April’s Featured Artisan Group!

IMG_0026

The members of Association Nahda pose with a newly woven boucherouite rug in front of their new workshop.

We’re excited to announce our first ever featured artisan group: Association Nahda. The weavers of Association Nahda were one of the earliest groups to join the Anou community and have since become one of its biggest, most successful groups. Throughout the next couple of weeks, we will be sharing behind-the-scene looks and stories about the association, its members, and the impact they are all having on their local community of Souq El Hed.

During this time, all of our supporters will be offered a 10% discount off all of Association Nahda’s listed products and custom orders. Find something you like or want to have made by Association Nahda? Just contact us at hello@theanou.com for the discount code!

 

 

The Anou Community Now Ships With DHL Express!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are you a retailer? Want to support the artisan community in Morocco?

Through Anou’s online store, you can expand your business all while making a real impact in the lives of artisans across Morocco. Learn more about the exclusive benefits of becoming an Anou retail partner.

Exclusive Benefits of Becoming an Anou Retail Partner

Bundled Shipments Multiple orders from the same association/cooperative can be bundled into one shipment to reduce the listed Anou price anywhere from 9-60%. Anou’s artisan leaders will provide added support for your orders to ensure that you get the cheapest (or fastest) shipping option for you!

 White Labeling Create added value for your products by white labeling all of Anou’s information and pictures for each product on your own marketing collateral.

Invoicing Select the products you want to purchase and pay via a single digital invoice.

Order Support Anou’s artisan team can provide added support throughout the custom order process or larger orders for added peace of mind.

 Meet Artisans In Person If you have plans to travel to Morocco, Anou’s artisan team can help arrange your next visit and provide you with on the ground support.

Exclusive Shipping Rates Anou has been able to negotiate reduced shipping costs via DHL and we pass these savings on to you!

Alternative Payment Options You can pay via multiple payment options, even via Transferwise (www.transferwise.com), which can reduce the listed price substantially.

Why Source Products Through Anou?

 Artisan Verification Nobody knows artisans better than artisans themselves. Artisan leaders in Anou’s community travel to the village or workshop of each artisan on Anou to ensure that they are the ones who make the products they sell. Learn More.

Know Who Made It Every product purchased on Anou is tagged with information about the artisan who made it. You can now confidently tell your customers exactly where a product came from and the story behind it.

Transparency Through Anou’s innovative technology, your payment will go directly to the artisan who made it and not the hands of middlemen or other organizations. Learn More.

Artisan Owned  Anou is a registered cooperative in Morocco whose board is entirely comprised of top performing artisans that use Anou. All decisions regarding Anou are made by the artisan board and all profit (which comes from a ~6% fee from each sale) is reinvested into the artisan community.

Artisan Managed  All the operations of Anou, with the exception of customer service, is handled by the artisans themselves. From trainings, to follow up visits, to troubleshooting, stand out artisans in the Anou community fulfill all the core operations of the site. This provides artisans with the opportunity to gain advance skills and work outside of their cooperative, which they can reinvest back into their local communities. Learn more. 

 

Frequently Asked Questions

Does TheAnou.com offer wholesale pricing? TheAnou.com itself does not offer wholesale pricing because we have no control over the prices artisans set for their products.  However, some artisans have provided discounts to customers buying in bulk. If you see an item that you would like to purchase in bulk, submit a custom order request and select the quantity that you want (or if you have something more specific in mind, e-mail us at Hello@theanou.com). The artisans will submit their price for the order, which may or may not include a discount.  TheAnou.com will calculate the estimated shipping cost for your request and combine it with the artisan’s price. Note that bundled shipping products can make items cheaper than a wholesale discount.

I would like to purchase from artisans I know, but they do not use TheAnou.com. Can the artisans I know join the Anou community? Of course! As a retailer, you should encourage any artisans not within the community to join so they can benefit from being a part of the Anou community and so you can be assured that your money is going to the artisans transparently.

There are three requirements to join the community and sell on Anou’s online store. First, the artisans must make the products they sell. Second, they must be motivated to sell their work independently.  Three, they must agree to use TheAnou.com’s transparency tools. If they meet these requirements, all they have to do is reach out to an Anou artisan leader and let them know they are interested. They will then be added to the artisan leaders’ training list.

