In January 2014 we officially transferred over the operations of Anou’s online store to leaders within the artisan community and wrote the following on our blog:
“While Anou can now sustain itself independently, can it grow, adapt and thrive independently? Can Anou’s artisan team, with some members who lack even an elementary education, develop the vision required for Anou’s long-term success?”
In the months after Anou’s artisan leaders took responsibility for managing the operations of the online store, there was a mix of excitement and worry. We were excited because, well, the site didn’t implode. We had our fair-share of issues (e.g. failing to follow up orders, wrong orders shipped, poor communication between artisans, leaders and even myself, among others), but it was clear the artisan leaders could manage the Anou community as it was. Realizing our long-term vision of making Anou fully artisan run was tangible for the first time. But we quickly sensed something was off.
A lot changed as we moved from 2013 and into 2014, namely that the community nearly doubled in size. The issues we were experiencing after the handover in control turned out not to be just growing pains, they were red flags that the Anou community wasn’t structured in a way which could handle any more growth. If we grew any larger, the problems we experienced wouldn’t melt away, they would be exacerbated.
During a meeting with senior members of the Ministry of Handicraft, they said to us that it was great that Anou was fully artisan run but were skeptical of Anou’s impact since it only reached a couple of hundred artisans. They asked us whether Anou could truly remain artisan managed while having an impact on 1.3 million Moroccan artisans. We understood their skepticism. Ultimately, we don’t want to scale for scaling’s sake, but we cannot create equal access to markets for Moroccan artisans if Anou remains as a small niche community.
The easy answer to this is to simply bring in outside help, whether it be more fair-trade middlemen or volunteers, to scale Anou. But anything that isn’t truly artisan led is not sustainable. The solution to this can only be found within the artisan community itself.
How the Anou Community Has Operated
Since the beginning of 2014, our structure has been pretty straight forward. Brahim El Mansouri, a woodcarver, served as the director of the Anou community and was the point person for almost every action of Anou. Payments, trainings, outreach, were for the most part managed by Brahim. In addition to him, there were trainers Rabha Akkaoui, Mustapha Chaouai, and Kenza Oulaghda who handled trainings and follow up visits. If a new artisan requested to be trained, or an artisan needed some additional in-person help, Brahim would send out one of the trainers or go himself. Lastly, there was myself. I managed quite a large number of roles, but if I had to pick a title, it would be most akin to a community supporter. I principally oversaw how Brahim and the trainers were doing and would step in to advise when something was amiss. I also dealt with the community’s customers and would simply relay comments, requests and complaints of customers back to Brahim, who would then be responsible for addressing them. I was prohibited from calling artisans myself and had to work through Brahim, who would then address any issues that came up himself or delegate it out to the trainers. This was important because it provided Brahim the crucial experience grappling with and solving the common problems the community faced.
But this is where the cracks emerged. Brahim could really only handle so much in addition to his work as an artisan and apple farmer. My job turned into constantly reminding Brahim of all the things he had to do, and then occasionally jumping in and take over certain problems because they’d might not ever get addressed. The issues weren’t major, but they clearly demonstrated that if changes weren’t made, the artisans weren’t going to be able to scale the community any larger. We needed to rethink how Anou’s community was organized.
The Challenge of a New Leadership Structure
To create a structure where Anou’s community could scale while remaining artisan led, we needed to find a way to enable existing and future trainers to step up and help manage Anou. The current trainers, Rabha, Mustapha and Kenza, were ideal candidates simply because they have clearly demonstrated their commitment to growing the Anou community. However, at our size there isn’t enough work or funds for four director positions, and at this point, it is too difficult to ask a trainer to work part-time because a) they would never get the opportunity to understand all the operations of the site, and b) it would just be another person for Brahim to manage.
Instead, what became clear is that we needed to find a way to get the trainers to have the same experience Brahim has had this year managing Anou. We discovered that the ideal situation would entail a trainer becoming the director for a set period of time; something along the lines of a director-in-training. If all the trainers had the same experience managing the operations of the site, the trainers would be that much better in supporting the director because they will have a fuller understanding of director’s needs. No longer would the director have to micromanage each trainer. This would go a long way in resolving the recurring issues at our current size. Most importantly, as Anou grows, there would always be a fully qualified pool of artisans ready to step up and take on the management tasks whenever more full-time work becomes required.
The challenge then was getting Brahim to temporarily step down from his position to let the other trainers rotate through his position. When I first proposed this at the end of 2013, he said he would rather quit than relinquish his role. His frustration was understandable, if it wasn’t for him, Anou wouldn’t exist. Moreover, he worked incredibly hard the first year of Anou and much of that time was spent trying to get the now trainers to even consider trying Anou’s online store.
The reality of the suggestion, I explained to him, is that it is not a demotion or promotion of any sort, it is simply a part of a longer strategy that will enable the Anou community to always be fully artisan run. If we didn’t do this, Anou’s future as an artisan run community would be in jeopardy. With time, Brahim understood the importance of the decision and warmed up to it. With Brahim’s consent, Anou’s community structure was set to take shape.
Anou’s Community Led Structure
At our last Anou leadership meeting that took place last in the beginning of August, Brahim and the leaders agreed that on October 1st, Mustapha Chaouai will become Anou’s artisan director for a period of approximately two months, or until Mustapha is fully comfortable in the role. Brahim will work with Mustapha to learn the ropes and adjust to the pace of working with the community supporter (what has been myself until now). Brahim will then assume the work as a trainer alongside Rabha and Kenza. When Mustapha has fully adjusted, he will then step down, and Rabha or Kenza will step up to assume the responsibilities as Anou’s director.
The strategy to cycle trainers into the the director position is one of the most challenging decisions we have had to make since beginning Anou. You don’t have to look much further than the nine months it took for us to develop the structure and agree on it. Yet the struggle will be worth it as the new structure will prove to be the most defining decision of the Anou community.
Since we launched Anou, we’ve been driven by the belief that solutions to complex problems that afflict vulnerable communities can only be developed from within. While everyone can unanimously agree that artisan communities around the world are at risk of disappearing, there seems little consensus on how to revive them. Sadly, artisans are rarely a part of this discussion. Artisans, many say, are too poor, too uneducated, or simply that they just aren’t capable of taking part in defining their own future. On the surface, those people may be right. One does not need to look any further than the fact that every effort to support Moroccan artisans is always initiated and managed by foreigners. But this the root of the problem. If artisans aren’t given the opportunity to step up and take control in addressing their needs, then nothing will change. They’ll remain poor, voiceless and reliant on the good intentions of outside organizations.
Anou’s community structure changes all of this. Now, all Moroccan artisans who are willing to work hard and are committed to the growth of the artisan community in Morocco now have the chance to gain the experience and skills necessary to meaningfully contribute to Anou’s vision. Eventually, the Moroccan artisan community will have a voice and presence strong enough to independently shape their community. This is what we mean when we say Anou is community led and managed.
We couldn’t be more excited for this phase of the Anou community to begin.