The Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus has been one of highest selling artisan groups this past month. They recently shipped a massive custom order and just began work on another large custom order. The looms in their modest cinder block workshop are all booked solid for the next several weeks.
Recently, the cooperative looks as if it has always been successful but this could not be further from the truth. Fatima, the president, founded the cooperative in 2011 and then became the first artisan to be trained on Anou in the beginning of 2012, nearly two years ago. And since the day her first training on Anou ended, Fatima and the women of the cooperative have confronted an endless stream of challenges.
Immediately after Fatima completed her training on Anou, men in the village told her she could not sell her rugs online. The reasoning of the local men was not because they did not want photos of their wives online as one might initially believe. Instead, the men’s resistance was rooted in the fact that their control as resellers of the rugs would decline as the women learned how to do it on their own. Women, the men said, should focus on making the rugs and not selling them.
When Fatima and I discussed this problem years ago, she just whispered to me, “It doesn’t matter what the men want, I’ll go to the internet cafe to upload pictures of the rugs when they’re not looking.” After that moment, I knew she would eventually break through. But the cooperative’s problems kept mounting. Anou was plagued by problems and its development dragged on for nearly a year. The women continued to add products to the site even though the site broke every time they used it. Worse, the internet that was introduced in the valley in 2007 was unexpectedly cut by Morocco’s telecom company and the women were left to figure out new ways to get internet access.
When the site was officially launched last summer, their photography wasn’t very appealing, the designs of the rugs needed attention, and the pricing of their products was not consistent. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t sell anything in 2013. In the same year, the cooperative of over 20 women only sold 13 rugs at craft fairs and to tourists in their valley.
In early 2014, the cooperative finally made their first sale on Anou’s online store. The women passed on any income from the sale in order to collectively buy a new smartphone. With the continuous support of Anou’s artisan leaders, Fatima gradually improved her photography and posted the majority of her marketable products. But then their progress seemingly came to an abrupt halt when the president dropped their brand new phone into water.
After years of work with cooperatives and associations I’ve heard it all. Stories about cooperatives where their members each made 30 dirhams ($4 USD) each for a year’s worth of work are not uncommon. I still don’t fully understand the reasons why cooperatives and associations remain together after all that they endure.
In the case of Imelghaus, they were fortunate that they stuck together. Shortly after their phone was waterlogged, they sold several rugs on Anou. A consistent stream of custom order requests then followed. In the past month, they have sold over $1400 in rugs with more custom orders nearly complete.
Word of the cooperative’s success spread quickly. Once skeptical women in the village are now clamoring to join the cooperative. Ixf-n-Ghir, the village up the road, held a meeting this past week to discuss starting their own cooperative in an effort to model Fatima’s success.
Where There Is No Inspiration
It is rare to see excitement surrounding artisan craft like it is in Imelghaus. I recently sat down with the Moroccan Minister of Handicraft’s Chief of Staff who reflected on his first six months on the job. He recalled being shocked after his first assignment where the Ministry implemented a fully funded artisan training program for 20 disadvantaged youth who had dropped out of school or couldn’t pass the baccalaureate — in other words, an all but guaranteed future of unemployment.
The Ministry’s training would provide the candidates with the skills necessary to get a job in the artisan sector as soon as they graduated from the program. Despite extensive marketing and the identification of 20 ideal participants, no one wanted to join. The candidates told the Chief of Staff they would prefer to be unemployed rather than be trained in traditional artisan skills. The Ministry couldn’t get one person to commit.
I can’t blame the candidates. There is not much dignity left in the artisan sector. Yes, being trained means you can carry on Morocco’s rich traditions, but you’re dismally paid and destined to be dependent on others to sell your work. In the best-case scenario, you live a life as an organization’s beneficiary.
The Arc Of Artisan Development
It is in this context that the infectious success of Cooperative Imelghaus is so encouraging. Women aren’t clamoring to join or form their own cooperative because the women in Imelghaus made some sales. Artisans unceremoniously sell products everyday. The difference is that Fatima and the cooperative passed through the long arc between dependency and independence. Their success in doing so is theirs alone. When the women of Ixf-n-Ghir discussed starting their own cooperative, they cited the success of the Fatima, the artisan, as their inspiration. Anou, or some foreigner, wasn’t mentioned.
Admittedly, the success of Cooperative of Imelghaus is just an anecdotal story as to why Anou matters. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the long arc Imelghaus passed through is similar to what other successful cooperatives on Anou have dealt with as well. Many other cooperatives on Anou are just at the beginning of their journey. But as more artisans breakthrough to independence, the artisan community will be strengthened by multiple examples of what is possible when artisans stand up on their own. Soon, such stories will no longer be anecdotal.
The Moroccan Ministry of Handicrafts estimates that there are 1.3 million production artisans in Morocco. Anou’s community represents just 300 of them. Anou has an immense amount of work in front of it if the community is going to encompass every artisan who wishes to become independent. With every purchase made on Anou’s online store, however, you can play a huge part in inspiring the next cooperative to follow in the steps of Fatima and brave the long arc towards independence.