Artisan Led Quality Control

The initial idea behind Anou was to enable customers to buy directly from artisans and have artisans fulfill those orders themselves. This was a pretty common sense solution to a lot of the inefficiencies that define the artisan sector and fair trade industry today.

This was also in retrospect rather bold. Getting artisans to ship products abroad and assume there would be little issue without oversight might be perceived as a bit naive.

Unexpected Surprises

That said, from Anou’s launch til mid 2016, our error rate or return rate of items artisans shipped directly was a low 3-5%. Such an error rate was satisfactory and even though the occasional return or problem would really take a bite out of our budget and bandwidth, it was manageable.

Starting in mid 2016 though, our error rate ballooned to 25-40%. The reasons for this are complex but it was a combination of several factors. The initiating factors was that our team was consumed with the implosion of an artisan group and spending immense time battling archaic custom rules that prevent artisans from shipping their products directly.

With these issues eating up all of our time, it required the artisan team be primarily responsible with following up artisans after sale. Not only did the team do a marginal job, the artisan community felt they would be able to get away with more with simply artisan oversight alone versus if a follow up call or visit came from a foreigner like myself. There’s more to this, but this is the basic idea for purposes of our blog.

As problems grew, we didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the increasing amount of upset customers and problems exponentially grew from there. In short, the past several months were nothing that no sane person would describe as a good time.

Turning Problems Into Assets

On the subject of sanity, no sane business person would ever take on a business model where there is even a remote potential of a 40% error rate in orders. This explains why the existence a status quo in Morocco where artisan businesses are never fully artisan led. If Anou were primarily a business, we certainly would have taken proof of the last several months as reason to go a more traditional route. While we operate as a business, it’s not our primary raison d’ être.

Anou exists to enable artisans themselves to shape the future of Morocco’s artisan economy so that it works for them, rather than against them. As such, this is a problem that simply needs to be addressed, not avoided. If artisans cannot learn how to ensure quality and accuracy of their shipments, they’re not going to change how the economy works in Morocco. And let’s be real, if you start with the assumption that artisans aren’t capable of this, why bother working in this space?

The status quo deals with such issues by drawing up grants and doing trainings and workshops. In Morocco, those don’t work. Therefore our starting point in solving a problem is not workshops, but creating real-time learning experiences for artisans. How, for example, do we turn problems into a continuous stream of learning experiences where we can train hundreds of artisans at a fraction of a cost of a workshop all while building both our bottom line and a critical mass of artisans that have a nuanced understanding of quality control? Over the past, several months we’ve been working closely with our partners at Amana (Morocco’s national post system) and DHL to do exactly that.

An Overview Of Our Updated Quality Control Process

We’ve been testing this new process over the past month and we now project that we’ll be able to decrease customer side issues and stateside returns below 1%, if not 0%. Now in the majority of cases artisans ship their orders and Amana delivers directly to our office.

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Members of Association Tithrite working at Anou’s HQ receive shipments from artisans across the country and prepare them for inspection.

 

The artisan leaders then open and inspect every shipment and look for common errors such discrepancy between dimensions listed on the site vs the actual item, stains, bleeding dyes (if wool was not purchased through our Atlas Wool Supply Co initiative), color discrepancies between the listed image and the actual order, among other potential issues.

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Artisan Leader Mustapha Chaouai walks Rachida of the Khenifra Women’s Cooperative through quality control on a weeks worth of orders. Members of Association Tazrbit observe and eventually step in and try their hand. 

 

If the issue can be fixed on the spot, the artisans at the Anou HQ will fix it. If not, the artisans get experience using professional grade cameras and learn photography techniques to better show the product and errors to the customer, all while learning skills they can apply to their own photography when they are back at their cooperative in their home village.

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After the pictures are complete, the artisans use a small app that we built to enable the artisan team to fill out a simple form about the product using Tashelheet/Arabic, and once submitted, sends an e-mail directly to the customer in English notifying the customer of the problem with detailed pictures. It is best to never pass up an opportunity to enable artisans to feel the direct discomfort of informing customers of a problem. The customers can accept the order as is or they can request a refund and we’ll ship the rug back to the artisans.

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New tools enable Anou’s artisan leaders at HQ to send important information to customers directly. If you purchased an item from Anou recently, you likely received e-mails from members of Anou’s artisan team. 

This process is very much in the testing phase but initial results are incredibly positive. Instead of having a customer get an unexpected surprise and putting Anou on the hook for a several hundred dollar return, we can teach artisans how to address problems and improve their skill set all while creating a better customer experience at a max cost of about $12 USD per order affected by an error — a price that most artisans can generally afford to cover.

We’re incredibly excited about refining this process and making it live. It is important to note that none of this would have been possible without the incredibly understanding, patient customers we’ve had over past several months. Without their patience and support, we would not have had the space to fix these issues.

If you have any questions about this new process and want to learn more about this to ease any concern if you are on the fence with a potential order, give us a shout at hello@theanou.com

The Atlas Wool Supply Co: Building a Modern Craft Material Market in Morocco

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Not only was this rug designed by Kenza of Association Tithrite, it was the first rug made using Anou’s own in house sourced wool and non-toxic, environmentally friendly dyes. 

This past winter, a cooperative within the Anou community received a large order and they struggled to meet timelines that they had set themselves. Each time a weaver began on the order, they’d get sick, and another artisan weaver would begin working. The weavers said that they just all happened to get subsequent colds but it was clear something was a little off. Whatever was happening, it seemed to go deeper than an excuse. Curious, we decided to bring the weavers to work on the order at our HQ so we could better monitor the progress of the order and see what the real issue was.  Within 24 hours of having the weavers at our office, the artisans eyes started to swell and if we had not stopped them from weaving their eyes would have swollen shut. The artisans were sick alright, but it wasn’t from a cold. They were having severe allergic reactions from the materials they were weaving with.

We have always felt that artisans were sick more often than the average population but we never had any data to prove it. Perhaps it was the result of a wide range of challenges often faced by those in rural, poor areas.  But after bringing the weavers out to our office it was clear that materials artisans use, whether they realize it or not, seems to play a significant role in the quality of their health. And what it certainly proves is that there is something severely wrong with the craft material market that is literally and figuratively killing the artisan community of Morocco. To ensure that we can build the future of Moroccan craft in Morocco, we can no longer overlook the lack of safe, natural, quality materials in Morocco.

Familiar Problems

Ensuring that artisans have access to quality materials may seem like a simple problem to fix, but like many things, the problem is the result of a vast range of complicated problems. And yet after nearly a year of immersing ourselves in the material market of Morocco the source of all these problems find their roots in how the Moroccan artisan economy is structured.

As we’ve wrote many times on this blog before, middlemen keep on average 96% of the final selling price of products on the artisan market. We’ve come across groups where middlemen don’t even pay artisans in cash, and simply pay artisans in more material to make them more product. Middlemen in many cases have optimized the labor cost to zero. Yet there is still cut throat competition, so materials becomes the next place of focus to maintain margins. Therefore, every decision made by middlemen is focused on eliminating any costs and cutting any possible corner to get the cheapest material available. Since middlemen control the majority of the market, their demands dictate what artisans largely buy.

One of the most prominent sellers of craft material in Morocco now sells more than 90% synthetic material imported from India and China. When asked why he didn’t sell authentic material that could theoretically be sourced locally, he said that middlemen don’t buy natural products, and the artisans don’t earn enough from their work with middlemen to ever afford natural products themselves.

Domestic Demand & Confusion

What is odd is that Morocco is flush with natural materials — the same natural materials that gave rise to the artisan sector of Morocco to begin with. It isn’t impossible to find natural materials like wool but it isn’t so straightforward sourcing it. In some cases, sourcing natural materials can be worse for an artisans’s health than a synthetic. For example, groups who use wool instead of acrylic threads take the wool to dyers in Marrakech and Fez to create the colors they want. To properly dye 1 kilogram (2 pounds) of wool and chemically bond the dye to the wool while ensuring no environmental impact can take up to two hours of work. After working in the dye tanneries for several months we were shocked to learn that the dyers were using cheap dyes and cutting corners by skipping the chemical bonding process by ‘gluing’ the dye the wool using heavy concentrations of toxins like formaldehyde. This process only takes 20 minutes to dye several kilograms of wool. Not only does this dye become incredibly prone to bleeding, it affects the health of anyone who comes in touch with such wool including the end customer. If you ever wondered why Morocco’s souq and markets have a reputation for bleeding rugs or causing allergies, here’s your reason why.

What makes this even more difficult to navigate is that it is nearly impossible for anyone to find out information about the true source and make up of such materials. For example, wool dyed with formaldehyde may bleed in seemingly sporadic number of washes, not necessarily the first wash. So a wool seller or dyer can tell an artisan that the wool is safe and non-bleed, run it through a basic bleed test in front of the artisan, and then the material will bleed after the artisan already sold a product to their customer. In some cases, the stories sellers tell take on a life of their own. For example, the incredibly popular material cactus silk locally known and sold as sabra isn’t even grown and processed in Morocco. In fact, all locally available Moroccan sabra is a semi-synthetic that is imported from India. Even after months of research we cannot find any evidence that sabra is or ever was commercially grown and processed in Morocco.

Launching The Atlas Wool Supply Co

What we have learned early on in building Anou is that if you want to do something right in Morocco you just have to do it yourself. As such, since the Fall of 2016, we’ve been learning and testing ideas and processes to develop our own in house material sourcing operation for the Anou community. And after many months, we’re excited to announce the launch of the Atlas Wool Supply Co, Morocco’s only source for quality craft materials. Our vision is to revive supply chains of all traditional Moroccan materials and provide them at cost to artisans of the Anou community.

Since the majority of our artisans are weavers, the first material line we have developed is for wool. We have set up full vertically integrated, environmentally sustainable, wool sourcing operations in both the Middle Atlas and High Atlas Mountains. Anou artisans are employed via living wages to identify shepherds and sheer wool directly from sheep as well as scour and spin wool. When the wool is spun, it is shipped to our HQ where Anou’s artisan team is trained to dye wool in thousands of colors using premium non-toxic synthetics and locally sourced natural dyes. Anou artisans can now simply pick up the phone or send a Whatsapp message and place an order for any color they wish, whether it be for a new design or for a custom order, and have their requested materials shipped directly to their village. For the first time artisans who are a part of Anou can guarantee that their materials are of high quality and free of toxins that are harmful to the health of people and the environment. No one else in Morocco, middlemen or otherwise, can guarantee this simple important fact. Knowing this, why put your health and the health of artisans at risk when buying products from people who cannot guarantee where their materials came from?

Get Involved and Support Anou

We’ve received so much initial excitement from our sample materials that we’ve made our materials available for purchase at www.atlaswoolsupply.co. We plan to catalogue ever color we have ever dyed in order to create the most comprehensive collection of wool colors online. So even if you are not in the market for a rug just yet but you are a knitter or a weaver, you can now support the Anou Cooperative by purchasing materials from the Atlas Wool Supply Co. All proceeds generated from each sale goes towards Anou’s general budget to onboard and provide further training for artisans in the Anou community. Already, companies like The Citizenry and organizations such as Turquoise Mountain have already begun to source from us for their projects. And starting next month, all major yarn shops in London will be carrying our materials for sale.

