Export Reform & The Artisan Lobby

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Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda discusses challenges and potential solutions to Moroccan artisan export policies at the US Department of Commerce and Ministry of Handicraft Forum on Artisan Exports

One of the most shocking things we’ve learned since launching Anou is that artisans in Morocco are not legally able to sell their products directly to customers abroad. Yes, you read that right.

To simplify an incredibly complicated subject, a law passed in 1974 creates a legal structure in which makes it difficult for artisans and easier for middlemen to ship internationally. In addition to this, there is no official means for a cooperative to register for an export number, which is required for any export from Morocco. If artisans want to sell and ship their products internationally, they must do so in a way that is illegal or sell to a middleman.

This may probably come as a confusing contradiction because our platform enables artisans to ship their products directly to their customers anywhere in the world. What that means is that all of artisan shipments that Anou has facilitated since the day we made our first sale in 2013 have been illegal. This definitely was not the empowerment we were thinking of when we began working on Anou many years ago.

When we first launched Anou, we started with the naive assumption that solving market access would address the primary ills of the artisan community in Morocco.  Since those early days our views have evolved extensively. What we’ve learned, and blogged about in the past, is that market access, design, and management all play important roles in creating a robust artisans community in Morocco. But importance of these components can quickly be made negligible if the laws and policies that underpin the craft economy in Morocco are designed in a way that work against artisans.

The 1974 law was created at a time when the places where artisans lived had no roads or electricity and internet had yet to be invented. At that time it truly was not practical for artisans to sell their products from the middle of the Atlas mountains. It comes as no surprise then that the law focuses on the regulation of middlemen and omits the possibility that artisans might one day be able to sell directly. You cannot fault law makers in 1974 as it is doubtful that they would have ever considered that rural artisans would have the means to sell from remote villages via pocket sized, globally connected computers. Today, this law leaves artisans stuck with no legal way to ship their products. Morocco and the world have changed. So must policy.

The Trouble With Change

If these policies do not benefit artisans, why haven’t they been changed? The obvious answer might just be inertia. It’s hard to change old laws. But this would be incorrect. New laws are frequently passed that still continue to overlook the true needs of artisans. For example, policy implemented at the end 2016 requires all legal entities in Morocco to have an export number from Morocco’s national export office. Government agencies, associations, non-profits, you name it, can fairly easily apply for an export number to comply. But curiously, cooperatives were left off the list. There is no formal process for a cooperative to apply for an export number. It seems as if the government simply forgot about cooperatives even though cooperatives employ a substantial amount of Moroccans.

The short answer to this complicated question is to simply follow the money. Currently, middlemen only pay artisans 4% of the final selling price of products they create. Non-profit organizations or social enterprises, even those that market themselves are unprecedented for paying artisans paying artisans high wages still only manage to pay artisans 25% of the final price. Maybe 25% puts food on the table for an artisan, maybe gets their children some school supplies, but they are still poor and work exhausting day to day existences. This leaves them little room to develop a voice and advocate for themselves.

Therefore, it is contingent on those who earn a significant portion of the final selling products to advocate for artisans. With such profit comes great responsibility to those they profit off of. Yet, middlemen are certainly not going to push through a change to policy that they seemingly exclusively benefit from. That leaves non profit and ethical businesses but they have gone missing when it comes to systemic problems, like outdated policy, that hold the artisan community back. The 1974 law is proof of this. No one has tackled these issues because it is easier find work arounds than it is to invest the long game of changing policy. From 2010 to 2016 alone, work arounds of such outdated policy that only large businesses and organizations have the capability to develop directly contributed to an astounding 76% decline in legal artisan shipments from the the Fez province (as cited from a recent presentation by the Fez Artisan Delegation).

The Artisan Lobby

The average length of a donor-funded project is about a year. Businesses that sell artisan products focus on what affects their immediate bottom lines. Moroccan government and staff turn over regularly. Meanwhile, it takes a minimum of four years for Moroccan government to modify an existing law. Artisans, on the other hand, will always be artisans. Time is on their side. Therefore, it is up to artisans to hold their government accountable and advocate for the future they want to see.

When you purchase through Anou, this is exactly what you enable artisans to do. Artisans in our community earn 80% of the final selling price. The remaining 20% funds go to hire the best and brightest of the community, Anou’s artisan leaders, to travel the country talking with artisans and work directly on high level problems that affect the artisan community at large. Anou artisan leaders gain the experience, and financial stability, to critically think about the problems and solutions that matter the most to them and the wider artisans community.

For the past one and half years, Anou’s artisan team has been at the forefront of challenging these outdated policies that prevent authentic artisans from legally exporting. We have spent considerable time and resources on these issues, more so in the past six months. We could continue with workarounds but we have decided that now is the time to bring these problems into the light due to the long-term damage they inflict on the artisan community.

As such, we’ve begun to ship our products through formal channels, even though our products can be seized due to these existing policies. In fact, in the past three months alone, we’ve had over $20,000 USD in shipments held and delayed by customs causing immense amount of frustration for our customers. Despite the stress and frustration of these delays, they have provided us with knowledge, space and leverage to implement needed solutions.

Our efforts reached a new peak yesterday where the US Department of Commerce and Ministry of Handicraft hosted a forum to discuss the challenges facing artisan exports. Artisan Leader Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda gave the most compelling presentation of the forum in which he clearly articulated the problems of Morocco’s export policies and presented his solutions on how they could be fixed. People were shocked to learn that he was actually an artisan. The presentation was a watershed moment for Anou as it demonstrated for the first time that artisans themselves can truly influence and contribute to policy development in a way that no one else can.

While the challenges that face Moroccan artisans and Anou face still remain unresolved, we are optimistic that with the continued support from you, our customers, artisans will be able to see this all through. Further, we are fortunate that there is a Ministry with the decree to specifically support the interests of Moroccan artisans and countless individuals within the Ministry truly committed to the well being of authentic artisans. Anou’s artisan team is excited to work with the Ministry to create smart, effective policy to resolve export problems and more in order to support the growth of Morocco’s artisan community. Whether it takes months or years, your support will enable us to change policy for the betterment of all Moroccan artisans.

One thought on “Export Reform & The Artisan Lobby

  1. A compelling and well written entry, thank you for explaining the hows and whys of outdated policy and its disaffect on Morocco’s artisans; most importantly, thank you for shedding hope and action for positive change.

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