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. 

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.

Officially Partners: The Ministry of Handicrafts and The Anou Cooperative

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Brahim El Mansouri, woodcarver, co-founder and president of the Anou Cooperative, shakes hands with Minister of Handicraft H.E. Dr. Fatima Marouane after signing an unprecedented agreement. 

After two and half years of writing proposals, meetings and hard work, the Anou Cooperative has finally signed an unprecedented agreement with Morocco’s Ministry of Handicrafts, Social Economy and Solidarity. The agreement elevates The Anou Cooperative to an official partner of the Ministry — a status traditionally reserved for government agencies and large international organizations.

More specifically, the agreement creates the framework for the Ministry to include members of The Anou Cooperative in its programming and initiatives, share data and research on Morocco’s artisan economy with Anou’s artisan leaders, and work closely with Anou’s artisan leaders to create policy that better enables artisans of the Anou community to grow their businesses, such as streamlined customs and export processes. Even more exciting is that through the agreement the Ministry has officially endorsed the Anou Cooperative as one of its preferred means to buy from artisan associations, cooperatives, and small businesses across Morocco.

It is truly difficult to underscore the importance of this agreement. After traveling across Morocco and meeting with hundreds of artisans over the past several years there is a tangible feeling of shared helplessness amongst the artisan community who feel they have little control over their future. What often frustrates and isolates artisans the most is the feeling that those elected and chosen to represent their interests in Morocco’s government fail to do so and rarely interact with artisans as serious stakeholders.

Enabling the Moroccan artisan community to build the future of the artisan economy in their country starts with instilling the belief that they actually can. Nothing is more powerful in creating this belief than when Brahim El Mansouri, the president of the Anou Cooperative, a woodcarver, is able to sit down at a table with the Minister of Handicraft as equals and sign an agreement that will alter the future of artisan craft in Morocco.

None of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of the visionary support of those at the Ministry such as Boubker Mazoz, Nada Baâl, Adil Ibnoutalib, Abdelkarim Azenfar and of course H.E. Minister Dr. Fatima Marouane. This agreement is a testament to how committed the current administration is to building the artisan community and social economy of Morocco.

With an inspired community of artisans empowered by an endorsement and a true partner in their government, it is clear that the best days of Morocco’s artisan community are ahead of it.

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. 

 

 

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.

PCV Rebecca Levy: The Azlag Dagger Cooperative is going to America!

Note: We’re excited to have our first guest post on Anou’s blog by Rebecca Levy. Rebecca is a currently serving Peace Corps Volunteer working in Kala’ Magouna. During her service she has been working extensively with the Azlag Dagger Cooperative and is now fundraising to bring the Azlag Cooperative to America! Learn more about this trip and the work she has been up to below!

A 10 foot dagger commissioned by the local government, made by the cooperative this past year, a welcome sign as you enter the city of Kelaat M'Gouna (the city of Roses and Daggers)!

A 10 foot dagger commissioned by the local government, made by the cooperative this past year, a welcome sign as you enter the city of Kelaat M’Gouna (the city of Roses and Daggers)!

It’s been a busy couple of months for the Azlag Dagger Cooperative, a unique dagger making cooperative in southern Morocco, in the town of Kelaat M’Gouna.  With opportunities to attend two festivals in America this coming year, their efforts to make “English-friendly” advertising and sales has been upped.  The cooperative has attended the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, in Santa Fe New Mexico in both 2012 and 2013 — with the help of Peace Corps volunteers.  After sales were not as high the second year they attended, the cooperative decided to take a year off of applying to the market and work to diversify their product line as well as improve their international selling skills. In the new year of 2015, we are pleased to announce that the president of the Azlag Dagger Cooperative will be attending a 2-week jewelry and gem show/exposition (JOGS) in Tucson, Arizona from January 29th-February 9th, 2015 and then again the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market in July 2015.   Although, these international fairs are great selling and learning experiences for the cooperative, the cost of travel and lodging is quite a huge investment for the cooperative.  To help cover the costs of these trips, I have launched a crowdfunding campaign to help fund the trips: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/azlag-dagger-cooperative-artisan-fairs-in-usa/x/5471909 Furthermore, in order to help explain to international buyers the unique nature of the traditional Moroccan dagger, the dagger workers and I worked with an amazing film producer from Ouarzazate eNews to create a short promotional video for the Azlag Cooperative.  Since the Azlag Dagger Cooperative is working hard to expand their presence online, the video was a great way to help international customers see how the daggers are made.  The video shows in detail the handmade nature of the craft, explains the different types of daggers, and tells customers about the uses of a dagger.  The Azlag Dagger Cooperative has a Facebook page, their online store on Anou, and a website. With over 60 customers working at the cooperative it is vital that they expand their market and sell their craft to the larger international market.  The daggers they make are well known throughout Morocco and the cooperative is one of its kind!  In addition to daggers, the men at the cooperative are skilled metal workers, making anything and everything from jewelry to lanterns to mirrors to beautiful tables.  A new cooperative building is hopefully going to be built in the coming year and the executive team has big dreams for the expansion of their trade.  Welcome anytime to Kelaat M’Gouna to visit this amazing cooperative!