With your support, we’ll never have to worry about whether artisans are getting sick from the materials they are weaving nor will materials and colors ever be a limit to the creativity of Moroccan artisans.

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Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda gathers wool samples from shepherds from around the Middle Atlas mountains. The samples wewre sent to labs for quality and fineness tests. 

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At Anou’s HQ, Rabha Akkaoui trials wool scouring techniques  learned from studying the processes of New Zealand wool companies. 

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Anou provides scoured wool to cooperatives from across the Middle Atlas and High Atlas, like Imelghaus,  to thread. The cooperatives use the income to supplement their income from their sales on Anou. 

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At Anou’s HQ, Kenza of Association Tithrite dyes wool that was requested by members of the Anou community. Anou ships the dyed wool directly to artisans across the country. 

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Brahim El Mansouri uses Anou’s color coding system to identify the dye mixes to create specific colors required for a custom order. 

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.

Artisans, Politics of Change, and Poor Customer Service

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.

Actual Change

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.

The Future of Moroccan Artisan Design

 

Part I: Traditions

Anou Artisans Morocco Fair Trade Rugs

Fatiha (right) sits alongside Brahim El Mansouri of Association Ighrem to create some of her first sketches. 

Fatiha Ait Ouagadir of Cooperative Tifawin, just before becoming an artisan leader, sat in Anou’s office with an unusual request: use colored pencils to sketch out a new idea for a rug. Fatiha sat in her chair struggling to put a pencil to paper. She eventually sketched a design she had woven many times before. When pressed to create something new or simply rearrange the design she had sketched, she struggled more and eventually gave up. It just wasn’t possible, she said.

Fatiha’s story points to the widely held idea that artisans are not designers. Research artisan businesses and you’ll see an economy that embodies this. It may be easy to conclude that artisans can’t design because they’re not capable, but it is actually the result something much more systemic.

Most businesses design products and then have artisans make the product. Rarely, if ever, are artisans truly consulted on design work. Generally, a Moroccan artisan’s input goes only as far as a designer gaining inspiration from the artisan’s culture and traditions. Outside designers then drive innovation and change by refreshing, revitalizing or incorporating a western twist on artisan traditions. The language of innovation and change is often used to describe the outside designer, but rarely the Moroccan artisan. This is because if artisans were to drive change, the traditions they represent might be lost forever. Instead of change and progress, the language that surrounds artisans focuses more on preservation and tradition.

The artisan sector as a whole seems to have accepted all of this as a natural symbiosis between a designer and artisan. Yet this relationship is structurally flawed. The reason is that the artisan and designer are not equal in today’s economy. The designer, who normally controls market access, has full control over the design and can dip into an artisan’s tradition as much or as little as she/he wants.

The less obvious reasons can be uncovered by asking what traditions are artisans expected to preserve? As Ashley Miller, a PhD candidate of art history at the University of Michigan writes in Negotiating Design, “We commonly imagine tradition as a fixed, unchanging set of practices or beliefs; it is something that can be contained, something already complete.” But the reality is many traditions, as Ashley goes on to write, may appear to be timeless but in fact can be dated to a specific time not that long ago. A great example is this rug, which is commonly sold as a vintage, tribal Berber rug, when in fact it is commonly known amongst artisans that it was first designed by a European artist in the 1990’s.

In fact, it is not difficult to argue that most traditional Moroccan designs that many gain their inspiration from aren’t even firmly rooted in the history and culture of Moroccan artisans. In 1914, the French Protectorate initiated a massive campaign via what was called the Native Arts Service to revitalize Morocco’s craft industries. Through their efforts, Moroccan artisans produced work that largely embodied a French colonial notion of traditional Moroccan craft. Even to this day, revered publications on Moroccan design follow the language and structure that the French Protectorate created to preserve what was ultimately their perspective of Moroccan craft and tradition.

If we continue to believe that the purpose of the artisan community of Morocco exists to preserve tradition, then we have to ask if what they are expected to preserve is truly theirs. And if we continue with the belief that artisans can’t design, how will artisans ever be able to drive the progress of their own traditions and craft? If we accept that artisans can’t design then we must accept the incorrect museumification of artisan craft through the sale of vintage products, which omits today’s artisans from the economy completely.

This deeply matters to Anou. Our vision is to create a growing, vibrant, inclusive community of all Moroccan artisans. How can a community possibly grow if it is restricted to a fixed idea of tradition and the creativity and ideas of others? You only need so many artisans to recreate what exists. And in an increasingly mechanized world, it’s not hard for some to question whether artisans are needed at all. In this context, it is unsurprising that the number of Moroccan artisans has decreased from 1.2 million to 400,000 in a very short period of time.

For us at Anou, it’s a false question to ask if artisans like Fatiha are capable of design or if they even should. Rather, Fatiha represents the actual questions that must be answered: How can an economy be created that is capable of unlocking the creative potential and evolving traditions of Moroccan artisans? This is the heart of our vision in creating the future of artisan design in Morocco.

Coming Soon

Part II: Artisans, Designers & Customers: At the Center of Innovation

Part III: Anou’s Collaboration Tool

Refining the Vision of Anou

In 2012 Brahim El Mansouri and I set off with the intention to transform the artisan sector of Morocco by creating a marketplace where any artisan, regardless of literacy, could sell their products directly to their customers. After an exhausting year, we finally completed and released the first iteration of Anou’s marketplace at the end of 2012.

The first year challenged many of our assumptions about the artisan sector of Morocco, many of which were pretty naive. We had thought that ensuring equal access to the global marketplace for artisans was really all that was necessary to transform the artisan sector in Morocco. In fact, our original vision statement simply focused on connecting artisans directly with their customers. But after building what we thought was an innovative site that reduced the barriers for any artisan to sell directly to their customers, artisans didn’t exactly line up to join and we definitely didn’t find many customers.

The first year of Anou felt like a failure because we had changed very little despite our bold ambitions. In retrospect however, the struggles of the first year were crucial because it was the beginning of our understanding about the fundamental problems that affected the artisan community — ones that far run deeper than just access to market or fair wages.

The problems we began uncovering were big, and we were hesitant to continue working on Anou. Morocco, as anyone who has tried to change things here knows, is like a black hole. Once you decide to change something here the work will consume you whole. No matter how knowledgeable or hard working you may be, it is seemingly not up to you as to when, where or what form you’ll come out as on the other side. Brahim and I had many conversations about whether we should push forward or not. Were the problems we kept running into solvable? Could we really do anything about it? We were either going to commit or not at all.

We decided to commit.

Building Community

Of all we learned in the first year, the most important was the necessity of community. The challenges Moroccan artisans face are simply too vast for a small team to tackle: many start-ups and companies flush with cash and good intentions have failed to crack the artisan market in Morocco. For Anou to succeed in addressing myriad challenges of the artisan community, we would have to create an environment where all artisans have a shared purpose in addressing them. The desire to establish this community, one powered by the marketplace we had built, pushed us to commit to seeing the work of Anou through.

In the beginning of 2014, Anou’s focus and vision zeroed in on community, and we implemented several sweeping changes to how Anou worked. First, we began to ensure that a team of artisans from the community could manage all the trainings and onboarding of new artisans on to the site. Toward the end of 2014, we radically restructured Anou’s leadership structure to enable several artisans to gain the experience in managing Anou. Further, we made all of our expenses public so that all artisans could see exactly where Anou’s money was going with the intention to increase buy in from the team and wider community. Then, after a year’s worth of work, we finally incorporated Anou as Morocco’s first national cooperative in June of 2015.

These changes were not easy to realize. In the midst of these adjustments, we were faced with difficult challenges that resulted from bad decisions to other setbacks that were beyond our control. But through all these struggles, Anou’s artisan team developed resiliency — the foundation required to bring our community together.

Today, we now have a team of six artisan leaders who can manage all the daily operations of the site, including payments, fulfillment, troubleshooting, and much more. Such tasks that have traditionally been outsourced to fair-trade organizations or middlemen are now being completed by a team with an average middle school education. During this time, our sales increased from a thousand dollars a month back in 2013 to a new record setting month of nearly $31,000 USD in May of 2016 — putting $500,000 in annual sales within reach. 83% of that revenue went directly to the artisans who made and listed the sold products, with the remainder going towards Anou’s budget. Last month, nearly 50% of our operating budget was used to pay artisans from the community to maintain and grow Anou.

Anou’s Vision

Several years ago, while sitting in a presentation by the Ministry of Handicraft, an official noted that there were 1.2 million artisans in Morocco. A couple of months ago, the Ministry informed the Financial Times that there are now 400,000 artisans in Morocco. While the wide difference in numbers may be likely the result of a new way of categorizing artisans, the decline is real. We’ve heard unofficial statistics that the number of artisans in Morocco decreases by 17% per year, and our observations support these numbers. Meanwhile, the Ministry also reports year over year increases in overall sales of the artisan sector of Morocco. In addition, the rate of new fair trade retailers only seems to increase. These trends represent an alarming dissonance that points to the fact that the existing model of the artisan marketplace is not working.

These numbers make us feel as if we have accomplished very little since we launched Anou over four years ago. But similar to the end our first year of work, the past three years have been an immense education for us on the challenges that face the artisan sector in Morocco. We’ve learned that in the midst of the multitude of challenges artisans that face, there is only one systemic problem: artisans have no voice or power to address any of these issues for themselves.

Despite the endless institutions, organizations and businesses designed to support artisans, no initiatives take empowerment to the level where artisans actually gain power or a voice in how the artisan sector should work. There is a fundamental assumption that artisans should just create and leave the rest of the work like design, selling and business development to others because they cannot do it.  The problem is that the ‘rest of the work’ is where influence, creativity and wealth is created. The ‘rest of the work’ is the only way that artisans can create value that goes beyond the low ceilings of fair and living wages defined by others. Enabling artisans to own the ‘rest of the work’ is the only way that the status quo will ever change.

Four years since we began Anou, we’re at a crossroads once more as we ask ourselves what is the vision of Anou? What do we want Anou to be? We could simply be complacent in where we are today and accept there are certain things aren’t just meant to be changed. But everyday we wake up driven by the belief that Anou, powered by its community and marketplace can enable all artisans to become masters of their craft, design, business, and ultimately the artisan economy in Morocco. Through Anou, we believe that artisans will bring themselves in from the fringe of their economy to the center of it and shape the trajectory of Moroccan craft in the 21st century. We will know when we have succeeded when there is no longer an annual decline of artisans in Morocco because Morocco’s youth pursue craft not out of necessity, but because of the future it represents.

By no means will realizing any of this be easy. None of the work thus far has been.  But as we sit at a crossroads today, the decision to pursue this vision could not be any more clear.

Anou’s New HQ in David Beach, Morocco!

