. And as always help us spread the word about Anou this holiday season as each purchase not only benefits artisans, but makes visions like this a reality.
We’re incredibly excited to announce Anou’s first Community Development Fund. Our goal with the fund is to provide outstanding artisans from across the Anou community with access to interest free loans with generous repayment timelines. This way artisans can accelerate any needed purchases, such as a new smartphone or a new loom, that will help them increase their sales.
Anou’s artisan leaders will select participating artisans by analyzing artisan performance on their online stores and invite top artisan groups to take part in the fund. Examples of such performance indicators include but are not limited to the time it takes for artisans to confirm orders, the time it takes artisans to ship their orders, error rates on shipments and custom orders, among other criteria.
Selected artisans will simply have to submit a video of themselves via Whatsapp outlining what they want to purchase, how much it costs, and how they will use it to improve their sales. Each application will be reviewed later this summer by a panel of five Anou advisors from the Ministry of Handicraft, British Council Morocco Office, OCP Foundation and the Moroccan Center for Social Entrepreneurship. The panel will be able to select one group or divide the funds amongst several artisan groups. Anou’s artisan team and Anou’s mentor team can only provide background information on a group to the board and will not be able to make any decision which artisan group receives the fund.
The artisans will then repay back the amount with 10% of each future sale until the balance has been paid back, which will then be applied to the second round of Anou’s Community Development Fund in 2020.
The starting amount of the initial round is $1,000 USD ( about 10,000 MAD), which was provided as a generous donation by Melanie Royals of Maison 28, who after leading a weaving retreat to cooperatives within the Anou community along with Moroccan born weaving artisan Asmaa Aman-Tran, reached out asking how she might be able to support Anou. Maison 28 is committed to continued support for the Community Development Fund through future Weaving Retreats in Morocco. We’re incredibly thankful Melanie’s support in getting the fund started and also her commitment in ensuring her retreats benefit the growth of Morocco’s artisan community.
Are you interested in contributing to Anou’s Community Development Fund? It is a pilot and pending successful rounds, we’ll eventually ensure that any donations are tax deductible. If interested, just reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Participants in Maison 28’s weaving retreat learn spinning and carding from The Afous G Afous Cooperative outside of Ouarzazate.
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 Shipping Confirmation has now been released.)
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 (Update: Text Free Invoicing has now been released).
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.
Earlier this summer The Anou Cooperative surpassed $1 million USD in total sales since we launched the Anou market place several years ago. This is a major milestone for any business. Businesses are hard. Only about 6% of business ever reach $1 million USD in sales. For Anou, this milestone is special because it was achieved by the effort of people erroneously believed to not be business savvy at all: artisans.
Artisans across the Anou community have to make a huge jump and take on large challenges to transition to selling directly to customers. In addition to photographing and posting their own products, there are the challenges of how to scale their businesses and manage their growth. It’s not an easy learning curve.
The biggest learning curve of all is that of Anou’s artisan leaders. Artisan leaders work as a team by working shifts at Anou’s HQ in order to help manage quality, manage materials for the artisan community such as wool and dye work, collaborate with partners such as our retail, shipping, donor and government partners, and help advise newer groups on how best to organize their cooperatives. Through this work, artisan leaders like Kenza of Association Tithrite, Brahim of Association Ighrem, Mustapha of Cooperative Nahda, Rachida of Cooperative Tiglmamin, Rabha of Cooperative Tamlalt, Fatiha of Cooperative Tifawin, Halima of Association Zaouia, all have set the bar for what artisans can achieve.
This milestone and the success of all Anou’s artisan leaders all comes back to you, our supporters. To everyone who has helped advocate on Anou’s behalf, or purchased a product (or several!), told their friends and family or had their orders delayed due to various growing pains, none of this would be possible without you.
The Anou community is deeply indebted to all of our customers and partners who have made this milestone a possibility. There is still much more work to be done in building Anou’s community and reshaping Morocco’s craft economy but with all of your support we know the best is yet to come.
The new big thing in Morocco is Sabra, or more often referred to as cactus silk. You can’t scroll for too long on an a social media hashtag for Morocco before seeing a pillow or rug made out of sabra. From small shops all the way up to massive companies like Restoration Hardware, everyone is scrambling to pull together their product lines.
Sabra products are incredibly popular because they embody the imagination of what people perceive Morocco to be. Simply look up descriptions of sabra product and foreign sellers via their Instagram account who dote wistfully about divorced or widowed nomadic Berber women who search the expanse of the Saharan desert for the finest cactus. And then when the perfect cactus is found under a hot Moroccan sun, the Instagrammers continue, the women undertake the painstaking work of extracting vegan fiber thread by thread only before dyeing it using hand crushed natural dyes via Indigo mud cloth techniques. Beautiful.
At a certain point though when it starts to seem that not only is such a popular product the embodiment of Morocco but also every artisan technique ever known to humankind all available in pillow form for less than $50 USD including shipping on Etsy, you gotta wonder: is any of this even true?
About a year and half ago we started getting a spike in requests for sabra product. The first clue that something might be amiss was that even though we worked with hundreds of weavers across the country none of them had ever posted a standard sabra product online. Nor were there any pictures of this process anywhere online. Many cooperatives said they could easily make the product if asked, but did not have a desire to make it on their own. Association Nahda volunteered to create some samples but first we had to find sabra.
To get started, we first visited the plentiful shops that sell sabra across the country. You’ll instantly recognize the shops with stacks upon stacks of small spindles of sabra thread. But every shop we went to in the Middle Atlas purchased their sabra in bulk from a supplier in a major city and when we met with the supplier, they told us their sabra was imported from India. When we asked to see the packaging, it was all clearly labeled as a cheap rayon. The distributor just said he supplies to small village shops and that real sabra, the sabra for weaving, was found elsewhere.
Stacks and stacks of…cheap rayon.
Shocking as that was we reached out to some of the more well known artisans who work with sabra. All of them, who have worked with sabra for many years, claimed that it was fiber from cacti that grew on farms, much like the stories people tell online. We worked with these artisans to trace the full supply chain of their material to the source, hoping it would lead us to these all female farms, but we found ourselves in Spain instead. Much of the high end sabra sold in major cities is sourced through a manufacturing company located on the outskirts of Barcelona. Spanish sabra? Sure, why not? We eagerly got in touch and the company responded by saying that they were rather incredulous anyone could extract a useable fiber from a sabra cactus, but that they wouldn’t know because they exclusively sell acetate filament threads. We brought this information back to the artists who use this product and they said it wasn’t true.
Through our research that led us to Spain, we had also found the supposed source of the actual sabra in Morocco that is most commonly used for pillows and rugs. The location is in a small, wind swept town just outside of Marrakech. We found the largest cluster of sabra cactus we had seen after months of looking that could have resembled a farm, so we assumed we were getting close. We found the owner of the land, and when we asked if we could take some sabra cactus stems, he said no because that cluster was on the land of a grave site. He had some sabra cactus in front of his house and bemusedly let us take as much as we wanted curious as to why anyone thought they could do anything with it.
A sabra farmer? Not quite.
Pulling threads, but will it work?
While in the town, we met with nearly 100 weavers of sabra product and distributors of sabra. The distributors, primarily the most well known, were all incredibly frank in that sabra had never been produced in Morocco and that their businesses started importing rayon fibers because it was shiny, relatively cheap and sold well. We were surprised that they spoke so honestly, but they said it was the first time someone had asked them such specific questions.
We have since tested the fiber and have confirmed that it is in fact rayon. Further, we’ve extensively tested contemporary and traditional techniques to extract the fiber learning from techniques used on similar fibers in Algeria, Mexico and the Philippines. So far all have failed. It’s not even clear if sabra fiber could even be used for basic rope. As a result, we can definitively conclude that sabra as of today is not real, and it’s story just as manufactured as the rayon that it is.
The Economics and Abuse of Sabra
We’ve written extensively on the economics of a lot of products in Morocco and as always the result is the same: artisans are paid next to little while middlemen take extensive mark ups. But in a land where exploited artisans is the norm, the scale of exploitation with sabra was unmatched.
The sabra product made in those windswept towns are places where middlemen in Marrakech set up their workshops and where most products you find on Instagram or in the Marrakech medina are made. The areas are out of the eye of tourists as well as the clients of middlemen and much too inconvenient for buyers to visit for themselves. The artisans are simply too far away to know what is actually happening in the market and are largely unaware. It’s a perfect environment for a made up story to thrive.
In one of the most well known towns where sabra product is made there isn’t one single official cooperative. All the women work as individuals, who middlemen pit against each other to extract the cheapest price and turn around times. When we talked to the women, they laughed at the thought that they could sell their sabra pillows, which take them 5 days to make, for more than 50 MAD ($5 USD). That is 10 MAD a day ($1 USD per day) in a country where the minimum agricultural wage is 70 MAD per day. Oftentimes, the women are expected to pay for the material which comes out of the 50 MAD price they are paid. A middleman likely tells their buyers the artisans are happy with what they pay, and the women may very well be because they do not know any better.
One of the more expensive parts of this process is dyeing the fiber. Sabra rayon comes in large tangled hanks and it is incredibly difficult for the dye to absorb quickly and evenly. We did extensive testing on best ways to properly dye sabra rayon, and because of the physical state of the fiber, it takes about two hours of manual work and extensive amounts of dye and water to complete one kilogram. To reduce the overall amount work, traditional dyers cut down the dye process from 2 hours of manual labor to 20 minutes using formaldehyde based mordants. So instead of 200 MAD ($20 USD) for 1 kg of sabra rayon, you can get away with paying as little as 20 MAD per kg ($2 USD) while pushing any adverse health effects on to the dyers and artisans. When the product is woven by the women, the product is passed on to another person, often times the middleman, who applies a bleach wash to fade and turn the product ‘vintage’. Bleach is key because there are no vintage sabra products since they only showed up on the market within the past 15 years. All in all the final material cost of imported rayon and dyed with formaldehyde comes to about 50 MAD ($5 USD) for a standard size sabra pillow.