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!

Sustainable Tourism: Journey Beyond Travel and Anou

One unexpected lesson we’ve learned building Anou’s online store is just how many customers find us before — or after — a trip to Morocco wanting to buy directly from artisans. We used to put any visitor on TheAnou.com in touch with artisans in the community, but we ended that as soon as people started showing up extracting discounts and their guides started taking commissions from artisans.

Instead, we thought the more sensible way to address this demand was to partner with socially conscious tour agencies and operators. We could provide them with all the information required so their clients could visit the artisans in the Anou community in person — something that we can attest there is a huge demand for. In return, partner tour agencies would help us explain the values of the Anou community to their clients during their trip. Most importantly, these tour agencies would not take commissions for any sales their clients made from artisans within the Anou community. We ended up pitching this idea to ten socially focused tour agencies in Morocco.

But this led us to another unexpected lesson: just how difficult it would be to pull off. All but one agency gave us an immediate no. According to several of these agencies, many guides supplement their standard pay with commissions and would never agree to giving them up. This partially explains all those awkward experiences customers had with their guides on their trip to Morocco. Moreover, as per Moroccan law, tour agencies in Morocco hire guides or drivers as contractors, not as full-time employees. So even if the tour agency wanted to agree to our conditions, they wouldn’t have the ability to hold their contractors accountable.

One tour operator, Journey Beyond Travel, agreed to at least meet with us to discuss the challenges in realizing such a partnership. The owners, Thomas and Fazia, had a lot of knowledge to share on the topic because their guides had already rejected their efforts to eliminate the practice of commissions from their business years ago. The owners said their motivation in trying this was because commissions negatively affected the experiences their guests had on their trips. They also felt that the commissions didn’t line up with the ethics of their business. Despite all of this, they were still pretty hesitant to address this topic again with their guides and drivers.

But what makes Thomas and Fazia different from other owners we talked to was that they had an impressive understanding of how things in Morocco work on the ground mixed with an unyielding desire to build a great tour agency that gives back to Morocco and their clients. This might sound like a marketing shtick, but when you consider that Thomas was a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco and Fazia is just about to complete certification in sustainable development, well, it all just kind of fits together. Perhaps then it wasn’t so surprising when they decided to go all in and see if they could find a way to work with Anou.

Over the last several months, Thomas and Fazia took the time to meet with all of Anou’s artisan leaders in person to learn about the needs of the artisan community. Similarly, they explained to the artisan leaders the needs of their guides. Throughout it all, they tried to find a middle ground that could work, which included ideas like increasing pay for their guides (which is already well above normal market pay). These efforts all culminated in a meeting last month where Kenza Oulaghda of Association Tithrite (http://www.theanou.com/store/13) presented Anou and our proposal to the guides of Journey Beyond Travel. The guides were initially skeptical of the agreement but Kenza, with the support of Thomas, Fazia and Aicha (JBT’s cultural coordinator, who previously was a program assistant for Peace Corps for ten years), was able to win the support of all of JBT’s guides and drivers. Their approval of this agreement is truly unprecedented and we believe it will serve as a significant first step in ensuring that artisans can benefit from tourism in Morocco.