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Anou’s new HQ in David Beach. 

We’re so incredibly excited to announce our new HQ in David Beach, Morocco! This move has been a couple of years in the making. Through 2014-2015, we have been building a decentralized leadership team and structure for the Anou community.

This structure created deep bench of six artisan leaders that could help manage many aspects of Anou’s operations. However, by the end of 2015 our decentralized structure could no longer effectively meet the growing demands and complexity of Anou’s operations.

In December 2015, we launched a pilot and brought out artisan leader Rabha Akkaouai to work full-time at our office in Rabat. After the first month of full-time work, Rabha was able to get one on one attention and training that should couldn’t receive remotely. As a result, her ability and knowledge increased exponentially. For example, after one month of full-time work at Anou’s office in Rabat she was successfully managing all payment transfers that are required to send the money from a customer to an artisan’s bank account.

We eventually brought out all artisan leaders to work in full-time shifts of either two weeks or one month at our Rabat office. Like Rabha, all artisan leaders had huge jumps in knowledge and an increased ability to manage Anou’s operations.

As a result, we prioritized finding a HQ that could enable a large number of artisan leaders to live and work full-time on Anou’s operations. We also wanted a space where the artisan team and artisans from the community could receive tailored support across all critical areas that the Anou community faces.

Our new place in David Beach will enable us to do exactly that. Our new HQ includes an office, a large design studio and a dormitory that can accommodate artisan leaders, visiting artisans, and soon, leading experts from around the world. It is also only 30 minutes from Rabat and Casablanca so that the artisan team can manage our shipments and other necessary parts of our operations.

Over the next several months we will begin sharing how we will be putting our new space to use. We have no doubt that our new HQ will accelerate the growth of Anou’s artisan leaders and the rest of the artisan community in Morocco!

 

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Rabha Akkaouai of Cooperative Chorouk and Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda manage orders and payments from Anou’s office. 

 

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At the new design studio, designer Sabrina Krause Lopez provides visiting artisans with design support on their new product ideas. 

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Anou’s HQ is a short 4 minute walk from one of the most beautiful beaches in Morocco — a source of endless inspiration for all visiting artisans. 

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Anou’s team and artisan leaders set up a bonfire on the beach to celebrate the end of another successful work week. 

 

 

From Prehistoric Rock Carvings to New Designs

 

Touda lives in Ait Bouli and is only a 25 minute drive to the near by prehistoric rock carvings. Last month, she visited for the first time ever to gain inspiration for new rug designs rooted in the culture of Ait Bouli.

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The picturesque and mysterious Tizi N’tighrst rock carvings of Ait Bouli are relatively unknown except to the local villagers of Ait Bouli. The carvings sit on a pass between two villages of Ait Bouli, often only frequented by shepherds and villagers traveling to the weekly souk. Little is known about them, but many say they are over 3,000 years old and may have been an important religious site. This is not lost on Touda, who believes that these carvings are an important part of Ait Bouli’s culture.

 

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Touda photographed her favorite symbols from the carving site with her smartphone. When she returned home sketched them in her drawing book. Here are a several of her favorite:

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After a week or so, Touda had developed over 20 designs and worked hard to integrate the symbols into her sketches:

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Touda thought hard and received feedback from Anou’s artisan leaders and team and eventually selected her favorite design to weave. After a month of weaving, her newly designed rug was complete!

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You can now find it on her online store at:

www.theanou.com/product/5800

Making a Post Office Profitable, For the First Time

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The small, yet booming post office of Oued Ifrane, Morocco.

About 400 meters up the road from the Association Nahda’s workshop is a small, aging post office. But don’t let the modest exterior fool you, this post office has the highest volume of outgoing shipments of all post offices in the Ifrane Province. In fact, in 2015, the Oued Ifrane post office was profitable for the first time in its entire existence — a rare feat for a rural post office.

The anomaly caught the attention of a senior executive of the Moroccan Post. Earlier this year, he opened up a fact finding mission to determine why a post office in such an unassuming place was doing so well.

The executive traveled to Oued Ifrane to interview the post office director. The story goes that when the executive asked the director why the post office was doing so well, all the director had to do was point because at that exact moment a group of women from Association Nahda were walking in with another packaged rug, ready to be shipped.

Oued Ifrane is not unique. An increasing number post offices in Anou artisan villages are processing the most outgoing shipments in their province. The post office in Tabant, Ait Bouguemez processed more outgoing shipments than any other post office in the Azilal Province beginning in late 2014.

All of this activity transforms each post office’s bottom line. And as each post office’s revenue increases, so does the budget they have to hire more people and provide better essential services to the local population. Everyone in Oued Ifrane depends on the post office for one thing or another, whether it be pensions or state subsides for school supplies. Post offices with an Anou artisan group near by are often better equipped to provide those essential services, benefitting the community at large. The post office in Tabant, Ait Bouguemez now has enough cash on hand to pay out pensioners in a timely manner, rather than having villagers come back everyday for a week or two to see if the post office has received another cash transfer from Rabat.

Stories like these bring light to the often overlooked benefit of buying direct from artisans and the effect it has on the wider communities in which they live. As Anou grows and scales, we aim to integrate as many local institutions as possible so we can cast the largest ripple effect in all communities across Morocco. With your support and purchases this is not such a distant reality.

When the women finished shipping their rug at the post office in Oued Ifrane, the senior executive ordered the director of the post office to “take care of these women — they are important.” Indeed, they are.

Shipping From Rural Morocco to Any Country in 5 Days

Last October, we were excited to announce that all shipments above 5kg would begin to be shipped by DHL.  Prior to working with DHL, our average shipping time to the United States was 3-5 weeks. Now our shipping average is down to just 5-13 days with shipments delivered by DHL.

Yet we know we can do much better. Our goal is to ensure that orders fulfilled by any artisan in Morocco will arrive at their customer’s address in 5 days flat. This means the waiting time for someone in Los Angeles who is buying a rug from a remote village in Morocco would be the same as if their friend sent a letter to them from New York via USPS standard mail.

To do this though, Anou and the artisans of our community have to overcome numerous, complicated, yet solvable challenges. As such, we wanted to give all our supporters a look behind the scenes of what it takes for artisans to fulfill orders and how all of us are working to reach our goal of a five day delivery timeline.

What it Takes to Ship From the High Atlas 

One reason why the logistics of shipping orders in Morocco is so complicated is that each artisan within the Anou community faces unique challenges, all of which require unique solutions. Association Timdokkals, one of the best selling groups of 2015, was in the unfortunate position of facing the majority of challenges that artisans across Morocco face when shipping products. Fortunately, their challenges make for a great case study.

Every time a customer purchases a rug from Association Timdokkals, the women receive a text message containing the address where to ship their order. Within 24 hours, the women prepare the order and package it for shipment. The women typically work in shifts at the association — half the women work in the morning and half the women work in the afternoon. So whenever a sale is made, a designated woman from the active shift packages the order.

 

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Sana, (left) is one of the weavers who helps with packaging Association Timdokkals’ orders.

 

 

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In the beginning of 2015, the president of Association Timdokkals or its members took their shipments to their local post office, about 5 kilometers away. However, their orders began to overwhelm the post office. By mid-2015, the post office, which has no paved road to it and is one of the most isolated post offices in Morocco, was shipping the highest volume of national and international shipments of all post offices in their province. In fact, many other post offices where artisans within the Anou community operate, have become the highest volume shippers in their respective provinces as well. Even better, because of these shipments, some post offices have become cash flow positive for the first time since they opened — decades ago.

However, this success brings additional complexity.  Timdokkal’s post office, since it used to ship so little, previously contracted a local taxi driver to ship out their mail. But the taxi driver could no longer fit all the shipments into his trunk. The driver eventually grew frustrated that he was no longer delivering a small bag of mail every week and eventually quit and refused to ship artisan products. Now, the Moroccan National Post Headquarters is rumored to have approved a shipping van for Timdokkal’s post office, but it may not arrive until next year. As a result, Timdokkals and two other artisan groups (The Imelghaus Cooperative, and Touda Bous-Enna) in the area that share the same post office have collectively begun paying a local taxi driver to drive their shipments to the Moroccan Post’s regional distribution center in Azilal until the new van arrives.

After the women of Timdokkals package their order, they now walk it over to their local village store and they call their local taxi driver who comes and does one pick-up per day, if the mountain weather permits.

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The local taxi driver stops by the village store to pick up people, and rugs.

 

The taxi driver then drives two hours over two mountain passes and drops the shipments off at the Moroccan Post Office’s distribution center in Azilal, the capital of the Azilal province:

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Once the order is dropped off at the distribution center, the order is then either shipped to directly to the customer or  to Anou’s office in Rabat.

Shipping Directly to Customers

If an order is under 5 kilograms, the artisans will ship it directly to the customer via standard international priority from their local post office (or regional distribution center in the case of Azilal). When an order is dropped off, it usually takes anywhere between 2-5 days for an item to arrive at the Moroccan Post’s international distribution center in Casablanca, where it is then immediately forwarded to the country where the customer lives.

Currently, 70% of the Anou community’s orders are destined for the US and this is where it gets complicated. Once orders arrive at the USPS distribution center in New York, an order can sit for a day, or weeks, and we won’t know because the USPS won’t register the shipment until they move it, not when it arrives. The reason why standard shipping takes 3-5 weeks, is because of the USPS, not the Moroccan Post as is commonly believed. Other countries, including those as far as Australia and New Zealand, only take 10-15 days to arrive.

Anou’s Office in Rabat

It is because the uncertainty of the delays with standard shipping that prompted us to begin working with DHL. Our goal in the near term future is to have all artisans ship their orders directly to DHL’s warehouse from their village, but we’re not quite there yet. As of today, all of our DHL shipments are sent to Anou’s office in Rabat instead.

Shipping from anywhere in Morocco to Rabat takes between 2-5 days. Once the shipment arrives at Anou’s office, Anou’s artisan team inspects packaging and opens up select packages for artisans who may previously have received complaints to ensure an order’s quality before it is shipped shipped on. Most importantly, routing orders through our office is enabling us to standardized our labeling process and troubleshoot problems that may clog up our soon-to-be full integration with DHL (e.g. artisans improperly weighing their items or poor packaging for fragile items).  As we find problems with a shipment, artisan leaders, such as Rabha and Mustapha (pictured below) call up the artisans who shipped the item and teach them how to fix the mistake. Because of their work, the artisan leaders are significantly reducing the amount of errors made by the artisan community.

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Artisan leaders Rabha Akkaoui and Mustapha Chaouai inspect shipments before DHL picks them up.

Once all the items have all been cleared at the office, the artisan leaders call a DHL courier, who then swings by our office and whisks off all our orders to DHL’s warehouse.

 

Abdullah, DHL's amazing courier, picks up shipments from Anou's office.

Abdullah, DHL’s amazing courier, picks up shipments from Anou’s office.