Collectivco (and we can list many other similar companies) just recently launched their new line of Sabra pillows for just $50 USD each. You can assume that they’re at least working with a margin of at least 50%, so they paid at most $25 USD for a pillow in the Marrakech medina, which falls in place with the break down above. To any ethical seller, you’d know that something isn’t quite right with a handmade product of such detail price at just $25. At that price either artisans are getting exploited or the material isn’t what the customer thinks it is. In the case of sabra rayon products it is both. While people in Morocco may just not know any better, that excuse does not extend to many foreign companies who benefit most from the deception and often drive such trends. And let’s be real: if a company like Collectivco is selling you sabra is anything else they say legitimate?
We’ve heavily debated over the past year what exactly we should do about sabra rayon as we figured out that nothing about it is real. Calling it out likely won’t stop people like Collectivo from marketing a fake product — there’s too much money to be made. It’s also not clear if customers care. When we reached out to a customer of a sabra product their response was, “Don’t bother me about it, bother the seller. I think it looks pretty”. Further, by outing the material, we eliminate the ability for artisans within the Anou community to sell it and we may harm genuine cooperatives and artisans that do use sabra rayon in one way or another but are simply not aware or afford to believe in its actual origins.
We decided we wouldn’t make this information public until we could research and develop a better alternative to sabra rayon. And with our partners at Stitch (www.stitch.ma), who have led our research into better, more sustainable fibers, and bamboo has heavily emerged as the best replacement so far. Bamboo is ideal because it’s more environmentally sustainable, it’s less complex to dye nor does it require as much water or dye, and it is much much softer and stronger. Bamboo can be used for both warp and weft, where sabra can only be used for the weft (and is why it is most often paired with a cotton warp) because it is just too weak. Ultimately, bamboo yarns feel and act as you would expect from something called vegetable silk. We’ve spent the last several months working closely with Stitch to develop the dye systems to consistently dye bamboo fiber in a wide range of colors all in an environmentally sustainable way while ensuring good wages for artisans who take on the dye work at Atlas Wool Supply Co.
Several shades of blue and brown bamboo, drip drying in the sun.
Once we perfected the dye system, we brought out several cooperatives to Anou’s HQ to run side by side tests of Bamboo and Sabra and the results were stunning. Bamboo proved much easier to weave with, dropping the weaving time by about 20%. Further, the bamboo is luxuriously soft unlike the coarse, rough cotton sabra mix of most sabra products that you find on the market. From a purely aesthetic perspective, bamboo is just better.
After researching this for one and a half years, we can certainly conclude that sabra does not accurately represent Morocco nor the hype in everyone’s imagination. What rayon sabra does embody, however, is how artisans are harmed when sellers and buyers don’t do their due diligence and devalue the worth of artisans. What is most striking about rayon sabra is that it just goes to show what happens in a middleman centered economy. Only when every last cent is squeezed from artisans’ actual traditional products would everyone open their arms to entirely made up story about a product to extract even more from artisans.
Bamboo yarn isn’t a cure all solution to the sabra rayon problem. It’s not made domestically, if it isn’t made mechanically or in a closed loop system it can have more environmental cons than pluses, and Morocco has no real history with bamboo yarns. But it is now a known product, with room to improve immensely. And when you buy bamboo sabra products via artisans within the Anou community, you’ll know exactly what is in the product you bought and you’ll know exactly how much is going to the artisans who made it. And as more artisans earn more than just a fair wage for their work, it will enable artisans through the Anou Cooperative to do the real work of much needed research, experimentation and sourcing of new materials, of which we aim to be rooted in Morocco’s culture and environment. And perhaps artisans may just find a way after all to incorporate actual Moroccan sabra into beautiful products in the future. This is what an artisan centered economy in Morocco looks like.
Realizing this future starts with you, the customer. Ensure that you or your friends do their due diligence whenever they’re buying their next artisan product. Encourage people to buy direct from authentic artisans and not from just middlemen who say they’re helping. With your support, artisans can create the future of craft in Morocco and ensure that all Moroccan products resemble the best of what the country and people of Morocco have to offer.
The initial idea behind Anou was to enable customers to buy directly from artisans and have artisans fulfill those orders themselves. This was a pretty common sense solution to a lot of the inefficiencies that define the artisan sector and fair trade industry today.
This was also in retrospect rather bold. Getting artisans to ship products abroad and assume there would be little issue without oversight might be perceived as a bit naive.
That said, from Anou’s launch til mid 2016, our error rate or return rate of items artisans shipped directly was a low 3-5%. Such an error rate was satisfactory and even though the occasional return or problem would really take a bite out of our budget and bandwidth, it was manageable.
Starting in mid 2016 though, our error rate ballooned to 25-40%. The reasons for this are complex but it was a combination of several factors. The initiating factors was that our team was consumed with theimplosion of an artisan group and spending immense time battling archaic custom rules that prevent artisans from shipping their products directly.
With these issues eating up all of our time, it required the artisan team be primarily responsible with following up artisans after sale. Not only did the team do a marginal job, the artisan community felt they would be able to get away with more with simply artisan oversight alone versus if a follow up call or visit came from a foreigner like myself. There’s more to this, but this is the basic idea for purposes of our blog.
As problems grew, we didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the increasing amount of upset customers and problems exponentially grew from there. In short, the past several months were nothing that no sane person would describe as a good time.
Turning Problems Into Assets
On the subject of sanity, no sane business person would ever take on a business model where there is even a remote potential of a 40% error rate in orders. This explains why the existence a status quo in Morocco where artisan businesses are never fully artisan led. If Anou were primarily a business, we certainly would have taken proof of the last several months as reason to go a more traditional route. While we operate as a business, it’s not our primary raison d’ être.
Anou exists to enable artisans themselves to shape the future of Morocco’s artisan economy so that it works for them, rather than against them. As such, this is a problem that simply needs to be addressed, not avoided. If artisans cannot learn how to ensure quality and accuracy of their shipments, they’re not going to change how the economy works in Morocco. And let’s be real, if you start with the assumption that artisans aren’t capable of this, why bother working in this space?
The status quo deals with such issues by drawing up grants and doing trainings and workshops. In Morocco, those don’t work. Therefore our starting point in solving a problem is not workshops, but creating real-time learning experiences for artisans. How, for example, do we turn problems into a continuous stream of learning experiences where we can train hundreds of artisans at a fraction of a cost of a workshop all while building both our bottom line and a critical mass of artisans that have a nuanced understanding of quality control? Over the past, several months we’ve been working closely with our partners at Amana (Morocco’s national post system) and DHL to do exactly that.
An Overview Of Our Updated Quality Control Process
We’ve been testing this new process over the past month and we now project that we’ll be able to decrease customer side issues and stateside returns below 1%, if not 0%. Now in the majority of cases artisans ship their orders and Amana delivers directly to our office.
Members of Association Tithrite working at Anou’s HQ receive shipments from artisans across the country and prepare them for inspection.
The artisan leaders then open and inspect every shipment and look for common errors such discrepancy between dimensions listed on the site vs the actual item, stains, bleeding dyes (if wool was not purchased through our Atlas Wool Supply Co initiative), color discrepancies between the listed image and the actual order, among other potential issues.
Artisan Leader Mustapha Chaouai walks Rachida of the Khenifra Women’s Cooperative through quality control on a weeks worth of orders. Members of Association Tazrbit observe and eventually step in and try their hand.
If the issue can be fixed on the spot, the artisans at the Anou HQ will fix it. If not, the artisans get experience using professional grade cameras and learn photography techniques to better show the product and errors to the customer, all while learning skills they can apply to their own photography when they are back at their cooperative in their home village.
After the pictures are complete, the artisans use a small app that we built to enable the artisan team to fill out a simple form about the product using Tashelheet/Arabic, and once submitted, sends an e-mail directly to the customer in English notifying the customer of the problem with detailed pictures. It is best to never pass up an opportunity to enable artisans to feel the direct discomfort of informing customers of a problem. The customers can accept the order as is or they can request a refund and we’ll ship the rug back to the artisans.
New tools enable Anou’s artisan leaders at HQ to send important information to customers directly. If you purchased an item from Anou recently, you likely received e-mails from members of Anou’s artisan team.
This process is very much in the testing phase but initial results are incredibly positive. Instead of having a customer get an unexpected surprise and putting Anou on the hook for a several hundred dollar return, we can teach artisans how to address problems and improve their skill set all while creating a better customer experience at a max cost of about $12 USD per order affected by an error — a price that most artisans can generally afford to cover.
We’re incredibly excited about refining this process and making it live. It is important to note that none of this would have been possible without the incredibly understanding, patient customers we’ve had over past several months. Without their patience and support, we would not have had the space to fix these issues. If you have any questions about this new process and want to learn more about this to ease any concern if you are on the fence with a potential order, give us a shout at email@example.com
Not only was this rug designed by Kenza of Association Tithrite, it was the first rug made using Anou’s own in house sourced wool and non-toxic, environmentally friendly dyes.
This past winter, a cooperative within the Anou community received a large order and they struggled to meet timelines that they had set themselves. Each time a weaver began on the order, they’d get sick, and another artisan weaver would begin working. The weavers said that they just all happened to get subsequent colds but it was clear something was a little off. Whatever was happening, it seemed to go deeper than an excuse. Curious, we decided to bring the weavers to work on the order at our HQ so we could better monitor the progress of the order and see what the real issue was. Within 24 hours of having the weavers at our office, the artisans eyes started to swell and if we had not stopped them from weaving their eyes would have swollen shut. The artisans were sick alright, but it wasn’t from a cold. They were having severe allergic reactions from the materials they were weaving with.
We have always felt that artisans were sick more often than the average population but we never had any data to prove it. Perhaps it was the result of a wide range of challenges often faced by those in rural, poor areas.But after bringing the weavers out to our office it was clear that materials artisans use, whether they realize it or not, seems to play a significant role in the quality of their health. And what it certainly proves is that there is something severely wrong with the craft material market that is literally and figuratively killing the artisan community of Morocco. To ensure that we can build the future of Moroccan craft in Morocco, we can no longer overlook the lack of safe, natural, quality materials in Morocco.
Ensuring that artisans have access to quality materials may seem like a simple problem to fix, but like many things, the problem is the result of a vast range of complicated problems. And yet after nearly a year of immersing ourselves in the material market of Morocco the source of all these problems find their roots in how the Moroccan artisan economy is structured.