Journey Beyond Travel, Anou, Sustainable Tourism, Responsible Tourism

Kenza, bottom left, takes a picture with Thomas, Fazia and Journey Beyond Travel’s guides and drivers after their meeting.

As such, we’re incredibly excited to announce Journey Beyond Travel as the Anou community’s first official tourism partner. From here on out, we’ll be recommending any guests to our site who want to visit artisans within the Anou community to Journey Beyond Travel (Full Disclosure: Anou will receive no commission for anyone we forward to them). We are now working on developing a comprehensive guide that will enable JBTs guests to select which Anou artisans they’d like to visit as part of their tour in Morocco. And of course, 100% of the money from any purchase you make during your trip stays entirely with the artisan.

If you’re interested in learning more about the specifics of this partnership and Journey Beyond Travel, please reach out to us directly at hello@theanou.com or visit JourneyBeyondTravel.com.

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.

Remembering Fadma of Cooperative Taytmatine

Fadma Cooperative Taytmatine

Note: We were sad learn of the passing of an artisan in the Anou community and the people who knew her best asked if they could write a short note about her. We posted it below in English and in  Arabic. 

مجتمع أنو حزين حزنا عظيما بخبر الوفاة المفاجئة للسيدة فاضمة التويمي من تعاونية تايتماتين بسبب مضاعفات صحية. نتقدم بهده المناسبة الحزينة باحر التعازي لعائلة الفقيدةواصدقاءها و نساء التعاونية و كل من المه فراقها.لقد كانت فاضمة دوما الصدر الحنون و الصديق الصدوق، محبة للغير بشكل كبير، توثر الاخر على نفسها. لقد امضت حياتها مع كل من اخيها ووالدتها في منطقة توامة على سفوح جبال الاطلس.

 كانت  فاضمة، دات الاحتياجات الخاصة مند الولادة، في في صراع دائم مع المرض، فلم تستطع التمدرس او العمل خارج البيت. لم تتدمر يوما مما اصابها بل كانت دوما سعيدة باعمالها التقليدية. و لتساعد في اعالة عائلتها و دفع ثمن ادويتها كانت فاضمة تصنع و تبيع زرابي ودمى و بعض اعمال التطريز اليدوية.وكانت تستفيد من بعض التداريب المتوفرة في اماكن مجاورة إلى أن انضمت الى تعاونية محلية حيث تميزت بافكارها الخلاقة.

كانت حرفتها المفضلة حياكة الزرابي، تحيك وتصبغ الصوف المجزوز من الاغنام المحلية لتنسج اشكالا خاصة بها، وفي وقت فراغها كانت تساعد على تعليم الامهات و النساء الاخريات كيفية صنع الالعاب لمساندة التعليم الاولي في توامة.لطالما حلمت بان تسافر يوما الى الرباط.

 ان لله وان اليه لراجعون

The Anou community is sad to hear the sudden passing of Fadma Etouimi of Cooperative Taytmatine due to health complications. We want to send our condolences to her friends, family and the women of Cooperative Taytmatine. Her community describes her as a person who warmed the hearts of all who knew her and quick to smile and welcome new friendships. She loved people and was known to give what little she had to those she felt had a greater need. She lived with her mother and brother in the small rural village of Touama in the foothills of the High Atlas Mountains her entire life.

Born with a disability, she struggled with her health and was unable to attend school or work outside her home.  Fadma never complained about her life though, and found joy in making traditional crafts.  To help support her family and pay for her medicine, she made and sold carpets, dolls, and crocheted items.  She attended trainings offered nearby and joined a local cooperative where she was known to be full of creative ideas.

Her favorite craft was carpet weaving. She spun and dyed the wool sheered from local sheep and wove unique designs into her carpets.  In her spare time, she helped teach mothers and other women how to make toys to support preschool education in Touama.  She dreamed of one day traveling to Rabat.

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

 

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.

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!

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!

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.

 

Can Artisans Create Jobs?