DHL normally ships a package immediately and it arrives anywhere within the world within 72 hours. However, until we’re able to standardize all artisans shipments,  DHL can only send our shipments on Saturdays. So with 2-5 days local shipping, and depending on the day it arrives in Rabat, items currently take between 5-13 days to arrive at their final destination.

With the hard work of artisans in their workshops and Anou’s artisan team, we are quickly reducing our error rate and will integrate the community’s shipment within the next couple of months. And once we hit that milestone, all items shipped by the community will reach any corner of the world within just five days!

 

 

 

 

The Anou Community Now Ships With DHL Express!

dhlIt goes without saying that the logistics of enabling a community of hundreds of artisans to ship from medinas of the imperial cities or from villages in the Atlas mountains directly to your door are incredibly complicated.

Over the past several years, we’ve learned a lot to ensure that your orders arrive as affordably, safely and quickly as possible even in the most difficult conditions. During this time we’ve learned obvious truths like fragile things can and will break in the mail. And as a result, we’ve adapted to these challenges like making sure artisans are better trained in packaging and ensuring customers are promptly refunded if their orders are damaged.

But we’ve also learned some not so obvious truths that are much more difficult to solve. Like the United States Postal Service, which delivers all our shipments in the United States. At the beginning of this year, winter storms paralyzed USPS’ distribution facilities affecting over 30% of the community’s orders to the US. Nearly $2,000 in product was lost and many shipments arrived over four months late. Meanwhile, the Moroccan Post dealt with similarly large storms and flash flooding, and yet they did not lose a single shipment. If we could not fix the problem of the USPS, which was then processing over 70% of our orders, it would likely put Anou out of business.

As a result, last summer we began discussing potential solutions with DHL in Morocco. Excitingly, over the summer we had artisans send some of their shipments from their village, via the Moroccan Post to a regional DHL distribution center. The initial tests were promising as the shipping times dropped from the average of 3-5 weeks with the USPS to 5-14 days with DHL. Best part? We were able to negotiate unique rates for the Anou community that are cheaper than the rates provided by the USPS and the Moroccan Post.

So now we’re excited to announce all orders that weigh more than 5 kilograms will automatically be shipped to you via DHL at no extra cost if you are in the United States or Europe. For our customers in Asia, Australia and New Zealand, we will also have your orders shipped via DHL, but as always there might be a little extra cost to cover that extra distance. If the item is below 5 kilograms (11 pounds), you can have items shipped standard or pay a little extra for DHL express shipping.

We’re still compiling data to create accurate delivery estimates, but it will likely take around 10 days for shipments to arrive at your address, regardless of where you live in the world.

If you want to know if a product you’re interested in will qualify for DHL Express shipping, or if artisans can ship to your country, or if you have any questions regarding shipping at all, just reach out to us at hello@theanou.com!

Anou Just Became Morocco’s First National Cooperative

After a year of intense wrangling and hard work, we’re finally excited to announce that our community has been incorporated as Morocco’s first national cooperative. We have been waiting for what has seemed forever to announce this exciting news because this is a big deal.

The vision behind Anou has always been clear: enable the artisan community in Morocco to establish equal access to the global market. But if there is anything we’ve learned since we began our work is that to fully realize this vision we must ensure that community, meritocracy, and ownership are woven into every aspect of how we operate. Our cooperative status enables us to do exactly that.

Community

There are only two conditions to join the Anou Cooperative. First, an individual must be a motivated, Moroccan artisan that makes the products that she or he sells. Second, they must agree to Anou’s transparency requirements. Any artisan that meets these conditions can reach out to us and request to join the cooperative. Artisan trainers and leaders will then meet with the prospective artisan in person at their workshop and if everything checks out, we’ll open their online store and provide them with a basic training so they can hit the ground running. This ensures that every artisan in Morocco can both benefit from and contribute to the community.

Meritocracy

Once an artisan’s store is opened, our platform will soon automatically rate an artisan’s performance managing their online store through key performance indicators such as their product ratings, order fulfillment speed, custom order accuracy, among many other important factors. Performing at a high level will soon enable the artisan to lower the fees added to the products they list on their online store. Additionally, when artisans reach a high level of performance they will be eligible to become a trainer for the cooperative.

Trainers are those the cooperative relies on to either verify and train new artisans interested in joining our community or provide support to those artisans who may be struggling with aspects of their online store. Through this work, a trainer can earn additional income and skills to supplement their sales. But most importantly, the experience as a trainer serves as a rich, real-time training in understanding the aspirations and struggles of artisans across the country. This understanding serves as the foundation for each trainer to develop a voice and a vision for the Anou Cooperative, and in essence, the wider artisan community in Morocco.

Ownership

Trainers who then have a long track record of success trainings and have consistently volunteered to support other artisans or help complete daily operational issues of Anou can then become a leader. Leaders are those in the community who have at every level proven their commitment to supporting the artisan community. They are those who were eager and quick to master the tools on their online store and then just as quick to help others learn as they did by becoming a trainer. Because of their rise through the cooperative, leaders possess a deep understanding of the needs of the community and embody the best of what Moroccan artisans are capable of.

Therefore, those who become leaders earn the responsibility to make the decisions that will shape the future of their community. And this is exactly what Anou’s national cooperative structure enables. Each leader gains one seat on the cooperative board, and with that, gets one vote to cast on any critical decision the cooperative faces. Decisions that were once the domain of others trying to help artisans are now fully in the hands of artisans themselves. How should the cooperative spend its profit? What rules should be implemented that foster a safe, vibrant community? Leaders will have the full ability to decide. No more gimmicky artisan advisory boards for western non-profits. No more for-profit businesses that act in their own interest and then ‘donate’ to the artisan community to compensate. The Anou Cooperative enables true ownership.

Establishing Equality

Creating equal access to markets doesn’t start with developing sophisticated technology or overpriced fair-trade certification. It starts with ownership. Without real ownership of the Anou Cooperative, no artisan would want to spend any of her or his time helping another artisan. And if no artisan is willing to help another artisan, no artisan will develop leadership skills or new ideas that come from teaching and working with others. And with no skills and little incentive to work together, the artisan sector would continue to look as it did prior to when our community began: a powerless group of 1.3 million individual artisans trapped in a zero sum game waiting for their next savior who controls all access to opportunity.

Yes, we understand the concern of whether or not artisans can actually manage and set the direction of an increasingly complex organization. But while creating equal access starts with ownership, creating equal access ends with you. You play an important role in the growth and success of our artisan led community. Each time you tell a friend about your experience buying directly from artisans on Anou, it might just drive that much more traffic to the site and encourage more artisans to reach out and join the cooperative. Each time you like a new product an artisan lists on our Instagram account, that artisan may just gain that extra burst of confidence to believe they can help other artisans in their community. And every time you make a purchase, it gives the artisan leaders validation that their work and effort matters, fueling their ability to make the prescient decisions that will grow their community.

With our cooperative structure and your support, the dream of creating equal access to global markets is quickly becoming a reality for all Moroccan artisans.

Artisan Leader Rabha Akkaoui Wins GroupX Business Innovation Competition!

Rabha on the stage at X-Maroc!

Rabha on the stage at X-Maroc!

Earlier this week, we were surprised to learn that we were selected as a finalist for Morocco’s Group X Innovation Competition. So with little time to prepare, Artisan Leader Rabha Akkaoui (Cooperative Chorouk) volunteered to represent the Anou community. The requirements were tough: 3 minutes pitch followed by 4 minutes of Q&A in front of an audience of business and policy experts, including the Moroccan Minister of Industry and Comm erce at one point. Anou’s artisan leaders have pitched Anou several times before, including Rabha, but the shorter the pitch, the bigger the crowd and the better competition, the more difficult the pitch becomes for the leader to pull off. Rabha spent the previous 24 hours developing her script trying to distill the message of Anou up until a couple of minutes before the competition began. So when Rabha took the stage in front of 200 people, she was understandably nervous. She started off strong — her hard work was paying off. Towards the end of her pitch though, Rabha forgot her last couple of sentences and froze — but it didn’t matter as the crowd gave her the loudest applause of the day. Rabha left the stage disappointed that she had forgotten forgotten the last sentence, but that disappointed faded when later that day GroupX announced that Rabha had taken first place in the competition! We’re incredibly excited for Rabha. She displayed the best of what the artisan community in Morocco is capable of by competing against some of the best companies and start ups in Morocco. And better yet, she won a prize of 30,000 MAD ($3,000 USD) that will be used to grow the Anou community! Congrats Rabha!

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” Rabha is the symbol of the bold Moroccan belief that every morning everything is possible. “

Making Anou’s Expenses Publicly Accessible

Recently, a fair-trade business owner visited one of the cooperatives Anou serves looking to purchase several “fair trade” rugs. The artisans told the fair-trade business owner that their prices were the same in their workshop as they are on their Anou online store. The fair-trade owner complained that the prices listed online were too expensive and that they expected that prices would be cheaper at the workshop. However, all prices on Anou are set by the artisans that made the products. The difference between purchasing from an artisan workshop in person or via their store page on TheAnou.com is essentially zero minus the shipping costs.

Undeterred, the owner began to increase the pressure, refusing to buy anything if the prices were not reduced to a level the owner deemed acceptable. Since it was only two days before the biggest holiday of the year in Morocco, and a holiday for which everyone saves their money to buy food and gifts (Eid Kabir), the women of the cooperative panicked and gave the owner a 10% discount on their rugs, amounting to about $5 USD discount per rug.

We contacted the owner directly about sourcing products through Anou in the past, but they said,  “the prices listed on Anou are too expensive and I have business costs to meet.” One month later, the $45 rug was listed on their website for $366. A description of the rug stated, “with the purchase of this rug, you directly support [artisan’s name] so she can better support her family.” This begs the question, was discounting the artisans by $5 really necessary? And does an 813% retail mark-up really follow the fair-trade business owners claim that their fabrics are “fair and honest”?

A Lack of Transparency

The challenge of finding an answer to the question of whether a $5 discount was necessary points to the significant and troubling lack of transparency within the fair-trade industry.

Unfortunately, there is no incentive or even a remote expectation for fair-trade businesses to be completely transparent about their costs. Customers must simply trust that a business is fair and practices what it markets. This holds true for established fair-trade organizations as well. Their slick websites display dazzling statistics about their operations, such as impossibly low overhead costs so artisans can get the “fairest” price. But dig a little deeper and you often find that fair-trade marketing focuses far more on evocative photos than on substance.

To glimpse beneath the surface, track down an organization’s 990 report (you can do that on www.guidestar.org). 990 reports are where tax exempt organizations in the US are legally required to publicly list their expenses and revenue. While 990 forms don’t provide that much clarity on an organization’s budget, they’re clear enough to see some pretty big red flags. For example, the two founders of one artisan focused organization collectively earn over $200,000 in salary annually. These two salaries account for nearly 50% of their entire annual budget and is likely greater than the value of all products purchased and sold in the same year. To cover these “overhead” costs, the organization raises funds through charity. Do their donors understand how much of their donation is going towards initiatives that may or may not benefit artisans or follow “fair trade” principles? Do their donors know how much artisans really make working with this organization? Without full transparency we are left to simply trust the information they market.

