The Perils and Promise of Artisan Custom Orders

After spending a lot of time with many artisan groups, we’ve quickly learned that their businesses heavily revolve around custom orders. It is no surprise then that many artisans have asked if they could receive custom orders via Anou, rather than just posting the items they have already made.

We have considered custom orders since the beginning of Anou but we have proceeded cautiously. There are the readily apparent challenges such as communication barriers and amount of hours that goes into detailing how an item should be made. But there are also  subtler, more dangerous challenges, namely the fact that over specific custom orders can rob artisans of their culture and creativity.

To move forward, we knew we needed to determine two things. First, are custom orders a net-benefit for artisans in the long run? And second, is it possible to empower rural, even illiterate artisans to fulfill these orders independently?

Over the past several months we’ve immersed ourselves in the custom order process. We’ve talked with artisans whose businesses depend on custom orders and discussed with them their experiences, both good and bad, to learn more about the process. In addition to this, even though it hasn’t been publicized, we’ve been fulfilling custom orders via Etsy and our chat box on TheAnou.com. Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot.

The first thing we learned is that the vast majority of artisans fulfill custom orders based off products they already have. Meaning, someone will walk into an artisan shop and ask an artisan to make the same product, just in a different size or color. In fact, all the custom orders we have fulfilled on Anou follow this pattern. Nothing demonstrates the impact such sales can have on artisans more than the fact that approximately 50% of our revenue this month so far have come from this type of custom order.

The second thing we’ve learned is that a small fraction of custom orders take up most of an artisan’s time. This small fraction of orders are the dangerous orders. Customers write in or request incredibly specific designs. Tens of e-mails go back and forth detailing just how the customer wants it. By the time an artisan finishes a product, it may look Moroccan, but the artisan had little to no creative input in the process. Artisans may make money from these transactions, but at the cost that artisans stop making their own products and wait for others to tell them what to make. In essence, they become labor where the design, and ultimately the value, of the product stay in the hands of someone else.

If we’re truly serious about creating a thriving artisan community, rather than one that just gets by on the good will of others, we need to create a way that illiterate artisans can fulfill custom orders while fostering their innate creative talents.

We’re still manually testing custom orders, but we have consolidated how our platform will work based on the things we’ve learned. Soon, we’ll release a feature that will enable customers to request a custom order of a product an artisan has posted for sale, or one that they have sold before. From there, the customer will be able to request quantities more than one, modify the dimensions of the product, and select a color palette that artisan can draw from as they create the product. This information will be sent to the artisan in a language free format where they can accept the order (if they have the time and material available) and then reply with a price and estimated time to complete. If the customer accepts, they will then pay the price up front. From there, the artisan will be able to provide the customer with pictures of the product as it is being made in real-time. Excitingly, we’ll be able to create this process without the use of any language so even illiterate artisans can utilize it.

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Fatima Haddu of Cooperative Chorouk (http://www.theanou.com/store/3) takes a picture of a custom order at the halfway mark.

Such a system will not just preserve the artisans artistic creativity, but expand it by providing artisans with additional insights into what the current trends are in the global marketplace. And most importantly, artisans will be able to retain the value created by their designs and products.

We’re incredibly excited about this feature and we’ll be sure to announce here when it is ready to go.  In the meantime, please reach out if you have thoughts that you would like to contribute to Anou’s future custom order process. And if you would like something custom made, reach out to us at hello@theanou.com. We’ll look forward to hearing from you!

The Importance of Building an Artisan Community in Morocco

The legacy of Moroccan artisans is well known throughout the world. As once vibrant communities, Moroccan artisans turned windswept garrison towns into iconic, UNESCO world heritage cities — by hand. The cities artisans built, such as Meknes and Fez, now serve as centuries-old reminders of the towering potential of Moroccan artisans when they work together as a part of a larger community.

Today, however, Moroccan artisans hardly resemble a community. Instead, artisans are individuals trapped in the belief that their work is a zero sum game. With no community, the potential and wealth of artisans is divided amongst numerous fiefdoms of resellers that dominate the Moroccan artisan market. It is no surprise then that artisans continue to be impoverished despite their tremendous skill.

Anou’s Vision

Many projects or social enterprises are implemented in Morocco with the aim of pulling artisans out of poverty. But the troubled fact is that these projects almost always focus on bringing costly outside skills to support individual artisans. These efforts and their focus on individuals, rather than a community, further isolate artisans from each other and instill the belief that help can only come from abroad.

The reality is that many Moroccan artisans already have an immense amount of skills. But in the absence of a community, these skills are siloed throughout Morocco. If artisans were part of a community in which they were encouraged to support and learn from each other, it could create the most cost effective solution in building artisan capacity — and wealth — at an unprecedented scale. Building this community of artisans in Morocco is at the heart of Anou’s vision.