When Cooperative Chorouk was first founded in 2009, it started off with 26 members. Over time, the number of members of the cooperative slowly began to decline due to a lack of sales. When Cooperative Chorouk was first joined Anou in late 2012, the cooperative was down to just seven members.

Yesterday, Cooperative Chorouk excitingly announced on Anou’s Instagram account (read our blog post about Anou’s Instagram account on our blog) that for the first time in their five year history they started to bring more women into their cooperative — twelve women to be exact! Rabha Akkaoui, the cooperative’s president, said that the coop made the decision to add more active members in order to keep up with their increased sales and income via Anou.

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Rabha teaches teaches the new members how the cooperative sells their work online.

Stories like this becoming more common within the Anou community. By becoming an Anou artisan leader, Rabha has traveled across Morocco teaching cooperatives and learning from them and invested what she learned into her own cooperative. As a result, the entire cooperative has improved its photography, pricing, product development and even how it delegates tasks. The cooperative used these skills to increase sales on their own, rather than expecting someone else to do it for them, and now they’re creating jobs in small village.

There is an immense amount of potential to create more jobs in the wider Anou community. We recently completed Anou’s first census, where we structured the census to reflect both active members (those who actively work with the group at least three times a week) and inactive members (those who were once a part of the cooperative, but no longer have work because a lack of sales). The number of active artisans in Anou’s community currently stands at 391 artisans, but if you include inactive members the number shoots up to 883 artisans. In short, if the Anou community increases its sales, the community size and number of jobs could pretty much double overnight.

While still anecdotal, this story shows the immense power of creating an ecosystem that is powered by artisans themselves. When skills are developed and kept within the artisan community, sales and jobs will follow. And with enough time, such stories will no longer by anecdotal.

 

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!

The Long Arc to Artisan Independence

 

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The Workshop of the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus.

The Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus has been one of highest selling artisan groups this past month. They recently shipped a massive custom order and just began work on another large custom order. The looms in their modest cinder block workshop are all booked solid for the next several weeks.

Recently, the cooperative looks as if it has always been successful but this could not be further from the truth. Fatima, the president, founded the cooperative in 2011 and then became the first artisan to be trained on Anou in the beginning of 2012, nearly two years ago. And since the day her first training on Anou ended, Fatima and the women of the cooperative have confronted an endless stream of challenges.

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Brahim, Anou’s artisan director, walks Fatima through Anou’s first prototype. April 2012.

Relentless Challenges

Immediately after Fatima completed her training on Anou, men in the village told her she could not sell her rugs online. The reasoning of the local men was not because they did not want photos of their wives online as one might initially believe. Instead, the men’s resistance was rooted in the fact that their control as resellers of the rugs would decline as the women learned how to do it on their own. Women, the men said, should focus on making the rugs and not selling them.

When Fatima and I discussed this problem years ago, she just whispered to me, “It doesn’t matter what the men want, I’ll go to the internet cafe to upload pictures of the rugs when they’re not looking.” After that moment, I knew she would eventually break through. But the cooperative’s problems kept mounting. Anou was plagued by problems and its development dragged on for nearly a year. The women continued to add products to the site even though the site broke every time they used it. Worse, the internet that was introduced in the valley in 2007 was unexpectedly cut by Morocco’s telecom company and the women were left to figure out new ways to get internet access.

When the site was officially launched last summer, their photography wasn’t very appealing, the designs of the rugs needed attention, and the pricing of their products was not consistent. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t sell anything in 2013. In the same year, the cooperative of over 20 women only sold 13 rugs at craft fairs and to tourists in their valley.

In early 2014, the cooperative finally made their first sale on Anou’s online store. The women passed on any income from the sale in order to collectively buy a new smartphone. With the continuous support of Anou’s artisan leaders, Fatima gradually improved her photography and posted the majority of her marketable products. But then their progress seemingly came to an abrupt halt when the president dropped their brand new phone into water.

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The women of the cooperative begin to get serious about their photography. November 2012.

Dead End?

After years of work with cooperatives and associations I’ve heard it all. Stories about cooperatives where their members each made 30 dirhams ($4 USD) each for a year’s worth of work are not uncommon. I still don’t fully understand the reasons why cooperatives and associations remain together after all that they endure.