As we’ve wrote many times on this blog before, middlemen keep on average 96% of the final selling price of products on the artisan market. We’ve come across groups where middlemen don’t even pay artisans in cash, and simply pay artisans in more material to make them more product. Middlemen in many cases have optimized the labor cost to zero. Yet there is still cut throat competition, so materials becomes the next place of focus to maintain margins. Therefore, every decision made by middlemen is focused on eliminating any costs and cutting any possible corner to get the cheapest material available. Since middlemen control the majority of the market, their demands dictate what artisans largely buy.
One of the most prominent sellers of craft material in Morocco now sells more than 90% synthetic material imported from India and China. When asked why he didn’t sell authentic material that could theoretically be sourced locally, he said that middlemen don’t buy natural products, and the artisans don’t earn enough from their work with middlemen to ever afford natural products themselves.
Domestic Demand & Confusion
What is odd is that Morocco is flush with natural materials — the same natural materials that gave rise to the artisan sector of Morocco to begin with. It isn’t impossible to find natural materials like wool but it isn’t so straightforward sourcing it. In some cases, sourcing natural materials can be worse for an artisans’s health than a synthetic. For example, groups who use wool instead of acrylic threads take the wool to dyers in Marrakech and Fez to create the colors they want. To properly dye 1 kilogram (2 pounds) of wool and chemically bond the dye to the wool while ensuring no environmental impact can take up to two hours of work. After working in the dye tanneries for several months we were shocked to learn that the dyers were using cheap dyes and cutting corners by skipping the chemical bonding process by ‘gluing’ the dye the wool using heavy concentrations of toxins like formaldehyde. This process only takes 20 minutes to dye several kilograms of wool. Not only does this dye become incredibly prone to bleeding, it affects the health of anyone who comes in touch with such wool including the end customer. If you ever wondered why Morocco’s souq and markets have a reputation for bleeding rugs or causing allergies, here’s your reason why.
What makes this even more difficult to navigate is that it is nearly impossible for anyone to find out information about the true source and make up of such materials. For example, wool dyed with formaldehyde may bleed in seemingly sporadic number of washes, not necessarily the first wash. So a wool seller or dyer can tell an artisan that the wool is safe and non-bleed, run it through a basic bleed test in front of the artisan, and then the material will bleed after the artisan already sold a product to their customer. In some cases, the stories sellers tell take on a life of their own. For example, the incredibly popular material cactus silk locally known and sold as sabra isn’t even grown and processed in Morocco. In fact, all locally available Moroccan sabra is a semi-synthetic that is imported from India. Even after months of research we cannot find any evidence that sabra is or ever was commercially grown and processed in Morocco.
Launching The Atlas Wool Supply Co
What we have learned early on in building Anou is that if you want to do something right in Morocco you just have to do it yourself. As such, since the Fall of 2016, we’ve been learning and testing ideas and processes to develop our own in house material sourcing operation for the Anou community. And after many months, we’re excited to announce the launch of the Atlas Wool Supply Co, Morocco’s only source for quality craft materials. Our vision is to revive supply chains of all traditional Moroccan materials and provide them at cost to artisans of the Anou community.
Since the majority of our artisans are weavers, the first material line we have developed is for wool. We have set up full vertically integrated, environmentally sustainable, wool sourcing operations in both the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains. Anou artisans are employed via living wages to identify shepherds and sheer wool directly from sheep as well as scour and spin wool. When the wool is spun, it is shipped to our HQ where Anou’s artisan team is trained to dye wool in thousands of colors using premium non-toxic synthetics and locally sourced natural dyes. Anou artisans can now simply pick up the phone or send a Whatsapp message and place an order for any color they wish, whether it be for a new design or for a custom order, and have their requested materials shipped directly to their village. For the first time artisans who are a part of Anou can guarantee that their materials are of high quality and free of toxins that are harmful to the health of people and the environment. No one else in Morocco, middlemen or otherwise, can guarantee this simple important fact. Knowing this, why put your health and the health of artisans at risk when buying products from people who cannot guarantee where their materials came from?
Get Involved and Support Anou
We’ve received so much initial excitement from our sample materials that we’ve made our materials available for purchase at www.atlaswoolsupply.co. We plan to catalogue ever color we have ever dyed in order to create the most comprehensive collection of wool colors online. So even if you are not in the market for a rug just yet but you are a knitter or a weaver, you can now support the Anou Cooperative by purchasing materials from the Atlas Wool Supply Co. All proceeds generated from each sale goes towards Anou’s general budget to onboard and provide further training for artisans in the Anou community. Already, companies like The Citizenry and organizations such as Turquoise Mountain have already begun to source from us for their projects. And starting next month, all major yarn shops in London will be carrying our materials for sale.
With your support, we’ll never have to worry about whether artisans are getting sick from the materials they are weaving nor will materials and colors ever be a limit to the creativity of Moroccan artisans.
Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda gathers wool samples from shepherds from around the Middle Atlas mountains. The samples wewre sent to labs for quality and fineness tests.
At Anou’s HQ, Rabha Akkaoui trials wool scouring techniques learned from studying the processes of New Zealand wool companies.
Anou provides scoured wool to cooperatives from across the Middle Atlas and High Atlas, like Imelghaus, to thread. The cooperatives use the income to supplement their income from their sales on Anou.
At Anou’s HQ, Kenza of Association Tithrite dyes wool that was requested by members of the Anou community. Anou ships the dyed wool directly to artisans across the country.
Brahim El Mansouri uses Anou’s color coding system to identify the dye mixes to create specific colors required for a custom order.
Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda discusses challenges and potential solutions to Moroccan artisan export policies at the US Department of Commerce and Ministry of Handicraft Forum on Artisan Exports
One of the most shocking things we’ve learned since launching Anou is that artisans in Morocco are not legally able to sell their products directly to customers abroad. Yes, you read that right.
To simplify an incredibly complicated subject, a law passed in 1974 creates a legal structure in which makes it difficult for artisans and easier for middlemen to ship internationally. In addition to this, there is no official means for a cooperative to register for an export number, which is required for any export from Morocco. If artisans want to sell and ship their products internationally, they must do so in a way that is illegal or sell to a middleman.
This may probably come as a confusing contradiction because our platform enables artisans to ship their products directly to their customers anywhere in the world. What that means is that all of artisan shipments that Anou has facilitated since the day we made our first sale in 2013 have been illegal. This definitely was not the empowerment we were thinking of when we began working on Anou many years ago.
When we first launched Anou, we started with the naive assumption that solving market access would address the primary ills of the artisan community in Morocco. Since those early days our views have evolved extensively. What we’ve learned, and blogged about in the past, is that market access, design, and management all play important roles in creating a robust artisans community in Morocco. But importance of these components can quickly be made negligible if the laws and policies that underpin the craft economy in Morocco are designed in a way that work against artisans.
The 1974 law was created at a time when the places where artisans lived had no roads or electricity and internet had yet to be invented. At that time it truly was not practical for artisans to sell their products from the middle of the Atlas mountains. It comes as no surprise then that the law focuses on the regulation of middlemen and omits the possibility that artisans might one day be able to sell directly. You cannot fault law makers in 1974 as it is doubtful that they would have ever considered that rural artisans would have the means to sell from remote villages via pocket sized, globally connected computers. Today, this law leaves artisans stuck with no legal way to ship their products. Morocco and the world have changed. So must policy.
The Trouble With Change
If these policies do not benefit artisans, why haven’t they been changed? The obvious answer might just be inertia. It’s hard to change old laws. But this would be incorrect. New laws are frequently passed that still continue to overlook the true needs of artisans. For example, policy implemented at the end 2016 requires all legal entities in Morocco to have an export number from Morocco’s national export office. Government agencies, associations, non-profits, you name it, can fairly easily apply for an export number to comply. But curiously, cooperatives were left off the list. There is no formal process for a cooperative to apply for an export number. It seems as if the government simply forgot about cooperatives even though cooperatives employ a substantial amount of Moroccans.
The short answer to this complicated question is to simply follow the money. Currently, middlemen only pay artisans 4% of the final selling price of products they create. Non-profit organizations or social enterprises, even those that market themselves are unprecedented for paying artisans paying artisans high wages still only manage to pay artisans 25% of the final price. Maybe 25% puts food on the table for an artisan, maybe gets their children some school supplies, but they are still poor and work exhausting day to day existences. This leaves them little room to develop a voice and advocate for themselves.
Therefore, it is contingent on those who earn a significant portion of the final selling products to advocate for artisans. With such profit comes great responsibility to those they profit off of. Yet, middlemen are certainly not going to push through a change to policy that they seemingly exclusively benefit from. That leaves non profit and ethical businesses but they have gone missing when it comes to systemic problems, like outdated policy, that hold the artisan community back. The 1974 law is proof of this. No one has tackled these issues because it is easier find work arounds than it is to invest the long game of changing policy. From 2010 to 2016 alone, work arounds of such outdated policy that only large businesses and organizations have the capability to develop directly contributed to an astounding 76% decline in legal artisan shipments from the the Fez province (as cited from a recent presentation by the Fez Artisan Delegation).
The Artisan Lobby
The average length of a donor-funded project is about a year. Businesses that sell artisan products focus on what affects their immediate bottom lines. Moroccan government and staff turn over regularly. Meanwhile, it takes a minimum of four years for Moroccan government to modify an existing law. Artisans, on the other hand, will always be artisans. Time is on their side. Therefore, it is up to artisans to hold their government accountable and advocate for the future they want to see.
When you purchase through Anou, this is exactly what you enable artisans to do. Artisans in our community earn 80% of the final selling price. The remaining 20% funds go to hire the best and brightest of the community, Anou’s artisan leaders, to travel the country talking with artisans and work directly on high level problems that affect the artisan community at large. Anou artisan leaders gain the experience, and financial stability, to critically think about the problems and solutions that matter the most to them and the wider artisans community.
For the past one and half years, Anou’s artisan team has been at the forefront of challenging these outdated policies that prevent authentic artisans from legally exporting. We have spent considerable time and resources on these issues, more so in the past six months. We could continue with workarounds but we have decided that now is the time to bring these problems into the light due to the long-term damage they inflict on the artisan community.