This lack of transparency always leaves artisans in Morocco with the short end of the stick. Artisans are regularly coerced into giving much more than $5 discounts because of someone else’s business’ costs, fair-trade or not. The worst part? The end customer never even knows. As long as this continues, artisans will remain disenfranchised and poor, which only provides the fuel for the endless parade of organizations trying to save them.

Opening Up Anou’s Expenses

Anou is breaking this monotonous cycle by empowering the community of artisans in Morocco to drive their own growth and development. Naturally, financial transparency has become the backbone of ensuring this community is capable of establishing equal access to the free market on their terms.

IMG_0192

When Anou’s artisan leaders input their expenses, they’re automatically categorized on our public budget.

This is why, starting today, Anou is making its real time data for expenses publically accessible. Next, we will begin building the tools to publicly display the revenue of our community in real time. This way when purchasing from artisans in the Anou community, customers will know exactly where their money is going. No need to take our word for it or believe that “all money goes to the artisan!”, you can simply see it for yourself. This document is what we use internally to record and track our costs, so you see what we see in realtime.

While this decision uncomfortably challenges the status quo, we believe it is absolutely necessary for us to do. We cannot create the trust needed for the artisan community to coalesce if only a select few can view Anou’s expenses — it is the artisan’s money after all. Nor can we create the expectation for artisans within the community to become more transparent if we do not set the example ourselves. Lastly, if we do not do anything, there is no incentive for anyone else in the fair-trade industry to ever change.

At first glance, full transparency might be perceived as naive, idealistic, and/or unrealistic. But is it really? One business in the US, Bufferapp, recently made all of their salaries and sales data open to the public in real time. The move was heralded as ground breaking, signaling a new era in how businesses are run in the 21st century. This company isn’t a social enterprise, nor does it have a traditional altruistic mission. Bufferapp simply develops a software application that enables people to easily manage multiple social media accounts. If a private for-profit company with no direct purpose in helping marginalized populations can execute transparency better than everyone in the fair-trade industry, it is naive and unrealistic to believe that fair-trade should remain the same.

As we continue our push to full transparency, we ask that you join and support Anou to realize a marketplace that works for both artisans and their customers. You can show this support by spreading the word about Anou’s work, purchasing through Anou, or doing something as simple as asking a question about our budget in the comments below so that we can make our budget more understandable. With your help, artisans will no longer settle for $5 discounts and customers around the world can buy with the knowledge that their money is going where it is meant to go. 

View Anou’s Real-Time Expenses:

English & Arabic 2014/2015/2016

Note: We’ll be exploring our budget more in depth in forthcoming blog posts. In the mean time, ask us any questions you have below!

Suspending a Cooperative From Anou’s Online Store

This month we decided to suspend the account of one of the most well-known cooperatives in Morocco. While the decision was difficult to make, particularly during the holiday rush, it was necessary because we believe that transparency is a cornerstone of Anou’s community.

As we’ve written about many times before, access to limited resources coupled with illiteracy and low-education levels all contribute to the challenging and opaque environments in which artisans frequently work. As a result, many artisans have little awareness of what happens within their own artisans groups, associations or cooperatives. Even when artisans have the awareness to see something wrong, they’re often too afraid to expose the issue so it can be resolved. This makes it frighteningly easy for artisans to be taken advantage of by anyone, including members of their own cooperative.

Sadly, this  was occurring in the cooperative we suspended. We had long suspected that a small group of women within the cooperative were embezzling money, or depending on your perspective, covering the ‘costs’ of operating the cooperative. However, we never had evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that money was in fact being stolen. 

Increasing Transparency

During the last several months, we have continued to tighten up our transparency efforts. This has included actively reaching out via phone calls to artisans tagged as the maker of specific sold products to confirm how much they had received as a result of their sale. In addition, multiple cooperative members became comfortable enough to reach out to Anou artisan leaders and alert them to problems within their cooperative. All of this enabled us to paint an accurate picture of what was happening within the cooperative.

The first thing we found was the true story behind two slightly incorrect custom orders the cooperative had recently made. The president told us that the incorrect designs were the result of having the items handmade. The customer of the rug graciously accepted them as they were.  However, in reality, the president instead bought similar rugs from a local market and pocketed a 400% markup.

We also learned that the members within the cooperative were unaware that they were only being paid 50% of the price listed on their online store on Anou. The officers claimed that the other 50% went to cover the costs of the cooperative. While it is none of our business how a cooperative distributes their revenue, it becomes a problem if none of the members are aware of this information nor agree to it. In this case, the members never knew about this information nor could they, or the officers, clearly explain what the costs were of the cooperative. As the officers fumbled trying to sort out their finances, it was discouragingly obvious that the 50% was exclusively going to three members of the group.

Anou’s Values

These actions not only violated the values of Anou’s community, but threatened the trust the community has built with the thousands of customers who have purchased from Anou’s online store. Anou’s artisan leaders quickly decided to suspend the group.

In preparing to suspend the cooperative, we investigated the situation further to outline what conditions they would have to meet if they wanted to rejoin the community. During our investigation, we found that the cooperative had not held a general assembly in over two years. Annual general assemblies are a legal requirement for Moroccan cooperatives. It is at these meetings where members agree on how payments are distributed within the cooperative. With no general assembly, there was no clarity on where their sales money was going and no one could be held accountable. This makes it incredibly easy for money to disappear.

We decided that if the cooperative wanted to rejoin the Anou community, they would have to hold a general assembly and establish, in writing, what percentage of their sales from their online store would go to cover the cooperative’s expenses. All the members would be required to sign it, and an Anou artisan leader may be present if requested. After a rather intense meeting, the artisans finally agreed to meet these requirements. Once this occurs, we will reopen their store on TheAnou.com and follow up with every artisan after they make a sale to hold them accountable. At the time of writing, the artisans still have not held their meeting but they have told us it will happen soon.

The Deeper Problem

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that this cooperative is not the only cooperative where similar problems may be occurring. In fact, it is fairly easy to find these groups. We have learned that cooperatives where members are exploited often sell via fair trade businesses where honesty and equality are never measured and enforced down to the member level.

One of the challenges then is how do we continue to grow  transparency across Anou’s community if the cooperatives that have the most connections with fair-trade businesses will be the ones most likely to leave the community rather than to reform how they work. We’ve reached out to some of these fair-trade businesses to discuss having them source their orders through the Anou artisan community where transparency is enforced. Doing so would enable the business to guarantee that their payments were getting where they are supposed to go.  However, a recent fair trade business declined.  They said that by teaching artisans to sell independently instead of through intermediaries, Anou is teaching artisans how to “work outside the system rather than within it.”

When you Google the name of the cooperative we just suspended, you’ll find several articles written by fair trade businesses that canonize its female members. The articles paint the members that were embezzling money from the cooperative as examples of leadership and the steady hands that are working to preserve their craft and heritage. These statements are not false, but they generalize artisans into simple caricatures who need to be saved. This isn’t surprising because when you combine limited on-the-ground knowledge with the primary motivation of driving sales at incredibly marked up prices, these fair-trade businesses tend to gloss over the fact that artisans are no more or less human than the people who purchase their products.

The artisans that contributed to their cooperative’s suspension are not criminals nor saints. Rather, their actions were simply the result of the opaque, challenging environments they work in. Creating transparency in these environments is complicated, so complicated that the only individuals capable of setting the rules to create transparency is the artisan community leaders themselves. This is why having artisans leading the Anou community is so important. Even today, Anou’s  leaders are still sorting out how to create a truly transparent platform that works for all artisans. While it will take the community time to perfect the Anou platform, we couldn’t dream of a better system to create.

Common Thread (Part 2): In Sabrina’s Words

The core experience of the Common Thread project is rooted in collaboration, understanding and the exchange of ideas. After the completion of the design workshop led by Sabrina Kraus Lopez (www.sabrinakrauslopez.com), Sabrina accompanied Rabha Akkaoui back to Tounfite where she stayed for three weeks working and living alongside the women of Cooperative Chorouk (www.theanou.com/store/3). In this album, Sabrina reflects on her experiences through pictures taken throughout the three weeks.

 

 

“It is hard to believe that this small mud hut sandwiched in this incredible landscape will now be my workspace for the next three weeks.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans

 

 

“The first few days at the cooperative consisted of me staring at the women weave, trying to take in all their movements in order to understand how their looms worked. Once we set up my loom I was ready and excited to begin weaving my own rug.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Fatima Haddu,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Looms, Moroccan Weaving, Moroccan Artisans

 

 

 

“At the moment when the women and I realize that I have been weaving, unaccompanied and successfully for the last 30 minutes, there is a loud applause, as only now have I finally earned my place in this remote village cooperative!”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans , Sabrina Kraus Lopez

 

 

 

“There are two other looms in the Chorouk Cooperative, each carefully shared and cared for by ten women, each of whom can be found preparing, cleaning and spinning wool for weaving, but most importantly, laughing and telling stories.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Designer Sabrina Kraus Lopez

 

 

 

“I was taken by the individual artisans themselves and their situations, sometimes funny, sad and occasionally touching; each of them has a story to tell.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Flatweave, Hanbel

 

 

 

“From collecting and spinning the wool, to picking and hand dying the yarn, it soon became clear to me that for the artisans this is not simply a livelihood but rather an intrinsic part of their culture and everyday life.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel, Family

 

 

 

“Intensely proud of their heritage and traditions, the Amazigh believe that these carpets have been crucial in keeping their cultures alive. Even today, some tribal women still carry these symbols and motifs tattooed on to their foreheads, chins and arms, in days gone by this would have distinguished them during times of war.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel, Fatima Haddu

 

 

 

“After two weeks, I begin to feel settled in Tounfite. Every morning I wake up to Rabha’s amazing mint tea and breakfast, all of which is loaded with sugar to get me through each day of weaving.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel, Design Explore, Moroccan Food, Moroccan Cooking

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel, Design Explore, Moroccan Food, Moroccan Cooking

 

 

 

“Later, I finally know how to ask for bread, water, phone credit and make it to the closest store on my own. I also know that the Hamam is one of the best things in town and that Sundays at the souq are priceless.”

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel, Design Explore, Moroccan Food, Moroccan Cooking, Tounfite Souq, Tounfite Market

Cooperative Chorouk, Anou Community, Tounfite,  Moroccan Craft, Moroccan Artisans, Fatima Haddu, Flatweave, Hanbel, Design Explore, Moroccan Food, Moroccan Cooking, Tounfite Market, Tounfite Souq

 

 

 

“At the end of my time in Morocco, I have learnt how to say “Hello”, “thank you” and “I am full”, in Amazigh. I am also now familiar with sleeping on layered carpets, having bucket showers and eating with my hands at almost every meal. However, it is exactly these new experiences, sharing of cultures and most of all friendships that I will miss most and what makes collaborations like this so special.”