In the case of Imelghaus, they were fortunate that they stuck together. Shortly after their phone was waterlogged, they sold several rugs on Anou. A consistent stream of custom order requests then followed. In the past month, they have sold over $1400 in rugs with more custom orders nearly complete.

Word of the cooperative’s success spread quickly. Once skeptical women in the village are now clamoring to join the cooperative. Ixf-n-Ghir, the village up the road, held a meeting this past week to discuss starting their own cooperative in an effort to model Fatima’s success.

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The women prepare the warp of a 8′ x 10′ custom order rug, their largest order yet. March 2014.

Where There Is No Inspiration

It is rare to see excitement surrounding artisan craft like it is in Imelghaus. I recently sat down with the Moroccan Minister of Handicraft’s Chief of Staff who reflected on his first six months on the job. He recalled being shocked after his first assignment where the Ministry implemented a fully funded artisan training program for 20 disadvantaged youth who had dropped out of school or couldn’t pass the baccalaureate — in other words, an all but guaranteed future of unemployment.

The Ministry’s training would provide the candidates with the skills necessary to get a job in the artisan sector as soon as they graduated from the program. Despite extensive marketing and the identification of 20 ideal participants, no one wanted to join. The candidates told the Chief of Staff they would prefer to be unemployed rather than be trained in traditional artisan skills. The Ministry couldn’t get one person to commit.

I can’t blame the candidates. There is not much dignity left in the artisan sector. Yes, being trained means you can carry on Morocco’s rich traditions, but you’re dismally paid and destined to be dependent on others to sell your work. In the best-case scenario, you live a life as an organization’s beneficiary.

 

The Arc Of Artisan Development

It is in this context that the infectious success of Cooperative Imelghaus is so encouraging. Women aren’t clamoring to join or form their own cooperative because the women in Imelghaus made some sales. Artisans unceremoniously sell products everyday. The difference is that Fatima and the cooperative passed through the long arc between dependency and independence. Their success in doing so is theirs alone.  When the women of Ixf-n-Ghir discussed starting their own cooperative, they cited the success of the Fatima, the artisan, as their inspiration. Anou, or some foreigner, wasn’t mentioned.

Admittedly, the success of Cooperative of Imelghaus is just an anecdotal story as to why Anou matters. Yet it is becoming increasingly clear that the long arc Imelghaus passed through is similar to what other successful cooperatives on Anou have dealt with as well. Many other cooperatives on Anou are just at the beginning of their journey.   But as more artisans breakthrough to independence, the artisan community will be strengthened by multiple examples of what is possible when artisans stand up on their own. Soon, such stories will no longer be anecdotal.

The Moroccan Ministry of Handicrafts estimates that there are 1.3 million production artisans in Morocco. Anou’s community represents just 300 of them. Anou has an immense amount of work in front of it if the community is going to encompass every artisan who wishes to become independent. With every purchase made on Anou’s online store, however, you can play a huge part in inspiring the next cooperative to follow in the steps of Fatima and brave the long arc towards independence.

Anou’s New Monthly Newsletter Just for Artisans

When we first launched Anou, we did what pretty much everyone does: set up a Facebook page. We primarily focus on Facebook because we believe it is one of the most effective mediums to tell our story and define what it is that Anou does (shameless plug: like our Facebook page!).

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A typical post on Anou’s Facebook page.

We also thought that it would be a primary driver of traffic and sales to our site. Well, we were wrong. It actually has a minimal effect on traffic and sales on our site. In February, Facebook only accounted for 7% of all traffic to Anou’s online store and directly contributed to none of its sales.

Yet we’ve continued to invest time into Facebook because it has evolved into an unexpectedly powerful tool for building the artisan community in Morocco. Our posts regularly feature photos and small stories about what Anou’s artisans and artisan leaders are up to. And as a result, artisans are eager to be featured and Anou’s artisan leadership gains credibility when they’re tagged into photos of a recent training they implemented — even though all the posts have been written in English.