As such, we’ve begun to ship our products through formal channels, even though our products can be seized due to these existing policies. In fact, in the past three months alone, we’ve had over $20,000 USD in shipments held and delayed by customs causing immense amount of frustration for our customers. Despite the stress and frustration of these delays, they have provided us with knowledge, space and leverage to implement needed solutions.
Our efforts reached a new peak yesterday where the US Department of Commerce and Ministry of Handicraft hosted a forum to discuss the challenges facing artisan exports. Artisan Leader Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda gave the most compelling presentation of the forum in which he clearly articulated the problems of Morocco’s export policies and presented his solutions on how they could be fixed. People were shocked to learn that he was actually an artisan. The presentation was a watershed moment for Anou as it demonstrated for the first time that artisans themselves can truly influence and contribute to policy development in a way that no one else can.
While the challenges that face Moroccan artisans and Anou face still remain unresolved, we are optimistic that with the continued support from you, our customers, artisans will be able to see this all through. Further, we are fortunate that there is a Ministry with the decree to specifically support the interests of Moroccan artisans and countless individuals within the Ministry truly committed to the well being of authentic artisans. Anou’s artisan team is excited to work with the Ministry to create smart, effective policy to resolve export problems and more in order to support the growth of Morocco’s artisan community. Whether it takes months or years, your support will enable us to change policy for the betterment of all Moroccan artisans.
At Anou we work everyday to change and restructure the current artisan economy so that it works for artisans, rather than against them. But if there is anything we’ve learned is that actual change is really difficult.
A lot of what exists in fair-trade marketing is centered around aspirational change. Help empower these female artisans. Help give that person a job. Help give this person a better livelihood. Working towards such goals are laudable. But what happens when those female artisans are actually empowered? What happens when a person who didn’t have a decent livelihood now has one but the other members of his or her community remain stuck? This is where actual change begins.
What separates Anou from just about everything else is that we are owned and operated by authentic artisans. Outside of the founder, the entire team is comprised of Moroccan artisans. Our team’s average education level is 7th grade and only one has graduated from high school. This is generally reflective of the average status of the artisan community here in Morocco. Our team is the cornerstone of our vision of creating an artisan-centered economy and bringing about real change in the Moroccan artisan sector. By hiring artisans, they learn skills that traditionally are reserved for non-profits aiming to help artisans. Also important, artisans get paid actual wages and develop actual wealth. These combined give artisans the skill and creative space to learn how to bend and shape the future of Anou, and by extension, the future of craft in Morocco. This change, actual change, is what Anou is all about.
This optimistic vision, however, cannot be realized without addressing the ugly side of change. Actual change makes people uncomfortable and unseats those who may have once been the comfortable benefactor of the status quo. For example, the cooperative of one of our artisan leaders, a female, had become the largest employer in the village excluding the government. Moreover, in many months of the year, the female weavers were individually earning more money than the local governor. This cooperative was the poster child of the aspirational change that fills artisan marketing. But after a couple of small missteps by the president, such as poor vetting of new cooperative members and minor accounting mistakes that a 7th grade educated artisan is prone to make, the aftershocks of real change took hold.
Jockeying for position to prepare for the elections in the fall of 2016, local political party leaders picked up on the missteps and initiated a behind the scenes smear campaign against the female president. As part of this, political parties hired lawyers and financed over 36 lawsuits against the president starting in the summer of 2016. The lawsuits explicitly pitted members of the cooperative against each other. The politicians’ goals were to unseat the president and place a person belonging to their party at the head of the cooperative to curry prestige and earn more votes in the upcoming election. The once successful group stopped weaving and instead spent their time facing off in monthly court hearings.
The fairly common response to all of this was that artisans, particularly female ones, shouldn’t be put in positions of power because they cannot handle the work. It’s all just too messy. The vast majority of people taking the time to read this post will vehemently disagree. But the wider structure of the artisan market implicitly agrees with such statements, many fair-trade and non-profit organizations included. Everything is largely stuck in the aspirational side of change in the artisan sector, because that is what sells and works in the short-term. Many groups focus on craft as a means of poverty alleviation, but this doesn’t challenge the actual systemic reasons why artisans are continually poor. Other businesses do the work of selling to create a more consistent experience for customers, but this doesn’t address the systemic reasons why artisans have no awareness of international market demands. Solving the systemic issues that artisans face often means dealing with the messy, ugly side of change — the stuff that doesn’t quite fit in a glossy magazine or Instagram post.
Lessons Learned and Poor Customer Service
Anou operates first and foremost as a business. But we dive into the ugly side of change head first because we are focused on the long-term, even if that means that we’re going to make a lot of mistakes in the short-term. In November 2016, a cooperative president was married and her new husband barred her from working from the cooperative. The leaderless cooperative then proceeded to send thousands of dollars in product to the wrong addresses all over the world. It is now February, and we’re still cleaning up that mess.
The reaction of the weavers of the cooperative was that they themselves shouldn’t be responsible for managing the cooperative and that they needed a male in the village to manage the work. While that would help in the short-term, we rejected that as a solution because we are always committed to being artisan led, from Anou itself to the cooperatives that comprise our community. Lessons from these painful mistakes will become institutionalized within the artisan community over time. And not only will that cooperative be less likely to make that error again, our artisan team is better able to prevent such problems from occurring in the future.
When the court battles of over 36 lawsuits reached fever pitch, we sent out one of our best and brightest artisan leaders, a 8th grade educated metalsmith to intervene and help negotiate a solution end the ongoing court battles. Empowered by years of working on the Anou team, and equipped with the leverage of holding access to Anou’s marketplace, the metalsmith recently negotiated a solution that local lawyers couldn’t figure out. Throughout this several month long process, which left us severely understaffed at Anou, the metalsmith has largely become an expert in Moroccan cooperative law. Today, he is now actively working with other groups in the Anou community that are exhibiting the red flags that proceeded the epic court battles of the once successful artisan group described above. In fact, he is on the phone helping a private bank’s staff understand cooperative compliance laws as I write this post. This is actual change.
Why Your Support Matters
Change is not easy and it takes time. Yes, this means that we are going to continue making mistakes and sometimes create a really crappy customer experience for a small number of our customers. In fact, we just received our first BBB complaint as a result of being so understaffed these past few months. It would be easier to omit artisans from the management of Anou so we could avoid such problems. But what would we end up changing? Not very much.
Right now, as difficult as it is to write, we cannot guarantee our customers a flawless experience yet. While we aspire to Amazon level-like service and speed — and we’re well on our way — we need more time and experience. What we can guarantee, however, is that every sale that you make through Anou will contribute to creating real change. That simply cannot be guaranteed by any other artisanal sellers in Morocco.
We are absolutely indebted to all of our customers who understand this and support our long-term vision. We humbly thank you for taking a chance with your dollars on our growing community.
Brahim El Mansouri, woodcarver, co-founder and president of the Anou Cooperative, shakes hands with Minister of Handicraft H.E. Dr. Fatima Marouane after signing an unprecedented agreement.
After two and half years of writing proposals, meetings and hard work, the Anou Cooperative has finally signed an unprecedented agreement with Morocco’s Ministry of Handicrafts, Social Economy and Solidarity. The agreement elevates The Anou Cooperative to an official partner of the Ministry — a status traditionally reserved for government agencies and large international organizations.
More specifically, the agreement creates the framework for the Ministry to include members of The Anou Cooperative in its programming and initiatives, share data and research on Morocco’s artisan economy with Anou’s artisan leaders, and work closely with Anou’s artisan leaders to create policy that better enables artisans of the Anou community to grow their businesses, such as streamlined customs and export processes. Even more exciting is that through the agreement the Ministry has officially endorsed the Anou Cooperative as one of its preferred means to buy from artisan associations, cooperatives, and small businesses across Morocco.
It is truly difficult to underscore the importance of this agreement. After traveling across Morocco and meeting with hundreds of artisans over the past several years there is a tangible feeling of shared helplessness amongst the artisan community who feel they have little control over their future. What often frustrates and isolates artisans the most is the feeling that those elected and chosen to represent their interests in Morocco’s government fail to do so and rarely interact with artisans as serious stakeholders.
Enabling the Moroccan artisan community to build the future of the artisan economy in their country starts with instilling the belief that they actually can. Nothing is more powerful in creating this belief than when Brahim El Mansouri, the president of the Anou Cooperative, a woodcarver, is able to sit down at a table with the Minister of Handicraft as equals and sign an agreement that will alter the future of artisan craft in Morocco.
None of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of the visionary support of those at the Ministry such as Boubker Mazoz, Nada Baâl, Adil Ibnoutalib, Abdelkarim Azenfar and of course H.E. Minister Dr. Fatima Marouane. This agreement is a testament to how committed the current administration is to building the artisan community and social economy of Morocco.
With an inspired community of artisans empowered by an endorsement and a true partner in their government, it is clear that the best days of Morocco’s artisan community are ahead of it.
Fatiha (right) sits alongside Brahim El Mansouri of Association Ighrem to create some of her first sketches.
Fatiha Ait Ouagadir of Cooperative Tifawin, just before becoming an artisan leader, sat in Anou’s office with an unusual request: use colored pencils to sketch out a new idea for a rug. Fatiha sat in her chair struggling to put a pencil to paper. She eventually sketched a design she had woven many times before. When pressed to create something new or simply rearrange the design she had sketched, she struggled more and eventually gave up. It just wasn’t possible, she said.
Fatiha’s story points to the widely held idea that artisans are not designers. Research artisan businesses and you’ll see an economy that embodies this. It may be easy to conclude that artisans can’t design because they’re not capable, but it is actually the result something much more systemic.
Most businesses design products and then have artisans make the product. Rarely, if ever, are artisans truly consulted on design work. Generally, a Moroccan artisan’s input goes only as far as a designer gaining inspiration from the artisan’s culture and traditions. Outside designers then drive innovation and change by refreshing, revitalizing or incorporating a western twist on artisan traditions. The language of innovation and change is often used to describe the outside designer, but rarely the Moroccan artisan. This is because if artisans were to drive change, the traditions they represent might be lost forever. Instead of change and progress, the language that surrounds artisans focuses more on preservation and tradition.