Anou, Family, Community

Sabrina Kraus Lopez, Rabha Akkaoui, Common Thread, Design Explore, Design Junction, London Design Festival

 

Does the Anou Community Ship To Australia?

Australia, Shipping to Australia, Shipping Costs to Australia

Cooperative Lfarah (http://www.theanou.com/store/55) ships another rug to Australia!

Yes! In fact, artisans that use TheAnou.com to sell their work frequently fulfill orders from Australia. In terms of sales volume, Australia is second only to the United States in orders that the Anou community receives.

Right now, the prices artisans list on TheAnou.com include shipping to the United States and Europe. In the near future, we’ll ensure that if you’re viewing from Australia, you’ll see prices that include shipping to Australia.

In the meantime, all you have to do is send us (hello@theanou.com) the links of the products that you like and we’ll provide you with the price that includes shipping to Australia.

Here are some other things you might want to know about shipping to Australia:

Shipping costs to Australia are about 2.5-3 times more expensive than shipping to the United States or Europe. So expect a bit of a jump in price.

Shipping times vary, but the average fulfillment time is about three weeks. Orders have arrived faster (10 days) and have sometimes taken longer (5 weeks! Agg!).

The international standard tracking numbers the Moroccan Post Office provides artisans do not work in Australia. We’ve contacted the Australian post about this and they’ve confirmed that standard tracking does not work in their system. Tracking numbers for expedited shipping options (EMS, DHL, FedEx) are the only numbers that work.

Even though tracking numbers do not work, 100% of the items artisans have shipped to Australia arrived safely. If there is ever a problem with a lost order, our partners at the Moroccan Post Office have the means to help us trace it for you.

Do you have any other questions about Morocco, artisans, and Australia? Comment below or write to us at Hello@theanou.com!

Introducing Anou’s Artisan Leader Mentors!

The key to the long-term success of the Anou community depends on whether the artisans and artisan leaders can develop the vision for their own community’s future. As we’ve written before, the more artisans are in control of managing Anou, the more experience they’ll gain in overcoming obstacles. This struggle creates the foundation for artisan leaders to evolve the community as their market changes in the years to come.

While all this makes sense on paper, it gets a bit blurry on a practical level. Many of the challenges artisans will face developing the Anou community are likely to be completely new and very complex. For example, how will artisan leaders continue to maintain and build a collaborative culture amongst themselves and their community? How do they better understand and respond to their customer’s needs and concerns? How can they deal with rapidly increasing sales volumes and improve the community’s logistics?

The answers to all of these will come to the artisans leaders with time. But they shouldn’t have to go at all their future obstacles alone. In fact, there are many successful leaders in Morocco that have already overcome many of the challenges the artisans will soon face. So why not put these leaders in touch with artisan leaders to help mentor them as they continue to build Anou’s community? Starting late September, this is exactly what we are going to do.

Over the past two years, I have been fortunate to meet amazing entrepreneurs in Morocco, many of whom have since become my go-to people when I am need of advice or support. Two of them I believe can be an equal resource to artisan leaders and have excitingly volunteered to become mentors for two artisan leaders.

TFatim_Biaz_1he first mentor is Fatim-Zahra Biaz. Fatim-Zahra was a management consultant in Paris and worked for a wide range of multinationals and focused on areas related to customer experience. Today, she is the founder of the New Work Lab in Casablanca, the most successful co-working space in Morocco. Fatim-Zahra has agreed to meet with Rabha Akkaoui once a month to discuss and share their respective challenges and successes within their businesses.

Hmall_largeThe second mentor is Kamal Reggard. Kamal is widely regarded as the most successful tech entrepreneur in Morocco. After studying and working in the US, Kamal returned to Morocco and soon after launched Hmizate.ma (a daily deals site) and then eventually Hmall.ma, the first e-commerce market place in Morocco. Artisan leader Brahim El Mansouri will meet up with Kamal once a month to discuss their respective challenges and successes. Brahim will also be interning for the day at Hmall.ma, helping out where ever needed to learn how the most successful e-commerce marketplace in Morocco operates.

We’re excited to have the immensely talented duo of Fatim-Zahra and Kamal working alongside Anou’s artisan leaders as mentors. By sharing their experience and wisdom, they will ensure that Anou’s artisan leaders can address the most challenging problems that will come their way in the coming years.

A huge thanks to Kamal and Fatim-Zahra for their support of Morocco’s artisan community!

Anou’s Community Led Structure

Summary: Starting on October 1st, Mustapha Chaouai of Association Nahda (http://www.theanou.com/store/9) will become the Anou community’s second director. This is one of the most important steps in ensuring that the Anou community is always led and managed by Moroccan artisans. The post below discusses Anou’s current and future community structure in detail and why it is so important.  

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.

Growing Pains?

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

Brahim El Mansouri, the Anou community's first artisan director.

Brahim El Mansouri, the Anou community’s first artisan director.

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.

Community Structure August 2014

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.

 

 

 

Community Structure October 2014a

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.

What is the Difference Between a Flatweave, Pile Knot and Beni Ourain Rug?

A customer recently wrote in and asked us what exactly is the difference between a flatweave, pile knot and Beni Ourain rug? We thought there would be no better place than to provide a quick answer to this question than on our blog!
 
To talk about Beni Ourain rugs, we first have to sort out the difference between flatweave and pile knot rugs. Flatweaves and pile-knot refer to the way the rug is woven on the warp. The warp is the foundation for every rug and consists of the strings (often white cotton) that run the length of a rug. One of the first steps of weaving rug is getting the warp set up on the loom, pictured below:
 
Photo Credit: Association Tithrite

Photo Credit: Association Tithrite

With the warp set up, the artisans can begin filling out the rug with what is called the weft, the thread which is woven in and out of the warp. Rugs that are solely woven with the warp and weft are flatweave rugs (local dialect: hanbel). In the following picture, a weaver from Cooperative Tisseuses of Ain Leuh weaves the weft (the color thread) through the warp:

image

Photo Credit: Cooperative Tisseuses

The weft is what gives the flat weave its design. Here is picture of the rug from above in its final form:

seller12_product1366_rank1_time1394717417

Photo Credit: Cooperative Tisseuses

However, not all rugs in Morocco are woven this way, nor is it the most common weaving technique. The most common technique is called the pile knot, which has a little similarity with a flatweave. On a flatweave, and artisan threads the weft back and forth through the warp continuously until the rug is complete. On a pile knot (local dialect: zrbya) however, the weft is separated with rows of knots tied around the warp.  It is up to the artisan how many rows of weft they will weave between the rows of knots. Many rugs are woven with a little weft woven in between the knots, which creates a pretty dense rug. Others, like this one, have a little more weft giving the rows of knots room to breath and provides a bit more texture. This picture below of a member of the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus illustrates this pretty well. The woman is threading a weft between the warp before tying in another row of knots:

Photo Credit:  http://photosby.si/

Photo Credit: http://photosby.si/

To get more of a feel of this process (which we’ve drastically simplified above), you can take a look at the following video which shows a weaver from the Imelghaus Cooperative tying knots and pounding them with her taska to lock the knots with the weft:

So where does a Beni Ourain fit within all of this? Technically, it doesn’t. A Beni Ourain is not a weaving technique. In fact, a Beni Ourain is always woven in a pile knot weave as described above. What separates Beni Ourain’s from every other rug is where it was woven, who wove it, and its design.  Authentic Beni Ourain rugs are those woven by the Beni Ourain tribe or those who have lineage to the tribe that resides/resided in mountainous areas south east of Fez. Proving lineage is difficult, obviously.  I am sure every vintage rug seller has an elaborate story about their rugs or will claim personal lineage to the tribe, so take it all in with a grain of salt. As for the design, there are no set rules as to what defines a Beni Ourain design but many would agree that their designs are almost always a pile knot rug with a cream, ivory, (read: natural wool) base with distinct black geometric designs.

If you’re interested in having a custom order Beni Ourain style rug, the Cooperative of Imelghaus is becoming the go-to coop that uses Anou’s online store.

For pile knot rugs from the highest rated artisans in the Anou community, check out:

Association Timdokkals

Association Afous G Afous

For flatweave rugs from the highest rated artisans in the Anou community, check out:

Cooperative Chorouk

Cooperative Tisseuses 

For all the other groups, just do a search on http://www.theanou.com!

Have any question you’d like us to answer? Want us to go more in depth on this topic? Let us know in the comments or e-mail us at hello@theanou.com

Common Thread (Part 1): The Design Workshop

On August 6th, designer Sabrina Kraus Lopez (www.sabrinakrauslopez.com) and photographer Simon Mills (http://photosby.si) arrived in the Ait Bouguemez Valley and launched the first part of the British Council/Anou’s Common Thread project. The launch capped several weeks of preparation by Sabrina to create a workshop that would benefit Anou’s artisan leaders, and by extension, the wider artisan community in Morocco.

Design workshops for artisans are inherently difficult to pull off and almost always have mixed results. Generally, such workshops focus on showing artisans a current trend and then dictate what kind of designs artisans should make. While such workshops had their place when artisans had no access to global markets, this is no longer the case. Unchanged, these workshops may help artisans in the short-term but ultimately ensure that artisans remain dependent on the ideas of others to develop their craft in the long-term. Unfortunately, many workshops forget that artisans are designers, too.

In this context, Sabrina’s took an entirely different approach to designing a workshop for Anou’s artisan leaders. Instead of dictating design, Sabrina developed a truly impressive curriculum that integrated Anou’s online tools the artisan leaders were familiar with and taught them new design techniques aimed at enabling artisans to create new designs that were inspired by the artisan’s own imagination, story and community.  The overall goal was simple: get all the artisans to look at everything in their environment just a little bit different than they normally do. The end result was impressive.

Take a look below at the pictures Simon (http://photosby.si) took of Sabrina’s design workshop. We’ll release the artisan leaders’ final designs later in the month!

Sabrina started off the workshop with an introduction to color theory. She then asked artisans to use Pinterest to identify images they liked and use the colors from within the images to create a color boards.

Sabrina started off the workshop with an introduction to color theory and asked all the artisan leaders to use Pinterest to identify images they liked and use the colors from within the images to create color boards.

The artisans then selected five of their favorite colors from their favorite photo found on Pinterest and used them to create their color board.  Here, Fatima of the Imelghaus Cooperative creates her color board.

The artisans then selected five of their favorite colors from their favorite photo found on Pinterest and used them to create their color board. Here, Fatima of the Imelghaus Cooperative creates her color board.

After selecting the images and their colors, each artisan explains their selection to everyone else. Here, Fatima Ouakhoum of the Cooperative of Imelghaus explains her choices.

After selecting the images and their colors, each artisan explains their selection to everyone else. Here, Fatima Ouakhoum of the Cooperative of Imelghaus explains her choices.

After the artisans created their initial color board, they went outside in search of physical objects to complement their color board.

After the artisans created their initial color board, they went outside in search of physical objects to complement their color board.