Anou’s Vision in Action

Last month, Rabha (http://www.theanou.com/store/3), one of Anou’s artisan trainers, arrived in Meknes to begin training artisans how to use Anou. For her trainings to be successful she knew that she couldn’t just train individual artisans, instead, she would have to begin building a community of artisans that could support and learn from each other.

When Rabha finished training Omar Zidou (http://www.theanou.com/store/25), the first Anou trainee in Meknes, she asked him to help with the next training.

Rabha and Omar meet in Meknes to begin training Hicham.

Rabha and Omar meet in Meknes before training Hicham.

Omar and Rabha then worked together to train Hicham Zaidi (http://www.theanou.com/store/24) and his collective of metal workers. Throughout the training, Omar was able to impart his experience and his perspectives in order to help support Hicham as he got online for the first time. As a result, Hicham quickly learned from hearing multiple perspectives, and Rabha and Omar refined their own skills by teaching. Most importantly, however, was that the training challenged the assumption that artisan craft is a zero sum game.

Rabha and Omar help Hicham learn the basics of photography on Anou.

Rabha and Omar help Hicham learn the basics of photography on Anou.

The Importance of a Moroccan Artisan Community

Creating this environment of mutual support is critical for building a flourishing artisan community. Etsy’s success, for example, was fueled largely in part by the strength of its community. American artisans created and filled numerous message boards, forums and blogs, which paved the way for other artisans to sell successfully on Etsy. Not only did this create a common culture and strong community among sellers, but it also substantially increased the wealth of the artisan community in America. This year, the community of artisans on Etsy is expected to sell over $1 billion in art.

Message boards and forums, however, aren’t tools many Moroccan artisans can use for obvious reasons. Even if they could, it is common in Moroccan culture to almost always seek advice from people they trust and know in their community such as fellow artisans, friends, or family members – not strangers online. This is why it is so important to connect artisans like Omar and Hicham with other artisans within their local community that they can meet in person.

Training Omar and Hicham represented only nine artisans in Meknes, but it marked an important first step in creating a larger community. After Rabha’s training, Joauad, the president of a local association that represents many artisans reached out and offered to help. He had heard of Rabha through Omar and Hicham and wanted to ensure that all artisans in Meknes had the opportunity to learn how to sell online. Within one week, Rabha and Jaouad had 50 artisans scheduled to attend a presentation on Anou. To help with the presentation, Rabha invited two other successful Anou artisans Mustapha (http://www.theanou.com/store/9) and Kenza (http://www.theanou.com/store/13). Together, the three Anou artisans demonstrated how Anou worked and outlined the site’s vision of creating an artisan community in Morocco. It was no surprise when all 50 artisans signed up to be trained; the artisans wanted to join something larger than their own cooperatives or associations.

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Anou trainers, Rabha, Kenza, and Mustapha (pictured below) provide Meknes artisans a walkthrough on how Anou works and answer any questions from the audience. Apologies for the blurry photos!

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Of all the people at the meeting, no one was more excited than the local representative of the Moroccan Ministry of Artisans who happened to attend. He had tried building a site for Meknes artisans in the past but it had failed. After seeing three artisans, from rural villages no less, demonstrate how the site worked, he wanted to get involved and invited Rabha to meet his staff at his office. During his meeting with Rabha, the Ministry of Artisans in Meknes committed to sponsoring a meeting of all Meknes artisans and also committed to providing an internet equipped computer lab free of use for any artisans in Meknes who want to use Anou. Within just a couple of weeks, Rabha, a rural artisan, gathered artisans and existing resources to lay what will become the foundation of a thriving community artisans in Meknes.

Supporting the Growth of Morocco’s Artisan Community

All of the success Anou has had in Meknes wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for artisans leading the site. When artisans present Anou or lead trainings, it creates a belief amongst the artisan community that artisans are capable of becoming more than just labor. But more importantly, an artisan led site — while it can sometimes slow Anou’s growth — enables Anou’s artisan trainers to build real world experience managing a complex organization and develop extensive knowledge of the needs of artisans. In turn, they invest this knowledge back into the rest of the community so that every artisan in Morocco can benefit. One does not need to look further than what Rabha and Brahim (http://www.theanou.com/store/5) have done with their leadership positions in Anou for proof of the impact that Anou’s artisan team can have.

While artisans are a vital cornerstone to Anou’s success, so are you. Each time you make a purchase on Anou, you’ll not only receive an amazing hand-made product and support an incredible cooperative of artisans, but you’ll also be funding the growth of Anou’s artisan team as they work to build a vibrant, sustainable artisan community throughout Morocco and beyond.