The problem is that this powerful tool reaches a small fraction of artisans on Anou because the vast majority of artisans don’t have consistent access to internet, much less a Facebook account. Also, the Facebook page is managed by myself, not the artisans. As we look to improve artisan engagement on Anou, we thought why not take what makes Facebook a powerful tool and apply it to a medium that all artisans on Anou can access and manage?

As a result, we came up with the idea of developing the first edition of Anou’s monthly

Rabha writes a couple of sentences about last week's Start up Your Life event for Anou's newsletter.

Rabha of Cooperative Chorouk writes a quick summary next to images from last week’s Start up Your Life event for Anou’s newsletter.

newsletter made for and by artisans. This past weekend, artisans Rabha and Latifa spent a day working with Anou’s other artisan leaders to develop the content for the newsletter. The content they developed reflects what makes Facebook such a great tool all while providing artisans with much needed information and resources to grow their businesses. The seven page newsletter includes the following content presented on simple photocopied pages:

1 – Winner of the photo of the month (voted by Anou’s artisan leadership).

2 – Winner of the product of the month (voted by Anou’s artisan leadership).

3 – The top three most visited products on Anou’s online store.

4 – An overview the number of visitors on Anou during the past month.

5 – An review of February’s important events, such as Brahim and Younis’ participation in the New Work Lab’s Pitch Lab.

6 – A small editorial discussing the benefits of buying a smart phone and how to get in touch with Anou’s artisan team to buy one.

Pages from Anou's artisans newsletter.

Pages from the first edition of Anou’s artisans newsletter.

The contents are basic, but powerful. And most importantly, keeping in line with Anou’s vision, it was entirely made by the artisans who will benefit from it. After the newsletter was finalized, Rabha and Latifa printed copies of the newsletter and sent them out to each artisan, association and cooperative on Anou.

Immediately after the newsletters were sent, Anou artisans already began sending in ideas of topics they wanted to write and discuss in the next newsletter. The newsletter has an immense amount of potential and we’re excited to see where Anou’s artisan leadership develops it.

We’re kicking ourselves that it has taken us this long to develop this idea. We tend to forget that even though Anou heavily focuses on solving the greatest challenges artisans face via technology, the most effective solutions are the ones that involve no technology at all!

Week One of Artisan Management of Anou

Last week we brought together the leaders of Anou’s artisan community for four days in order to prepare them to take over operations of the Anou store on January 16th (read more about Anou’s transition to becoming fully artisan led). As of tomorrow, the leaders will have taken the reigns of the site for one week and there have been no major issues so far. Things are looking bright for the rest of the month!

The smooth week we’ve experienced can easily be traced back to all the topics we covered during our four day training. Below are a few of our favorite pictures from the training. If you want to see all the pictures, check out the album on Anou’s Facebook page.

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Rabha, Kenza, Brahim, Mustaph Chaouai and Tom eat lunch when everyone arrives in Figuig after a long journey from their villages.

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The training kicked off with a afternoon walk out to the Algeria – Morocco border.

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In order to improve the overall packaging on the Anou store, Anou’s team organizes an egg drop contest. The team member who uses the least amount of money to buy packaging to protect an egg from a two story drop wins!

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Four out of the five eggs dropped survive the fall. Not bad!

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Mustapha’s egg survived!

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After the egg drop contest, Brahim begins to walk through everyone on the new dashboard. The tools on the dashboard enable the team to do things like review new products added to the Anou store, send payments and track existing orders, among other features.

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Brahim teaches Rabha how to send payments to artisans using the new dashboard.

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From left to right, Kenza, Rabha, Brahim and Mustapha interview members of Association Assala to begin building the association’s online store on Anou.

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This is what an effective training looks like. Every member of Association Assala gets a chance to informally ask questions with Anou’s team before the training begins.

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Brahim delegates the responsibility for the training to each member of the Anou team.

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Rabha trains each member of the association basic photography skills.

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Mustapha gathers any relevant information about the products and materials the association uses.

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While Mustapha and Rabha work with the association, Kenza and Brahim set up the association’s online account on their mobile phones.

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After a short while, the association begins to take some stunning photographs of their products.

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Anou’s team spends the remaining time in Figuig finishing up the association’s account and reviewing any aspects of Anou they don’t fully understand. By the end of the training, Anou’s team was ready to take over the management of Anou!