Kenza Oulaghada of Association Tithrite used a picture of a tropical beach as the source of her color board and then matched it with a pen cap, used battery, and leaves. A huge benefit of this activity was that it helped artisans match colors from their screen to their actual environment -- a challenge many artisans face while using Anou’s online tools.

Kenza Oulaghada of Association Tithrite used a picture of a tropical beach as the source of her color board and then matched it with a pen cap, used battery, and leaves. A huge benefit of this activity was that it helped artisans match colors from their screen to their actual environment — a challenge many artisans face while using Anou’s online tools.

When all the artisans completed their color boards, they used the colors to create a new design idea.

When all the artisans completed their color boards, they used the colors to create a new design idea.

Kenza of Association Tithrite working on a new design.

Kenza of Association Tithrite puts her new color board to use immediately!

And of course, artisans then snapped photos of their color boards and posted them on the Anou community’s Instagram account.

And of course, artisans then snapped photos of their color boards and posted them on the Anou community’s Instagram account. Rabha Akkaoui’s (pictured) color board got a lot of attention on Instagram!

Later, artisans then helped create a color board for all the designs that will be used for the Common Thread exhibition at the London Design Festival.

Later, artisans then helped create a color board for all the designs that will be used for the Common Thread exhibition at the London Design Festival.

After collecting all the colors, Sabrina and the artisans put the final touches on the color board that will be used for all the designs that artisans will bring to the London Design Festival.

After collecting all the colors, Sabrina and the artisans put the final touches on the color board that will be used for all the designs that the artisans will bring to the London Design Festival.

Later on, Sabrina taught the artisans in new design techniques that involved tracing the outline of objects and environments while not looking at the canvas. Here, Sabrina poses so artisans can trace her using this new technique.

Later on, Sabrina taught the artisans in new design techniques that involved tracing the outline of objects and environments while not looking at the canvas. Here, Sabrina poses so artisans can trace her using this new technique.

Sometimes the artisans’ drawings resembled what they were trying to trace…

Sometimes the artisans’ drawings resembled what they were trying to trace…

...other times, not so much! Yet all attempts lead to new and creative ideas.

…other times, not so much! Yet all attempts lead to new and creative ideas.

Sabrina also encouraged the artisans to use this new technique on landscapes as well.

Sabrina also encouraged the artisans to use this new technique on landscapes as well.

Little by little, Brahim El Mansouri’s (Association Ighrem) landscape comes into focus.

Everyone gets a good laugh when their drawing doesn’t come out nearly as close as they think it will!

Everyone gets a good laugh when their drawing doesn’t come out nearly as close as they think it will! Mustapha (right) of Association Nahda, makes fun of all the other artisans on their landscape pictures!

Another design technique artisans explored was to draw out a name, traditional design, or what ever else they could think of and then cut the drawing up and glue it back together all mixed up. Brahim tries this with a Beni Ourain style rug found commonly in his village.

Another design technique artisans explored was to draw out a name, traditional design, or what ever else they could think of and then cut the drawing up and glue it back together all mixed up. Here, Brahim tries this technique with a Beni Ourain style rug found commonly in his village.

For the last technique, Sabrina and the artisans walked out into the fields to try out water colors. Artisans painted their ideas on paper and then pressed the water colors on top of the designs they traced the day before.

For the last technique, Sabrina and the artisans walked out into the fields to try out water colors. Artisans painted their ideas on paper and then pressed the water colors on top of the designs they traced the day before.

On the last day, the artisans had to come up with twenty new design ideas each. Then, they had to pick their three favorites and Sabrina picked the final six designs that will be used for London. We'll reveal the final designs later this month!

On the last day, the artisans had to come up with twenty new design ideas each. Then, they had to pick their three favorites and Sabrina picked the final six designs that will be used for London. We’ll reveal the final designs later this month!

When Orders Go Terribly, Terribly Wrong…

We manage to make mistakes fulfilling orders every now and then. Rarely, we’ll have an order go terribly wrong. This past month, we’ve had two orders go terribly wrong:

A Custom Order Comes Out Completely Reimagined

A customer recently sent in an image of a rug that they’d like to have made and it looked like this:

The artisans started to work on it and submitted a progress photo, which the customer was incredibly excited about:

Then, the president of the Cooperative of Imelghaus, who oversees the rugs as they are made, suddenly left for a week because her sister was having a baby. As a result, the women just decided to wing it without any instruction or guidance and came up with something complete different but totally awesome:

The customer asked to have the rug remade since it was so radically different. But the rug which became known as the ‘mistake’ sold to another customer within a week. It then got two other custom order inquiries a week later. We ended up referring to this order almost everyday during our recent design workshop when discussing the benefit of trying new ideas inspired by traditional designs.

When Rugs Destined for New York Arrive in the  Philippines

Early last month, we had a customer from New York (who we’ll call ‘N’) order two rugs from the women of Cooperative Tisseuses in Ain Leuh and another customer from California (who we’ll call ‘C’) who bought rugs from the women of Association Timdokkals in Ait Bouguemez. Immediately after his purchase, ‘C’ informed us he wanted to change his address.

Since the artisans didn’t ship the order yet, we sent the new address to the artisan director. However, for whatever reason, the artisan director sent the new updated address to Cooperative Tisseuses, not Association Timdokkals. Last week, ‘N’ notified us that his rugs hadn’t arrived. It wasn’t until we investigated the shipment and found that it the shipment had arrived at ‘C’s address did we realize the incorrect address was sent to Cooperative Tisseueses.

When he reached out to ‘C’ about the mistake, he told us that when he received his package (the incorrect one) he didn’t open the package, safely assuming it was correct and had the package forwarded to the Philippines. With the package en route to an entirely different country, it would prove to be incredibly difficult to get them rerouted to the original customer. But since all of our customers are awesome, C decided to keep the rugs so we wouldn’t have to ship them all the way back to New York, and N decided to have the rugs he purchased remade. We’re so sorry that this happened C and N!

Fortunately, the last two terribly wrong orders and two incredibly positive outcomes — phew!

Launching the British Council and Anou’s Common Thread Project

Designer Sabrina Kraus and photographer Simon Mill arrive in Morocco and take a taxi to Ait Bouguemez to begin the British Council - Anou's Common Threads project.

Designer Sabrina Kraus Lopez and photographer Simon Mills arrive in Morocco and take a taxi to Ait Bouguemez to begin the British Council – Anou’s Common Thread project.

This past week we officially launched the Common Thread pilot project in collaboration with the British Council’s Architecture, Design, Fashion Department. Many changes have been made to the project since we initially announced it and we couldn’t be more excited.

The most obvious change is the project’s new name. The project’s vision is to create a truly equal learning exchange between Anou’s artisan leaders and British designers. We believe that this new title perfectly encapsulates this vision. In addition to this change, the British Council completed an intensive search for a designer to take part and selected Sabrina Kraus Lopez (http://www.sabrinakrauslopez.com), a graduate of the MA Material Futures at London’s University of the Arts: Central Saint Martin’s.

Over the past several weeks, we worked with Sabrina, who has completed similar work with artisans in Peru, to flesh out the details of the project. We ultimately decided to break down the project into three innovative parts:

Part One The first part of the Common Thread project will bring Sabrina, Scottish photographer/designer Simon Mills (http://photosby.si), and all Anou’s artisan leaders out to Ait Bougamez for a one week design workshop. The workshop will equip artisans with new design tools that will enable artisans to create designs inspired by their personal stories, community and craft. At the end of the workshop, the artisan leaders will each design a rug using the tools they learned and the ideas they developed during the week. In addition to this, Simon will also lead a photography training session and document the workshop via photography and video. Update: Success! See pictures of the training on our blog or on Facebook!

Part Two After the workshop concludes, the artisan leaders will return to their villages and to weave the rug they designed. Sabrina will then accompany artisan leader Rabha Akkaoui (www.theanou.com.com/store/5) back to Tounfite and will live and work with the cooperative for two weeks. Sabrina will design and weave her own rug using traditional weaving techniques learned from the members of Cooperative Chorouk. At the end of the two weeks, Sabrina will then travel to each artisan leader’s village to check the final progress of the rugs they designed during the opening workshop.Update: Success! read more about Sabrina’s experience in Tounfite on our blog or Facebook page!

Part Three All the rugs that Anou’s artisan leaders and Sabrina complete will then be shipped to London. From there, an exhibition for the Common Thread project will be set up at the London Design Festival this September to display the rugs the artisans created. All the Anou leaders will be flown out to London for the exhibition and will speak about their experiences during the project and the larger vision of Anou’s community. In addition, the leaders will be given personal tours of leading design studios in London and meet leading British designers and design professors.

With such a huge focus on an equal exchange of ideas between leading Moroccan artisans and leading British designers, we simply couldn’t be more excited for this project. Projects like this are incredibly rare and we have to thank the British Council’s British Council’s Architecture, Design, Fashion Department for making this happen. Follow Anou’s blog, Facebook page, and Instagram account for updates as the project unfolds!

Why We Don’t Provide Artisan Contact Information

We often receive messages from visitors on TheAnou.com if we can provide the contact details for an artisan in the Anou community or directions to their shop. Unfortunately, we are no longer able to do this. Several months ago, Anou’s artisan leaders decided against both fulfilling these requests and publicly listing the directions or GPS coordinates to artisans within the Anou community.

It wasn’t always this way. Prior to this decision, we provided directions to anyone who asked. However, we started receiving complaints from artisans that some visitors showed up haggling for discounts or imposing industry standard wholesale discounts. The artisans would ask why we would send such visitors to them when such requests are against the Anou community’s vision? It was a fair question. We tried doing informal chats with people who requested to be put in touch artisans so we could ensure that they knew the values of Anou’s community. This didn’t really work either. This problem culminated when a visitor got entangled in the politics of the cooperative they were visiting due to the often non-transparent practices that can occur with in-person sales. Since we sent the visitor, we were responsible for what occurred. The decision of Anou’s leaders came shortly after.

What we have learned is that customers of Anou’s online store, particularly recurring ones,  do understand our vision and we have had no problems putting them in touch with artisans on their trips. So if you’re a recurring customer of Anou’s online store we’re more than happy to work with you so you can visit artisans within the Anou community or recommend tour agencies that support the artisan community’s vision. If you have any feedback or thoughts, let us know in the comments below!

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.

The Last Generation of Metalworkers

 

Mohssine Benjalloun’s unassuming metal workshop can be found in one of the most visited alleyways of the Fez medina. The presence of his workshop in such a popular area is unique. Today, Fassi artisans are almost exclusively found in corners deep inside the medina or on the distant fringes of Fez’s suburbs. Rarely are artisans found where tourists often visit. Such popular places are now filled with whom Mohssine describes as “bazarists,” those that sell Moroccan crafts, but don’t make them.

Mohssine recalls that the alleyways of Fez didn’t always look like they do now. Decades ago, when Mohssine was just a teenager, he began learning metalwork from his father. Demand for his and his father’s metalwork was booming, just as much as it had for his grandfather. Before, Mohssine, recalls, artisans earned enough from their craft that they were able to innovate and design new products and ideas. He now only has memories of all the shops that lined the alleyways of Fez which were filled with artisans teeming with work.

