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.