This is just a quick glimpse into the preparation of Anou’s team to take over the site. To learn more about this training, take a look at our Facebook album! 

Sneak Peak: Tools For Anou’s Community Leadership

As you might of read, we’re incredibly excited to see how Anou’s artisan community leadership manages all aspects of Anou’s online store for a period of 30 days starting next week. The key to their success will depend on the tools they have at their disposal and the ease in which they can use them.

Keeping in mind that Anou’s community leadership consists of artisans who not that long ago were not computer proficient, we had to rethink the administrative tools that Tom and I use to manage the Anou store. Our previous administrative page got the job done for us but that was about it:

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The community leadership rarely used this page, with the exception of Brahim. When a trainer needed to add an artisan account on Anou, for example, they would simply call me up. After a couple of clicks on my part I would set up the account and the  trainer would go on his or her way and complete it.

In redesigning the administrative page, we wanted to ensure that community leaders could complete all critical aspects managing the Anou store. With this in mind, we went back to the drawing board to create what is becoming Anou’s classic design: a clean, minimalist page, peppered with single colored, evenly spaced buttons:

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All the buttons on the administrative page are organized by color. Blue buttons are used to review information (e.g. profiles for artisans or currently posted products), green buttons are used to create something new (e.g. a new artisan account), gold is to review anything related to orders, and purple buttons are research and insights (e.g. review expenditures/revenue). To create a new account an artisan trainer only has to make a decision between two buttons, can you guess which one it is?

Of all the tools the artisan team has access to, this one is my favorite:

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Any idea what might it be used for? (hint: it’s purple!) This button enables any community leader to review a series of visual graphs that represent important stats for Anou: quantity of products added/sold, revenue, profit and expenditures, to name a few. In one such graph displayed below, blue represents the profit Anou generated in a given month compared with the expenditures of Anou, displayed in red:

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This information is vital for the success of Anou’s community. First off, it enables the community leadership to make more informed decisions based on Anou’s financial health. For example, leaders can determine how many new artisans they can afford to train in the next month, or if there is a windfall, they can elect to organize trainings that focus on design, quality, or other topics critical for the success of artisans in Morocco. It is the artisan’s money, after all.

The tools that the community leadership now has access to creates an unprecedented level of access and transparency. This enables Anou to successfully grow into a cohesive community of artisans capable of transforming how their market works.  The more artisans that can be involved in Anou’s operations, the more artisans understand how Anou works and the vision it represents.

Starting next week, we’ll begin putting these tools to the test!

Developing Anou’s Vision for 2014

2013 was a huge year for Anou. At the beginning of last year, our vision for what Anou would become began to coalesce. By August, the vibrant community of artisans that defines Anou finally started to take shape. In November, Anou and the artisan community began to strain as sales tripled from the proceeding month. And, well, in December we had a bit of a surprise.

We initially thought that sales had unexpectedly declined in December. Compared to November, we weren’t putting out as many fires or providing as much support to Anou’s artisan team as the artisan community fulfilled their orders. In some ways it started to feel a bit quiet. But when we ran the numbers at the end of the month, Anou’s community had actually set another record in sales.

December was a telling sign of just how much Anou’s community has grown and matured over the past year. Most importantly the month demonstrated that Anou can be fully artisan run and be sustained independently. No longer do we have to write that artisan independence is a future we are creating because it is now a reality.

In the context of this success, many challenges loom for Anou both large and small. On the small side, the photography artisans post on the Anou store needs improvement; attention to detail with packaging can be insufficient at times; some orders have taken too long to ship; and artisan profiles sometimes lack the depth customers on the Anou store would like to see. However, we believe these challenges will slowly resolve themselves as Anou’s artisan team grows and gains more experience building Anou.

Anou’s larger challenges can be defined with one question: While Anou can now sustain itself independently, can it grow, adapt and thrive independently? The only way this is possible is with vision. More so than money or talent, vision is the scarcest resource of any successful organization.  Can Anou’s artisan team, with some members who lack even an elementary education, develop the vision required for Anou’s long-term success?