Mohssine painfully remembered that as he grew older, the demand for his and all of the other artisans’ craft in Fez began to slow. “Cheap imitations from China,” he says, forced many artisans to close down their shops and either relocated to the suburbs of Fez, or simply quit craft all together.

Mohssine continued to ply his trade even as all the shops around him filled up with bazarists, reselling similar products at prices that barely sustain the artisan that made it. Over time, his sales dried up. Determined to keep his workshop, he began spending less time on his craft. In order to continuing earning an income, he has filled most of his time with making simple board games that he sells for $3. He also handles the occasional repairs for metal pieces people bring to his store and dabbles in cutting glass for picture frames. He earns enough to keep the shop open and to support his family. A picture of Mohssine’s grandfather, who bought the workshop nearly 100 years ago, hangs on the wall behind him where he works everyday.

Everyone once in awhile, when money and time allow, Mohssine pulls out large copper brass sheets, his old metal cutting scissors, and a torch and begins working on the craft he loves. His ten year old son, who often sits at the door of the workshop, watches as his dad begins to immerse himself in building craft by hand. “I hope my son never goes into craft,” Mohssinne says as he begins work on a new lantern, “There is no work left. He is better off doing something else.” His son silently looks on.

Mohssine acknowledges that the artisan sector must change and innovate if it is going to survive beyond his generation. He laughs as he recalls a recent TV documentary he watched about rockets that fly into space, “It takes hundreds of people, a community of people, working together to build a rocket.” The effort and focus of many is what is needed to revive the artisan sector. To build a future where his son can become an artisan, Mohssine says, will take the collective effort of an entire community.

Visit Mohssine’s online store and view his newest item. 

Mohssine talks about his workshop and craft as his son sits at the door and listens in.

A picture of Mohssine in his early years.

A picture of Mohssine in his younger years.

A picture of brass lantern made by Mohsinne's grandfather.

A picture of brass lantern made by Mohsinne’s grandfather.

Two recently made lanterns hang above Mohssine's shop. A board game Mohssine made hangs on the wall.

Two recently made lanterns ordered through Anou hang above Mohssine’s shop. The board game Mohssine makes and sells hangs on the wall behind the lanterns.

Mohsinne's son holds up a lantern recently made by his father.

Mohsinne’s son holds up a lantern recently made by his father for a custom order on Anou.

 

The Economics Behind Moroccan Beni Ourain Rugs

As we noted in a recent blog post, the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus became one of Anou’s top selling artisans. With more sales combined with encouragement from Anou’s community leaders, the women finally started to record all of the material costs and time spent on the rugs they make. The women were shocked at what they learned.

The first rug they began recording on was a beautiful, custom ordered 10’ x 8’ Beni Ourain style rug. The artisans listed the price on Anou for $380. Since the rug weighed over 21 kilograms, the cost to ship it to the US came to $260. Anou’s community fee, which is about 6% of final listed price, added $43 to the price.The credit card payment company we use to process credit cards added $21, or about 3% of the final price. All of this combined set the listed price on Anou for $712.

The Imelghaus Cooperative listed their Beni Ourain rug for $712 on Anou.

The Imelghaus Cooperative listed their Beni Ourain rug for $712 on Anou.

Providing this much detail in how prices are calculated is unprecedented in the fair-trade industry, but we can learn even more by breaking down the $388 the artisans earned using the material and labor information they shared with Anou. The cooperative recorded that they spent $125 for the wool to make the rug leaving them with a total of $236 for their labor. The women recorded that it took over 280 total hours of weaving. This puts the cooperative’s hourly wage at $.93 USD/hour, or $7.44 for an 8-hour work day. This wage is less than what a day laborer makes in the rural valley where the cooperative is based. It is also below the Moroccan minimum wage for agricultural workers, which is the equivalent of $7.50 per day (learn more about Moroccon minimum wage on Wikipedia or fairwageguide.org).

The women recorded that it took a total of 280 hours of weaving time to complete their Beni Ourain rug.

The women recorded that it took a total of 280 hours of weaving to complete their Beni Ourain rug.

The time spent creating the warp (pictured above) or preparing the wool was included in the 280 hours the cooperative recorded.

The time spent creating the warp (pictured above) or preparing the wool was NOT included in the 280 hours the cooperative recorded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The numbers are surprising because they are incredibly low. So low, in fact, that you might think the wages couldn’t get any lower. However, cooperatives are regularly faced with buyers, both fair-trade and regular retailers alike, who request prices lower than what they list on Anou. Worse, it is not uncommon for women’s cooperatives to unknowingly sell their products at price that only meets a quarter of their material costs when selling to traditional middlemen. This is largely why it is not hard to find rugs for sale in the Marrakech medina for prices cheaper than what is listed on Anou.

Take a moment for that to sink in. 

With no other sales avenues other than local craft fairs, artisans, much like the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus prior to Anou, never have had the knowledge or incentive to push back when buyers want lower prices.

For the first time, the women met and decided that they wanted to increase their pay to $1.70 an hour, or $13.60 a day. This new rate would exceed the Moroccan minimum wage for industrial labor, a big deal in rural Morocco. As such, similarly sized rugs the cooperative produces in the future will now be listed on Anou for around $912 USD, an increase of $200 from their previous price.

The Cooperative's rug at its new home in Brooklyn, New York. Is there a need for high end boutiques to make these rugs look great?

The Cooperative’s Beni Ourain rug at its new home in Brooklyn, New York. Rugs purchased directly from artisans look just as great, if not better,  than the ones purchased from high end resellers.

Recently, Anou was featured in an Apartment Therapy blog post in which they discussed where to buy Beni Ourain rugs because their “popularity…shows no signs of flagging.” The average price of similarly sized rugs listed on their blog (minus the product listed from Anou) was $2,564 USD. This number serves as a good indicator of the average market value for these type of rugs. Imagine the impact a sale would make if the women of Imelghaus could sell their rugs at that price or even half that price. The only way this is even possible is if the artisans are able to sell directly to their customers and customers are knowledgeable about whom exactly they are buying from.

The cooperative’s new price is a lot higher than before but still much cheaper relative to the other products listed on Apartment Therapy. Time will tell whether the cooperative will be able to continue their recent pace of sales at their new price. If they’re not able to, you only have to scan to the bottom of the Apartment Therapy article to see what the future of artisan craft in Morocco looks like if artisans aren’t empowered to sell directly to their customers: 10ft x 8ft West Elm “Moroccan” rugs made in India. Perhaps the trend of Beni Ourain will never “flag”, but it is obvious that the culture and artisans behind this craft surely will if artisans remain dependent on others to sell their work for them.

Artisan Led Social Media

In a previous blog entry, we noted the popularity of Anou’s Facebook page amongst the artisan community. So much so, our Facebook page has become a better tool for building  Anou’s community than it is at driving direct sales.

The desire to get recognized on the Facebook page by the artisan community has grown so much that Anou’s artisan leaders have been sending me more and more pictures of their cooperative at work or a recent training they completed. As a result, the vast majority of all the images used on the Facebook page are taken by the artisans themselves. Unfortunately, artisan leaders now send me more images than we can post onto Facebook and outstanding pictures sit unseen in my inbox.

One of the greatest challenges we’ve faced with Anou is refining the messaging that artisans not only manage their own online store but also the wider Anou community. As the number of images grow in my inbox, I’ve realized that all the images artisans submit could be our best asset in explaining what Anou is all about.

To address this, we installed a shared Instagram account on the smartphone of each artisan leader at our recent leadership meeting. We instructed the leaders to post as many pictures of them at work, whether at their cooperative or follow up visits with other cooperatives in the coming month. The Instagram account will serve as a live-feed of the artisan community at work. In addition to this, artisan leaders will also post pictures of products of artisans they identified to crowd source whether customers like the potential products or not. This information could eventually provide a more objective means to determine which artisans to train with Anou’s limited budget.

Rabha of Cooperative Chorouk and Kenza of Association Tithrite test out their new Instagram account.

Rabha of Cooperative Chorouk and Kenza of Association Tithrite test out their new Instagram account.

We’ll be piloting this idea for the coming month to see if it gains any traction. If you’re interested in taking part, follow Anou’s artisan leaders as they dive into social media for the first time on their new Instagram account!

Increasing Artisan Engagement on Anou

In our last e-mail newsletter update (Newsletter? Sign up on our about page!), we noted that one pressing challenge is that artisan engagement after adding their products to the site has been worryingly low. Only 20% of the products that have been posted since December have been modified in any way. This means that artisans haven’t been updating their products based on the feedback they’re receiving.

This is a concern because Anou’s long-term success depends heavily on how engaged artisans are in selling their product as well as learning from their successes and failures. This has both long-term and short-term implications. In the long run, if artisans aren’t engaged, their products stay the same and they will remain dependent on others to evolve their business. In the short term, you don’t need to look further than the analytics of Anou’s online store: When Anou’s homepage stagnated with unchanging products, the number of return visitors dropped by 16% and sales slowed. If artisans simply post items and forget about it, Anou is going to struggle.

In exploring ideas of how to reverse this trend, we’re continually faced with tension between whether to better educate artisans or build more effective online tools. In the past month, we’ve implemented a mix of both. Anou’s artisan team has substantially increased the amount of follow up calls to discuss the feedback artisans receive and suggest possible ideas to improve their ratings. In addition to this, Anou’s artisan team published its first monthly newsletter, which was snail mailed to every artisan. On the building side, we’ve begun testing concepts of language free research tools that enable artisans to dive into more details of the feedback they received. Also, we’ve invested a substantial amount of time improving the backend of the site to decrease errors on the artisan page.

The challenge of getting more artisans involved in their business isn’t a quick fix. But with careful monitoring of the result of the above efforts, we’ll learn which tools are most effective in reversing the trend in low artisans engagement on Anou’s online store.

Anou’s First Return

Last week we were contacted by an unhappy customer about one of the rugs they purchased from Anou. They noted that their rug had multiple frayed threads and asked if they could return it. We were happy to. We even covered the return shipping.

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After finding a couple of frayed edges on this rug, the customer decided they wanted to return it.

When we first launched Anou, we were told it was too risky to expect artisans to fulfill their own orders, much less provide free returns. Instead, we were advised to consolidate products to monitor quality before they were shipped. But this wouldn’t have worked for two reasons. First, it would have been cost prohibitive. Second, artisans wouldn’t be able to learn and understand the expectations of quality their customers have.

Anou’s success thus far has been built on the idea that experience is the best teacher. Artisans don’t necessarily suffer from a lack of training, but rather a lack of experience. The more meaningful experiences artisans have, the better they will become at their craft and the more successful they will be. That is why we’ve made sure to make it as easy as possible for customers to return their products. While returns can be costly, we consider it a necessary expense to build the experience needed so artisans can thrive.

Given that the Anou’s store has only had one return since it’s launch, something is clearly working and it is unlikely that we’ll change our free return policy anytime soon!