The artisan sector as a whole seems to have accepted all of this as a natural symbiosis between a designer and artisan. Yet this relationship is structurally flawed. The reason is that the artisan and designer are not equal in today’s economy. The designer, who normally controls market access, has full control over the design and can dip into an artisan’s tradition as much or as little as she/he wants.
The less obvious reasons can be uncovered by asking what traditions are artisans expected to preserve? As Ashley Miller, a PhD candidate of art history at the University of Michigan writes in Negotiating Design, “We commonly imagine tradition as a fixed, unchanging set of practices or beliefs; it is something that can be contained, something already complete.” But the reality is many traditions, as Ashley goes on to write, may appear to be timeless but in fact can be dated to a specific time not that long ago. A great example is this rug, which is commonly sold as a vintage, tribal Berber rug, when in fact it is commonly known amongst artisans that it was first designed by a European artist in the 1990’s.
In fact, it is not difficult to argue that most traditional Moroccan designs that many gain their inspiration from aren’t even firmly rooted in the history and culture of Moroccan artisans. In 1914, the French Protectorate initiated a massive campaign via what was called the Native Arts Service to revitalize Morocco’s craft industries. Through their efforts, Moroccan artisans produced work that largely embodied a French colonial notion of traditional Moroccan craft. Even to this day, revered publications on Moroccan design follow the language and structure that the French Protectorate created to preserve what was ultimately their perspective of Moroccan craft and tradition.
If we continue to believe that the purpose of the artisan community of Morocco exists to preserve tradition, then we have to ask if what they are expected to preserve is truly theirs. And if we continue with the belief that artisans can’t design, how will artisans ever be able to drive the progress of their own traditions and craft? If we accept that artisans can’t design then we must accept the incorrect museumification of artisan craft through the sale of vintage products, which omits today’s artisans from the economy completely.
This deeply matters to Anou. Our vision is to create a growing, vibrant, inclusive community of all Moroccan artisans. How can a community possibly grow if it is restricted to a fixed idea of tradition and the creativity and ideas of others? You only need so many artisans to recreate what exists. And in an increasingly mechanized world, it’s not hard for some to question whether artisans are needed at all. In this context, it is unsurprising that the number of Moroccan artisans has decreased from 1.2 million to 400,000 in a very short period of time.
For us at Anou, it’s a false question to ask if artisans like Fatiha are capable of design or if they even should. Rather, Fatiha represents the actual questions that must be answered: How can an economy be created that is capable of unlocking the creative potential and evolving traditions of Moroccan artisans? This is the heart of our vision in creating the future of artisan design in Morocco.
Part II: Artisans, Designers & Customers: At the Center of Innovation
In 2012 Brahim El Mansouri and I set off with the intention to transform the artisan sector of Morocco by creating a marketplace where any artisan, regardless of literacy, could sell their products directly to their customers. After an exhausting year, we finally completed and released the first iteration of Anou’s marketplace at the end of 2012.
The first year challenged many of our assumptions about the artisan sector of Morocco, many of which were pretty naive. We had thought that ensuring equal access to the global marketplace for artisans was really all that was necessary to transform the artisan sector in Morocco. In fact, our original vision statement simply focused on connecting artisans directly with their customers. But after building what we thought was an innovative site that reduced the barriers for any artisan to sell directly to their customers, artisans didn’t exactly line up to join and we definitely didn’t find many customers.
The first year of Anou felt like a failure because we had changed very little despite our bold ambitions. In retrospect however, the struggles of the first year were crucial because it was the beginning of our understanding about the fundamental problems that affected the artisan community — ones that far run deeper than just access to market or fair wages.
The problems we began uncovering were big, and we were hesitant to continue working on Anou. Morocco, as anyone who has tried to change things here knows, is like a black hole. Once you decide to change something here the work will consume you whole. No matter how knowledgeable or hard working you may be, it is seemingly not up to you as to when, where or what form you’ll come out as on the other side. Brahim and I had many conversations about whether we should push forward or not. Were the problems we kept running into solvable? Could we really do anything about it? We were either going to commit or not at all.
We decided to commit.
Of all we learned in the first year, the most important was the necessity of community. The challenges Moroccan artisans face are simply too vast for a small team to tackle: many start-ups and companies flush with cash and good intentions have failed to crack the artisan market in Morocco. For Anou to succeed in addressing myriad challenges of the artisan community, we would have to create an environment where all artisans have a shared purpose in addressing them. The desire to establish this community, one powered by the marketplace we had built, pushed us to commit to seeing the work of Anou through.
In the beginning of 2014, Anou’s focus and vision zeroed in on community, and we implemented several sweeping changes to how Anou worked. First, we began to ensure that a team of artisans from the community could manage all the trainings and onboarding of new artisans on to the site. Toward the end of 2014, we radically restructured Anou’s leadership structure to enable several artisans to gain the experience in managing Anou. Further, we made all of our expenses public so that all artisans could see exactly where Anou’s money was going with the intention to increase buy in from the team and wider community. Then, after a year’s worth of work, we finally incorporated Anou as Morocco’s first national cooperative in June of 2015.
These changes were not easy to realize. In the midst of these adjustments, we were faced with difficult challenges that resulted from bad decisions to other setbacks that were beyond our control. But through all these struggles, Anou’s artisan team developed resiliency — the foundation required to bring our community together.
Today, we now have a team of six artisan leaders who can manage all the daily operations of the site, including payments, fulfillment, troubleshooting, and much more. Such tasks that have traditionally been outsourced to fair-trade organizations or middlemen are now being completed by a team with an average middle school education. During this time, our sales increased from a thousand dollars a month back in 2013 to a new record setting month of nearly $31,000 USD in May of 2016 — putting $500,000 in annual sales within reach. 83% of that revenue went directly to the artisans who made and listed the sold products, with the remainder going towards Anou’s budget. Last month, nearly 50% of our operating budget was used to pay artisans from the community to maintain and grow Anou.
Several years ago, while sitting in a presentation by the Ministry of Handicraft, an official noted that there were 1.2 million artisans in Morocco. A couple of months ago, the Ministry informed the Financial Times that there are now 400,000 artisans in Morocco. While the wide difference in numbers may be likely the result of a new way of categorizing artisans, the decline is real. We’ve heard unofficial statistics that the number of artisans in Morocco decreases by 17% per year, and our observations support these numbers. Meanwhile, the Ministry also reports year over year increases in overall sales of the artisan sector of Morocco. In addition, the rate of new fair trade retailers only seems to increase. These trends represent an alarming dissonance that points to the fact that the existing model of the artisan marketplace is not working.
These numbers make us feel as if we have accomplished very little since we launched Anou over four years ago. But similar to the end our first year of work, the past three years have been an immense education for us on the challenges that face the artisan sector in Morocco. We’ve learned that in the midst of the multitude of challenges artisans that face, there is only one systemic problem: artisans have no voice or power to address any of these issues for themselves.
Despite the endless institutions, organizations and businesses designed to support artisans, no initiatives take empowerment to the level where artisans actually gain power or a voice in how the artisan sector should work. There is a fundamental assumption that artisans should just create and leave the rest of the work like design, selling and business development to others because they cannot do it. The problem is that the ‘rest of the work’ is where influence, creativity and wealth is created. The ‘rest of the work’ is the only way that artisans can create value that goes beyond the low ceilings of fair and living wages defined by others. Enabling artisans to own the ‘rest of the work’ is the only way that the status quo will ever change.
Four years since we began Anou, we’re at a crossroads once more as we ask ourselves what is the vision of Anou? What do we want Anou to be? We could simply be complacent in where we are today and accept there are certain things aren’t just meant to be changed. But everyday we wake up driven by the belief that Anou, powered by its community and marketplace can enable all artisans to become masters of their craft, design, business, and ultimately the artisan economy in Morocco. Through Anou, we believe that artisans will bring themselves in from the fringe of their economy to the center of it and shape the trajectory of Moroccan craft in the 21st century. We will know when we have succeeded when there is no longer an annual decline of artisans in Morocco because Morocco’s youth pursue craft not out of necessity, but because of the future it represents.
By no means will realizing any of this be easy. None of the work thus far has been. But as we sit at a crossroads today, thedecision to pursue this vision could not be any more clear.
We’re so incredibly excited to announce our new HQ in David Beach, Morocco! This move has been a couple of years in the making. Through 2014-2015, we have been building a decentralized leadership team and structure for the Anou community.
This structure created deep bench of six artisan leaders that could help manage many aspects of Anou’s operations. However, by the end of 2015 our decentralized structure could no longer effectively meet the growing demands and complexity of Anou’s operations.
In December 2015, we launched a pilot and brought out artisan leader Rabha Akkaouai to work full-time at our office in Rabat. After the first month of full-time work, Rabha was able to get one on one attention and training that should couldn’t receive remotely. As a result, her ability and knowledge increased exponentially. For example, after one month of full-time work at Anou’s office in Rabat she was successfully managing all payment transfers that are required to send the money from a customer to an artisan’s bank account.
We eventually brought out all artisan leaders to work in full-time shifts of either two weeks or one month at our Rabat office. Like Rabha, all artisan leaders had huge jumps in knowledge and an increased ability to manage Anou’s operations.
As a result, we prioritized finding a HQ that could enable a large number of artisan leaders to live and work full-time on Anou’s operations. We also wanted a space where the artisan team and artisans from the community could receive tailored support across all critical areas that the Anou community faces.
Our new place in David Beach will enable us to do exactly that. Our new HQ includes an office, a large design studio and a dormitory that can accommodate artisan leaders, visiting artisans, and soon, leading experts from around the world. It is also only 30 minutes from Rabat and Casablanca so that the artisan team can manage our shipments and other necessary parts of our operations.
Over the next several months we will begin sharing how we will be putting our new space to use. We have no doubt that our new HQ will accelerate the growth of Anou’s artisan leaders and the rest of the artisan community in Morocco!
Rabha Akkaouai of Cooperative Chorouk and Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda manage orders and payments from Anou’s office.