We believe that all visions are rooted in the experience of confronting challenges. That is why on January 14th, Anou’s artisan team will take over the full responsibility of managing Anou for a period of 30 days. To get ready, we’ll be bringing our entire artisan team together in Figuig for four days next week to prepare them.

During this experience, Tom, Anou’s technical director, will continue to push forward features and I will continue to manage customer relations, but only at the request of the artisan team. For Anou’s long-term success, the artisan team will also be identifying pain points to refine Anou’s operations. And most importantly, Anou’s artisan team will confront the challenge of managing Anou head on in order to begin developing the vision necessary to take Morocco’s artisan community into 2014 and beyond.

We can’t wait to see what Anou’s artisan team will do.

Creating Transparency In An Environment That Is Anything But

Rabha, an Anou artisan trainer, paid a visit to one of the cooperatives on Anou last week. Her goal was to show the cooperative Anou’s new desktop and mobile platforms. Though she was told all the women would be ready, only half the cooperative was present when she arrived.

Little did Rabha know that shortly after she scheduled her meeting the week before, the members of the cooperative had a huge argument. Apparently, a faction within the cooperative believed that the sales at a recent craft fair didn’t match up with the actual amount of product sold. Two members, tired of feeling that they were being shortchanged, quit working at the cooperative. The remaining members fought over who would attend the next craft fair. They eventually compromised and decided that two different members would attend the craft fair each day – even though cost of such a decision would certainly drain any profits the cooperative made.

If there is anything I’ve learned after several years of working in Morocco it is that a lack of transparency begets rumors and frustration, which then evolves into a distrust that slowly erodes the effectiveness of institutions in Morocco. Small cooperatives, such as the one described above, are not immune to this. Almost every cooperative or association we meet possesses huge amounts of potential, but the members’ distrust in each other always holds the group back.

This is the side of fair-trade that is overlooked. While fair-trade principles stress transparency, they rarely consider the transparency within the groups that fair-trade organizations works with. This is simply because many organizations do not work with artisans closely enough to know what is happening on an individual level. Organizations can transfer over the correct amount of money but after that, there isn’t much an organization can do in terms of transparency. How certain is the organization that their wire transfer will go to all the members of a group, and not just the president? Worse, how can they be sure their wire transfer didn’t just blow up a cooperative already paralyzed with distrust? Existing models of fair trade can’t answer these questions – it isn’t financially feasible for organizations to follow up with such detail.

At Anou, we’ve built a system that creates transparency rather than treating it as just another buzzword. When an item is purchased on Anou and shipped, the artisans’ payment is sent immediately into their local bank account. Anou sends a text message to the artisan group president or confirming the amount that has been deposited, along with the transfer reference number. We also send an e-mail and MMS with a copy of the transfer receipt. If the payment amount in the text is different than what is posted in the artisan’s account, we tell the artisans to call us directly so we can investigate the discrepancy.

However, we quickly realized this wasn’t enough, as it still didn’t address the transparency within the association or cooperative itself. When groups are fighting, they don’t post items on Anou, they neglect the shipment of products, or worse, they stop making products and close up shop.

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Every artisan that is tagged into creating an item will now be notified not only of when their product sells, but also the price.

This past week, we released a new tool that will finally address this. Now when an item sells, not only will the cooperative or association president be notified of the item that sold, but so will any artisan that helped contribute to making the item. In the text message sent to a contributing artisan, it will show the product ID number as well as the price that the item sold for. This way, every member that contributed to a product will know exactly how much it sold for. In line with Mohammed Yunis’ model of micro-finance, artisans will be empowered to hold each other accountable in a space of full transparency.

To bolster the effectiveness of this, Anou will periodically call up artisans to ensure that they were paid the amount that they were owed. If we notice a problem, we can simply decide to suspend an artisan’s account on Anou until the issue is resolved.

At the end of Rabha’s meeting with the fractured cooperative, Rabha reviewed this new exciting tool that would help create transparency within the group. The cooperative’s members were incredibly excited about the idea and couldn’t wait to use it. The most excited member? The embattled president who felt that with Anou she would be able to gain the full trust of her team and reach the cooperative’s full potential.