There Used to be Candles on Anou

Earlier this year, an Anou artisan leader trained a group of candle makers on Anou. We were excited to bring an immensely popular request online for the very first time. The group posted a couple of candles online during their initial training and after a month or so they made their first sale.

A couple of days later, the candlemakers had not confirmed the order via text. The leaders reached out, but the president of the candle group said there were no problems and that they’d ship the candle soon. Two weeks later, the candle still hadn’t been shipped nor confirmed.

The leaders grew concerned because if an artisan does not fulfill their product, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on the candlemakers themselves, but on the wider artisan community. The leaders increased the pressure on the group, even suggesting that a leader would travel out to their town to send it for them if it wasn’t sent soon.

Eventually, the president reached out and said they wouldn’t send the candle because business wasn’t very strong. All the president had to do was send the order and they would receive their payment, and likely, they would have received more orders from the same customer. Orders, it seemed, was exactly what they needed. The artisan leaders quickly concluded that the president wasn’t motivated. Yet when situations occur that don’t exactly add up, it is a huge red flag that something behind the scenes is wrong.

The Disintegration of an Artisan Business

The leaders kept pushing and eventually the president shipped the order. Several weeks later, a leader received a call from the president saying she no longer wanted to sell on Anou. Instead, she just wanted to focus on selling to tourists and at craft fairs. We were concerned: Did Anou do something wrong? Was there any confusion about how Anou works?

The leaders called a few of the other members to find out what happened. The leaders quickly learned that all the members had quit the group. When the item sold on Anou, the women knew the final selling price for the first time because Anou sends out SMS messages with the final selling price to each person who made the product. Prior, the president simply sold directly to tourists and at craft fairs and had no incentive to tell the women the final selling price.

The president hesitated in sending the candle that sold on Anou because she’d have to pay them now knowing that the rest of the women actually knew the final selling price on Anou. According to the women, prior to Anou they had always been paid a much lower amount than the price now listed on Anou. Yet even after the women were made aware of the actual selling price on Anou, the president still paid them the lower amount that she had always paid them. Feeling cheated on top of a whole host of other problems, they all quit in protest. As of today, the candle group no longer exists and their account has been shut down.

The Need for Transparency

The story of the candle group illuminates the environment that the vast majority of artisans operate in. Many artisans, if they belong to an association or cooperative, are not even aware of what their own group sells their products for, much less the price it is resold for by a reseller. Sometimes, artisans don’t want to even know because it can complicate the fragile operations of the group. Othertimes, artisans say they simply don’t care to know the price. All this combined with low literacy levels goes to show just how easy it is for artisans to be taken advantage all while creating incredibly unstable working environments.

The importance of transparency, as we’ve written numerous times before, is key for the long-term success of Morocco’s artisan community. This is why we’ve prioritized transparency through tools such as our innovative text messaging system to ensure that every member knows what price their work sold for. When each artisan knows the price, they themselves can hold everyone accountable to ensure that they are paid what they agreed to as a group. This tool has been so effective that many presidents of artisan groups decline to work with Anou because it will likely end their position of power and personal profit. It is why the president of the candle group would rather keep selling at craft fairs, to tourists, fair-trade shops, or wherever else that requires little to no transparency within the group.

Is there ever too much transparency?

Despite the success of this tool, it remains imperfect. For example, does every artisan that receives a text message with the price their product sold for understand what the text message means? Did the text even go to the phone they own? We admittedly haven’t followed up on this after every sale. If we did, we are certain we’d uncover some non transparent practices. In fact, there are two groups currently on the site that we suspect are not paying all their members transparently. Unfortunately, we haven’t gathered enough evidence to intervene and shut down their accounts. The question for us is how far should we go to ensure complete transparency? If we followed up every sale or tightened our transparency tools, would we blow up more groups? Do artisans whose group disintegrates end up worse off as a result of transparency?

As you might have guessed, we are huge advocates of complete transparency. There is much, much more we can do to ensure full transparency of every sale, but we have to act carefully.  Ultimately, our ability to create transparency can only go only as far as the artisans’ customers desire it. Even the most non-transparent groups in Morocco would become more transparent if it resulted in more sales. As long as there are easy ways to sell work with little to no accountability, Anou’s impact across Morocco will be limited. And unfortunately, groups like the candle makers prior to Anou will continue to operate with very little incentive to change.

4 thoughts on “There Used to be Candles on Anou

  1. As in many areas of life, things are complicated. This sort of situation is difficult at best and probably should be addressed perhaps with a meeting and some sort of compromise. Maybe wishful thinking on my part but I wonder if these artisans will be able to reorganize to join or form another artisan group.
    Good Luck with this great effort. Anou is a wonderful project with beautiful results.

    • Hi William, thanks for the thoughtful response. Indeed, things are complicated. Unfortunately for the group they can’t start a new association or cooperative. According to the women that quit, they were not taught the process of candle making end to end and wouldn’t know where to begin. A lot of ways to interpret that. This was a red flag that we should have picked up prior to training the group.

  2. Typical! I could have “told you so” that this would happen- in fact, I would have been shocked if it hadn’t. When you are transparent in this way- with folks who have not done business in this manner before, you are guaranteed problems. It is human nature- greed causes people to cut off their nose to spite their own face. I would never work with those artisans again- they just lost a great opportunity.

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