At the new design studio, designer Sabrina Krause Lopez provides visiting artisans with design support on their new product ideas.
Anou’s HQ is a short 4 minute walk from one of the most beautiful beaches in Morocco — a source of endless inspiration for all visiting artisans.
Anou’s team and artisan leaders set up a bonfire on the beach to celebrate the end of another successful work week.
Touda lives in Ait Bouli and is only a 25 minute drive to the near by prehistoric rock carvings. Last month, she visited for the first time ever to gain inspiration for new rug designs rooted in the culture of Ait Bouli.
The picturesque and mysterious Tizi N’tighrst rock carvings of Ait Bouli are relatively unknown except to the local villagers of Ait Bouli. The carvings sit on a pass between two villages of Ait Bouli, often only frequented by shepherds and villagers traveling to the weekly souk. Little is known about them, but many say they are over 3,000 years old and may have been an important religious site. This is not lost on Touda, who believes that these carvings are an important part of Ait Bouli’s culture.
Touda photographed her favorite symbols from the carving site with her smartphone. When she returned home sketched them in her drawing book. Here are a several of her favorite:
After a week or so, Touda had developed over 20 designs and worked hard to integrate the symbols into her sketches:
Touda thought hard and received feedback from Anou’s artisan leaders and team and eventually selected her favorite design to weave. After a month of weaving, her newly designed rug was complete!
The small, yet booming post office of Oued Ifrane, Morocco.
About 400 meters up the road from the Association Nahda’s workshop is a small, aging post office. But don’t let the modest exterior fool you, this post office has the highest volume of outgoing shipments of all post offices in the Ifrane Province. In fact, in 2015, the Oued Ifrane post office was profitable for the first time in its entire existence — a rare feat for a rural post office.
The anomaly caught the attention of a senior executive of the Moroccan Post. Earlier this year, he opened up a fact finding mission to determine why a post office in such an unassuming place was doing so well.
The executive traveled to Oued Ifrane to interview the post office director. The story goes that when the executive asked the director why the post office was doing so well, all the director had to do was point because at that exact moment a group of women from Association Nahda were walking in with another packaged rug, ready to be shipped.
Oued Ifrane is not unique. An increasing number post offices in Anou artisan villages are processing the most outgoing shipments in their province. The post office in Tabant, Ait Bouguemez processed more outgoing shipments than any other post office in the Azilal Province beginning in late 2014.
All of this activity transforms each post office’s bottom line. And as each post office’s revenue increases, so does the budget they have to hire more people and provide better essential services to the local population. Everyone in Oued Ifrane depends on the post office for one thing or another, whether it be pensions or state subsides for school supplies. Post offices with an Anou artisan group near by are often better equipped to provide those essential services, benefitting the community at large. The post office in Tabant, Ait Bouguemez now has enough cash on hand to pay out pensioners in a timely manner, rather than having villagers come back everyday for a week or two to see if the post office has received another cash transfer from Rabat.
Stories like these bring light to the often overlooked benefit of buying direct from artisans and the effect it has on the wider communities in which they live. As Anou grows and scales, we aim to integrate as many local institutions as possible so we can cast the largest ripple effect in all communities across Morocco. With your support and purchases this is not such a distant reality.
When the women finished shipping their rug at the post office in Oued Ifrane, the senior executive ordered the director of the post office to “take care of these women — they are important.” Indeed, they are.
The members of Association Nahda pose with a newly woven boucherouite rug in front of their new workshop.
We’re excited to announce our first ever featured artisan group: Association Nahda. The weavers of Association Nahda were one of the earliest groups to join the Anou community and have since become one of its biggest, most successful groups. Throughout the next couple of weeks, we will be sharing behind-the-scene looks and stories about the association, its members, and the impact they are all having on their local community of Souq El Hed.
During this time, all of our supporters will be offered a 10% discount off all of Association Nahda’s listed products and custom orders. Find something you like or want to have made by Association Nahda? Just contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for the discount code!
Last October, we were excited to announce that all shipments above 5kg would begin to be shipped by DHL. Prior to working with DHL, our average shipping time to the United States was 3-5 weeks. Now our shipping average is down to just 5-13 days with shipments delivered by DHL.
Yet we know we can do much better. Our goal is to ensure that orders fulfilled by any artisan in Morocco will arrive at their customer’s address in 5 days flat. This means the waiting time for someone in Los Angeles who is buying a rug from a remote village in Morocco would be the same as if their friend sent a letter to them from New York via USPS standard mail.
To do this though, Anou and the artisans of our community have to overcome numerous, complicated, yet solvable challenges. As such, we wanted to give all our supporters a look behind the scenes of what it takes for artisans to fulfill orders and how all of us are working to reach our goal of a five day delivery timeline.
What it Takes to Ship From the High Atlas
One reason why the logistics of shipping orders in Morocco is so complicated is that each artisan within the Anou community faces unique challenges, all of which require unique solutions. Association Timdokkals, one of the best selling groups of 2015, was in the unfortunate position of facing the majority of challenges that artisans across Morocco face when shipping products. Fortunately, their challenges make for a great case study.
Every time a customer purchases a rug from Association Timdokkals, the women receive a text message containing the address where to ship their order. Within 24 hours, the women prepare the order and package it for shipment. The women typically work in shifts at the association — half the women work in the morning and half the women work in the afternoon. So whenever a sale is made, a designated woman from the active shift packages the order.
Sana, (left) is one of the weavers who helps with packaging Association Timdokkals’ orders.
In the beginning of 2015, the president of Association Timdokkals or its members took their shipments to their local post office, about 5 kilometers away. However, their orders began to overwhelm the post office. By mid-2015, the post office, which has no paved road to it and is one of the most isolated post offices in Morocco, was shipping the highest volume of national and international shipments of all post offices in their province. In fact, many other post offices where artisans within the Anou community operate, have become the highest volume shippers in their respective provinces as well. Even better, because of these shipments, some post offices have become cash flow positive for the first time since they opened — decades ago.
However, this success brings additional complexity. Timdokkal’s post office, since it used to ship so little, previously contracted a local taxi driver to ship out their mail. But the taxi driver could no longer fit all the shipments into his trunk. The driver eventually grew frustrated that he was no longer delivering a small bag of mail every week and eventually quit and refused to ship artisan products. Now, the Moroccan National Post Headquarters is rumored to have approved a shipping van for Timdokkal’s post office, but it may not arrive until next year. As a result, Timdokkals and two other artisan groups (The Imelghaus Cooperative, and Touda Bous-Enna) in the area that share the same post office have collectively begun paying a local taxi driver to drive their shipments to the Moroccan Post’s regional distribution center in Azilal until the new van arrives.
After the women of Timdokkals package their order, they now walk it over to their local village store and they call their local taxi driver who comes and does one pick-up per day, if the mountain weather permits.
The local taxi driver stops by the village store to pick up people, and rugs.
The taxi driver then drives two hours over two mountain passes and drops the shipments off at the Moroccan Post Office’s distribution center in Azilal, the capital of the Azilal province:
Once the order is dropped off at the distribution center, the order is then either shipped to directly to the customer or to Anou’s office in Rabat.
Shipping Directly to Customers
If an order is under 5 kilograms, the artisans will ship it directly to the customer via standard international priority from their local post office (or regional distribution center in the case of Azilal). When an order is dropped off, it usually takes anywhere between 2-5 days for an item to arrive at the Moroccan Post’s international distribution center in Casablanca, where it is then immediately forwarded to the country where the customer lives.
Currently, 70% of the Anou community’s orders are destined for the US and this is where it gets complicated. Once orders arrive at the USPS distribution center in New York, an order can sit for a day, or weeks, and we won’t know because the USPS won’t register the shipment until they move it, not when it arrives. The reason why standard shipping takes 3-5 weeks, is because of the USPS, not the Moroccan Post as is commonly believed. Other countries, including those as far as Australia and New Zealand, only take 10-15 days to arrive.
Anou’s Office in Rabat
It is because the uncertainty of the delays with standard shipping that prompted us to begin working with DHL. Our goal in the near term future is to have all artisans ship their orders directly to DHL’s warehouse from their village, but we’re not quite there yet. As of today, all of our DHL shipments are sent to Anou’s office in Rabat instead.
Shipping from anywhere in Morocco to Rabat takes between 2-5 days. Once the shipment arrives at Anou’s office, Anou’s artisan team inspects packaging and opens up select packages for artisans who may previously have received complaints to ensure an order’s quality before it is shipped shipped on. Most importantly, routing orders through our office is enabling us to standardized our labeling process and troubleshoot problems that may clog up our soon-to-be full integration with DHL (e.g. artisans improperly weighing their items or poor packaging for fragile items). As we find problems with a shipment, artisan leaders, such as Rabha and Mustapha (pictured below) call up the artisans who shipped the item and teach them how to fix the mistake. Because of their work, the artisan leaders are significantly reducing the amount of errors made by the artisan community.
Artisan leaders Rabha Akkaoui and Mustapha Chaouai inspect shipments before DHL picks them up.
Once all the items have all been cleared at the office, the artisan leaders call a DHL courier, who then swings by our office and whisks off all our orders to DHL’s warehouse.
Abdullah, DHL’s amazing courier, picks up shipments from Anou’s office.
DHL normally ships a package immediately and it arrives anywhere within the world within 72 hours. However, until we’re able to standardize all artisans shipments, DHL can only send our shipments on Saturdays. So with 2-5 days local shipping, and depending on the day it arrives in Rabat, items currently take between 5-13 days to arrive at their final destination.
With the hard work of artisans in their workshops and Anou’s artisan team, we are quickly reducing our error rate and will integrate the community’s shipment within the next couple of months. And once we hit that milestone, all items shipped by the community will reach any corner of the world within just five days!
After a year of intense wrangling and hard work, we’re finally excited to announce that our community has been incorporated as Morocco’s first national cooperative. We have been waiting for what has seemed forever to announce this exciting news because this is a big deal.
The vision behind Anou has always been clear: enable the artisan community in Morocco to establish equal access to the global market. But if there is anything we’ve learned since we began our work is that to fully realize this vision we must ensure that community, meritocracy, and ownership are woven into every aspect of how we operate. Our cooperative status enables us to do exactly that.
There are only two conditions to join the Anou Cooperative. First, an individual must be a motivated, Moroccan artisan that makes the products that she or he sells. Second, they must agree to Anou’s transparency requirements. Any artisan that meets these conditions can reach out to us and request to join the cooperative. Artisan trainers and leaders will then meet with the prospective artisan in person at their workshop and if everything checks out, we’ll open their online store and provide them with a basic training so they can hit the ground running. This ensures that every artisan in Morocco can both benefit from and contribute to the community.
Once an artisan’s store is opened, our platform will soon automatically rate an artisan’s performance managing their online store through key performance indicators such as their product ratings, order fulfillment speed, custom order accuracy, among many other important factors. Performing at a high level will soon enable the artisan to lower the fees added to the products they list on their online store. Additionally, when artisans reach a high level of performance they will be eligible to become a trainer for the cooperative.
Trainers are those the cooperative relies on to either verify and train new artisans interested in joining our community or provide support to those artisans who may be struggling with aspects of their online store. Through this work, a trainer can earn additional income and skills to supplement their sales. But most importantly, the experience as a trainer serves as a rich, real-time training in understanding the aspirations and struggles of artisans across the country. This understanding serves as the foundation for each trainer to develop a voice and a vision for the Anou Cooperative, and in essence, the wider artisan community in Morocco.
Trainers who then have a long track record of success trainings and have consistently volunteered to support other artisans or help complete daily operational issues of Anou can then become a leader. Leaders are those in the community who have at every level proven their commitment to supporting the artisan community. They are those who were eager and quick to master the tools on their online store and then just as quick to help others learn as they did by becoming a trainer. Because of their rise through the cooperative, leaders possess a deep understanding of the needs of the community and embody the best of what Moroccan artisans are capable of.
Therefore, those who become leaders earn the responsibility to make the decisions that will shape the future of their community. And this is exactly what Anou’s national cooperative structure enables. Each leader gains one seat on the cooperative board, and with that, gets one vote to cast on any critical decision the cooperative faces. Decisions that were once the domain of others trying to help artisans are now fully in the hands of artisans themselves. How should the cooperative spend its profit? What rules should be implemented that foster a safe, vibrant community? Leaders will have the full ability to decide. No more gimmicky artisan advisory boards for western non-profits. No more for-profit businesses that act in their own interest and then ‘donate’ to the artisan community to compensate. The Anou Cooperative enables true ownership.
Creating equal access to markets doesn’t start with developing sophisticated technology or overpriced fair-trade certification. It starts with ownership. Without real ownership of the Anou Cooperative, no artisan would want to spend any of her or his time helping another artisan. And if no artisan is willing to help another artisan, no artisan will develop leadership skills or new ideas that come from teaching and working with others. And with no skills and little incentive to work together, the artisan sector would continue to look as it did prior to when our community began: a powerless group of 1.3 million individual artisans trapped in a zero sum game waiting for their next savior who controls all access to opportunity.
Yes, we understand the concern of whether or not artisans can actually manage and set the direction of an increasingly complex organization. But while creating equal access starts with ownership, creating equal access ends with you. You play an important role in the growth and success of our artisan led community. Each time you tell a friend about your experience buying directly from artisans on Anou, it might just drive that much more traffic to the site and encourage more artisans to reach out and join the cooperative. Each time you like a new product an artisan lists on our Instagram account, that artisan may just gain that extra burst of confidence to believe they can help other artisans in their community. And every time you make a purchase, it gives the artisan leaders validation that their work and effort matters, fueling their ability to make the prescient decisions that will grow their community.
With our cooperative structure and your support, the dream of creating equal access to global markets is quickly becoming a reality for all Moroccan artisans.
At the end of last summer, we concluded the first edition of the Common Thread Program with the British Council. The program brought British designer Sabrina Krause Lopez out to Morocco to teach, learn and work with Anou’s artisan leaders in Morocco. Then, all artisan leaders flew out to London with Sabrina to showcase their work at the London Design Festival and visited with leading designers, studios, schools and artisans in London. To say the program was a huge success would be an understatement. The experience exposed the artisan leaders to a wide range of new designs and ideas and the people behind them, fundamentally altering how the artisan leaders think about and value design. Since the artisan leaders returned, some have launched new product lines for 2015 and others began creating drafts of their new ideas for the first time. The program was most successful in the more complex questions it provoked from the artisan leaders: What constitutes a design? How does one continually innovate and evolve their design? How can one’s design be protected? Having the knowledge and exposure to develop, much less answer these questions have long been elusive for the artisan community. That is until now. It is in this context that we are excited to announce the second edition of the British Council Anou Common Thread Program. Our vision with this program is three-fold. First and foremost, we want to continue exposing artisan leaders to as many ideas as possible so they can accelerate the development of their craft and the wider artisan community. Second, we hope that the topics covered will provide the artisan leaders more insight into how they can build the rules and policies that will help further Anou’s evolution into a vibrant community that fosters both skill development and creativity. And lastly, to ensure continuous exposure for the artisan community, we want to continue closing the gap not only between Moroccan artisans and British creatives, but also between Moroccan artisans and Moroccan creatives of the nascent design scene rapidly expanding in Morocco’s urban centers. Starting on August 10th, we will gather six artisan leaders alongside British creatives and three Moroccan creatives to gather for three weeks. Each person selected to attend will be asked to develop a small half-day workshop focused on questions artisan leaders developed after their time in London and/or their creative processes. These workshops will be presented in the first week and will all serve as the foundation for developing a theme that all the participants will each design a new product idea around. Once a design theme has been established, each artisan leader will be paired with a British and or Moroccan creative and will host them in their village and workshop for two weeks. There, artisan leaders alongside their partner will each develop their own product that will eventually be added to a special collection on Anou. We hope that by bringing together designers and artisans from many different backgrounds, it will create a nexus of creativity that will not only transform each person who takes part, but also ripple across the entire Anou community. Does this excite you? Are you a design minded person? Take a look at the call out and submit an application by July 6th! To learn more take a look at the British Council’s Open Call Announcement! https://vimeo.com/106479121
Earlier this week, we were surprised to learn that we were selected as a finalist for Morocco’s Group X Innovation Competition. So with little time to prepare, Artisan Leader Rabha Akkaoui (Cooperative Chorouk) volunteered to represent the Anou community. The requirements were tough: 3 minutes pitch followed by 4 minutes of Q&A in front of an audience of business and policy experts, including the Moroccan Minister of Industry and Comm erce at one point. Anou’s artisan leaders have pitched Anou several times before, including Rabha, but the shorter the pitch, the bigger the crowd and the better competition, the more difficult the pitch becomes for the leader to pull off. Rabha spent the previous 24 hours developing her script trying to distill the message of Anou up until a couple of minutes before the competition began. So when Rabha took the stage in front of 200 people, she was understandably nervous. She started off strong — her hard work was paying off. Towards the end of her pitch though, Rabha forgot her last couple of sentences and froze — but it didn’t matter as the crowd gave her the loudest applause of the day. Rabha left the stage disappointed that she had forgotten forgotten the last sentence, but that disappointed faded when later that day GroupX announced that Rabha had taken first place in the competition! We’re incredibly excited for Rabha. She displayed the best of what the artisan community in Morocco is capable of by competing against some of the best companies and start ups in Morocco. And better yet, she won a prize of 30,000 MAD ($3,000 USD) that will be used to grow the Anou community! Congrats Rabha!
” Rabha is the symbol of the bold Moroccan belief that every morning everything is possible. “
“Anou developed a language-free interface for artisans to add their own products to the site and handle their own business operations. The process works like this: Anou employs “artisan leaders,” who are artisans themselves and are also literate. These artisan leaders act as managers and trainers for Anou.
Artisans can access the site over computers in internet cafes or on their cell phones, as 2G and 3G service is becoming ubiquitous in Morocco. Once they are set up, artisans only need to take pictures of the good they want to sell and then click the appropriate icon to categorize it as a bag, a rug, a pillow, a bracelet, a necklace, and so forth. They can also set the price and list the dimensions and weight. All of this is done in an icons-based interface with no written words, but the end result as a products page that a consumer in the U.S. would expect to read.”
We’re very excited for the write up by FastCompany’s Coexist about Anou’s platform and community led structure. Head over to FastCompany Coexist to read the whole piece!
“Etsy is great for the small-time crafts-person to reach new audiences. But there one problem: If you’re among the millions of artisans around the world with limited reading and writing ability, it won’t help much. Anou, a new website launched in Morocco, helps rural artisans cut out middlemen. And you don’t have to read or write to use it. The Anou site addresses the technological hurdle of posting to the web — but that’s just the first step in a much bigger process of becoming actual business owners.”
NPR’s Marketplace ran a great piece that got to the heart of what Anou is all about. Listen to the whole piece at Marketplace!
We were excited to learn that Anou was nominated as Morocco’s e-commerce site of the year! In order to make it to the finals, Anou must generate enough votes to finish in the top five. From there a committee of heavy weights from Morocco’s start up and business communities will select the winner based on criteria such as innovation, impact and originality.
So in order to get Anou to the finals, all you have to do is vote for us on the Maroc Web Awards site. It’ll take 30 seconds of your time and three clicks of your finger!
Note: We’re excited to have our first guest post on Anou’s blog by Rebecca Levy. Rebecca is a currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer working in Kala’ Magouna. During her service she has been working extensively with the Azlag Dagger Cooperative and is now fundraising to bring the Azlag Cooperative to America! Learn more about this trip and the work she has been up to below!
A 10 foot dagger commissioned by the local government, made by the cooperative this past year, a welcome sign as you enter the city of Kelaat M’Gouna (the city of Roses and Daggers)!
It’s been a busy couple of months for the Azlag Dagger Cooperative, a unique dagger making cooperative in southern Morocco, in the town of Kelaat M’Gouna. With opportunities to attend two festivals in America this coming year, their efforts to make “English-friendly” advertising and sales has been upped. The cooperative has attended the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, in Santa Fe New Mexico in both 2012 and 2013 — with the help of Peace Corps volunteers. After sales were not as high the second year they attended, the cooperative decided to take a year off of applying to the market and work to diversify their product line as well as improve their international selling skills. In the new year of 2015, we are pleased to announce that the president of the Azlag Dagger Cooperative will be attending a 2-week jewelry and gem show/exposition (JOGS) in Tucson, Arizona from January 29th-February 9th, 2015 and then again the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in July 2015. Although, these international fairs are great selling and learning experiences for the cooperative, the cost of travel and lodging is quite a huge investment for the cooperative. To help cover the costs of these trips, I have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund the trips: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/azlag-dagger-cooperative-artisan-fairs-in-usa/x/5471909 Furthermore, in order to help explain to international buyers the unique nature of the traditional Moroccan dagger, the dagger workers and I worked with an amazing film producer from Ouarzazate eNews to create a short promotional video for the Azlag Cooperative. Since the Azlag Dagger Cooperative is working hard to expand their presence online, the video was a great way to help international customers see how the daggers are made. The video shows in detail the handmade nature of the craft, explains the different types of daggers, and tells customers about the uses of a dagger. The Azlag Dagger Cooperative has a Facebook page, their online store on Anou, and a website. With over 60 customers working at the cooperative it is vital that they expand their market and sell their craft to the larger international market. The daggers they make are well known throughout Morocco and the cooperative is one of its kind! In addition to daggers, the men at the cooperative are skilled metal workers, making anything and everything from jewelry to lanterns to mirrors to beautiful tables. A new cooperative building is hopefully going to be built in the coming year and the executive team has big dreams for the expansion of their trade. Welcome anytime to Kelaat M’Gouna to visit this amazing cooperative!
Recently, a fair-trade business owner visited one of the cooperatives Anou serves looking to purchase several “fair trade” rugs. The artisans told the fair-trade business owner that their prices were the same in their workshop as they are on their Anou online store. The fair-trade owner complained that the prices listed online were too expensive and that they expected that prices would be cheaper at the workshop. However, all prices on Anou are set by the artisans that made the products. The difference between purchasing from an artisan workshop in person or via their store page on TheAnou.com is essentially zero minus the shipping costs.
Undeterred, the owner began to increase the pressure, refusing to buy anything if the prices were not reduced to a level the owner deemed acceptable. Since it was only two days before the biggest holiday of the year in Morocco, and a holiday for which everyone saves their money to buy food and gifts (Eid Kabir), the women of the cooperative panicked and gave the owner a 10% discount on their rugs, amounting to about $5 USD discount per rug.
We contacted the owner directly about sourcing products through Anou in the past, but they said, “the prices listed on Anou are too expensive and I have business costs to meet.” One month later, the $45 rug was listed on their website for $366. A description of the rug stated, “with the purchase of this rug, you directly support [artisan’s name] so she can better support her family.” This begs the question, was discounting the artisans by $5 really necessary? And does an 813% retail mark-up really follow the fair-trade business owners claim that their fabrics are “fair and honest”?
A Lack of Transparency
The challenge of finding an answer to the question of whether a $5 discount was necessary points to the significant and troubling lack of transparency within the fair-trade industry.
Unfortunately, there is no incentive or even a remote expectation for fair-trade businesses to be completely transparent about their costs. Customers must simply trust that a business is fair and practices what it markets. This holds true for established fair-trade organizations as well. Their slick websites display dazzling statistics about their operations, such as impossibly low overhead costs so artisans can get the “fairest” price. But dig a little deeper and you often find that fair-trade marketing focuses far more on evocative photos than on substance.
To glimpse beneath the surface, track down an organization’s 990 report (you can do that on www.guidestar.org). 990 reports are where tax exempt organizations in the US are legally required to publicly list their expenses and revenue. While 990 forms don’t provide that much clarity on an organization’s budget, they’re clear enough to see some pretty big red flags. For example, the two founders of one artisan focused organization collectively earn over $200,000 in salary annually. These two salaries account for nearly 50% of their entire annual budget and is likely greater than the value of all products purchased and sold in the same year. To cover these “overhead” costs, the organization raises funds through charity. Do their donors understand how much of their donation is going towards initiatives that may or may not benefit artisans or follow “fair trade” principles? Do their donors know how much artisans really make working with this organization? Without full transparency we are left to simply trust the information they market.
This lack of transparency always leaves artisans in Morocco with the short end of the stick. Artisans are regularly coerced into giving much more than $5 discounts because of someone else’s business’ costs, fair-trade or not. The worst part? The end customer never even knows. As long as this continues, artisans will remain disenfranchised and poor, which only provides the fuel for the endless parade of organizations trying to save them.
Opening Up Anou’s Expenses
Anou is breaking this monotonous cycle by empowering the community of artisans in Morocco to drive their own growth and development. Naturally, financial transparency has become the backbone of ensuring this community is capable of establishing equal access to the free market on their terms.
When Anou’s artisan leaders input their expenses, they’re automatically categorized on our public budget.
This is why, starting today, Anou is making its real time data for expenses publically accessible. Next, we will begin building the tools to publicly display the revenue of our community in real time. This way when purchasing from artisans in the Anou community, customers will know exactly where their money is going. No need to take our word for it or believe that “all money goes to the artisan!”, you can simply see it for yourself. This document is what we use internally to record and track our costs, so you see what we see in realtime.
While this decision uncomfortably challenges the status quo, we believe it is absolutely necessary for us to do. We cannot create the trust needed for the artisan community to coalesce if only a select few can view Anou’s expenses — it is the artisan’s money after all. Nor can we create the expectation for artisans within the community to become more transparent if we do not set the example ourselves. Lastly, if we do not do anything, there is no incentive for anyone else in the fair-trade industry to ever change.
At first glance, full transparency might be perceived as naive, idealistic, and/or unrealistic. But is it really? One business in the US, Bufferapp, recently made all of their salaries and sales data open to the public in real time. The move was heralded as ground breaking, signaling a new era in how businesses are run in the 21st century. This company isn’t a social enterprise, nor does it have a traditional altruistic mission. Bufferapp simply develops a software application that enables people to easily manage multiple social media accounts. If a private for-profit company with no direct purpose in helping marginalized populations can execute transparency better than everyone in the fair-trade industry, it is naive and unrealistic to believe that fair-trade should remain the same.
As we continue our push to full transparency, we ask that you join and support Anou to realize a marketplace that works for both artisans and their customers. You can show this support by spreading the word about Anou’s work, purchasing through Anou, or doing something as simple as asking a question about our budget in the comments below so that we can make our budget more understandable. With your help, artisans will no longer settle for $5 discounts and customers around the world can buy with the knowledge that their money is going where it is meant to go.
One unexpected lesson we’ve learned building Anou’s online store is just how many customers find us before — or after — a trip to Morocco wanting to buy directly from artisans. We used to put any visitor on TheAnou.com in touch with artisans in the community, but we ended that as soon as people started showing up extracting discounts and their guides started taking commissions from artisans.
Instead, we thought the more sensible way to address this demand was to partner with socially conscious tour agencies and operators. We could provide them with all the information required so their clients could visit the artisans in the Anou community in person — something that we can attest there is a huge demand for. In return, partner tour agencies would help us explain the values of the Anou community to their clients during their trip. Most importantly, these tour agencies would not take commissions for any sales their clients made from artisans within the Anou community. We ended up pitching this idea to ten socially focused tour agencies in Morocco.
But this led us to another unexpected lesson: just how difficult it would be to pull off. All but one agency gave us an immediate no. According to several of these agencies, many guides supplement their standard pay with commissions and would never agree to giving them up. This partially explains all those awkward experiences customers had with their guides on their trip to Morocco. Moreover, as per Moroccan law, tour agencies in Morocco hire guides or drivers as contractors, not as full-time employees. So even if the tour agency wanted to agree to our conditions, they wouldn’t have the ability to hold their contractors accountable.
One tour operator, Journey Beyond Travel, agreed to at least meet with us to discuss the challenges in realizing such a partnership. The owners, Thomas and Fazia, had a lot of knowledge to share on the topic because their guides had already rejected their efforts to eliminate the practice of commissions from their business years ago. The owners said their motivation in trying this was because commissions negatively affected the experiences their guests had on their trips. They also felt that the commissions didn’t line up with the ethics of their business. Despite all of this, they were still pretty hesitant to address this topic again with their guides and drivers.
But what makes Thomas and Fazia different from other owners we talked to was that they had an impressive understanding of how things in Morocco work on the ground mixed with an unyielding desire to build a great tour agency that gives back to Morocco and their clients. This might sound like a marketing shtick, but when you consider that Thomas was a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco and Fazia is just about to complete certification in sustainable development, well, it all just kind of fits together. Perhaps then it wasn’t so surprising when they decided to go all in and see if they could find a way to work with Anou.
Over the last several months, Thomas and Fazia took the time to meet with all of Anou’s artisan leaders in person to learn about the needs of the artisan community. Similarly, they explained to the artisan leaders the needs of their guides. Throughout it all, they tried to find a middle ground that could work, which included ideas like increasing pay for their guides (which is already well above normal market pay). These efforts all culminated in a meeting last month where Kenza Oulaghda of Association Tithrite (http://www.theanou.com/store/13) presented Anou and our proposal to the guides of Journey Beyond Travel. The guides were initially skeptical of the agreement but Kenza, with the support of Thomas, Fazia and Aicha (JBT’s cultural coordinator, who previously was a program assistant for Peace Corps for ten years), was able to win the support of all of JBT’s guides and drivers. Their approval of this agreement is truly unprecedented and we believe it will serve as a significant first step in ensuring that artisans can benefit from tourism in Morocco.
Kenza, bottom left, takes a picture with Thomas, Fazia and Journey Beyond Travel’s guides and drivers after their meeting.
As such, we’re incredibly excited to announce Journey Beyond Travel as the Anou community’s first official tourism partner. From here on out, we’ll be recommending any guests to our site who want to visit artisans within the Anou community to Journey Beyond Travel (Full Disclosure: Anou will receive no commission for anyone we forward to them). We are now working on developing a comprehensive guide that will enable JBTs guests to select which Anou artisans they’d like to visit as part of their tour in Morocco. And of course, 100% of the money from any purchase you make during your trip stays entirely with the artisan.