Does the Anou Community Ship To Australia?

Australia, Shipping to Australia, Shipping Costs to Australia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why We Don’t Provide Artisan Contact Information

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

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

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

Anou Gift Cards!

Ever wanted to buy something from Anou for your friend’s wedding but had a hard time trying to figure out what might fit perfectly in their new home? Well, worry no longer, you can now buy a gift card for them on Anou! Even if your friend can’t find the perfect item, he or she can have an artisan custom make something just for them!

Here’s how it works:

1 – E-mail us at hello@theanou.com and let us know that you’d like a gift card.

2 – You can pick any amount that you want to give. For example, a $1.47 gift card if your friend gifted you a paper towel rack that you didn’t even want for your wedding. Or a $10,000 gift card if you know your friend has always dreamed of upholstering his or her new house entirely with Moroccan rugs.

3 – We’ll e-mail you a printable PDF (see below) that you can print. For an extra $2 USD, we’ll print the gift card for you and have it sent from Morocco straight to your friend’s home.

4 – Don’t worry, there are no annoying rules like expiration dates. Your friend can wait as long as they want before they make their purchase.

If you have any questions, just let us know at hello@theanou.com and we’d be happy to help. So spare your newly married friends yet another toaster or dishwasher and give a gift that matters. What are you waiting for?

Select from one of many photos of your favorite associations or cooperatives and we'll put it on the front of the gift card.

Select from one of many photos of your favorite associations or cooperatives and we’ll put it on the front of your gift card.

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 01.43.08

The backside provides instructions for how to redeem the gift card. These images can be provided in PDF for or be sent directly to an address you choose!

 

 

There Used to be Candles on Anou

Earlier this year, an Anou artisan leader trained a group of candle makers on Anou. We were excited to bring an immensely popular request online for the very first time. The group posted a couple of candles online during their initial training and after a month or so they made their first sale.

A couple of days later, the candlemakers had not confirmed the order via text. The leaders reached out, but the president of the candle group said there were no problems and that they’d ship the candle soon. Two weeks later, the candle still hadn’t been shipped nor confirmed.

The leaders grew concerned because if an artisan does not fulfill their product, it doesn’t just reflect poorly on the candlemakers themselves, but on the wider artisan community. The leaders increased the pressure on the group, even suggesting that a leader would travel out to their town to send it for them if it wasn’t sent soon.

Eventually, the president reached out and said they wouldn’t send the candle because business wasn’t very strong. All the president had to do was send the order and they would receive their payment, and likely, they would have received more orders from the same customer. Orders, it seemed, was exactly what they needed. The artisan leaders quickly concluded that the president wasn’t motivated. Yet when situations occur that don’t exactly add up, it is a huge red flag that something behind the scenes is wrong.

The Disintegration of an Artisan Business

The leaders kept pushing and eventually the president shipped the order. Several weeks later, a leader received a call from the president saying she no longer wanted to sell on Anou. Instead, she just wanted to focus on selling to tourists and at craft fairs. We were concerned: Did Anou do something wrong? Was there any confusion about how Anou works?

The leaders called a few of the other members to find out what happened. The leaders quickly learned that all the members had quit the group. When the item sold on Anou, the women knew the final selling price for the first time because Anou sends out SMS messages with the final selling price to each person who made the product. Prior, the president simply sold directly to tourists and at craft fairs and had no incentive to tell the women the final selling price.

The president hesitated in sending the candle that sold on Anou because she’d have to pay them now knowing that the rest of the women actually knew the final selling price on Anou. According to the women, prior to Anou they had always been paid a much lower amount than the price now listed on Anou. Yet even after the women were made aware of the actual selling price on Anou, the president still paid them the lower amount that she had always paid them. Feeling cheated on top of a whole host of other problems, they all quit in protest. As of today, the candle group no longer exists and their account has been shut down.

The Need for Transparency

The story of the candle group illuminates the environment that the vast majority of artisans operate in. Many artisans, if they belong to an association or cooperative, are not even aware of what their own group sells their products for, much less the price it is resold for by a reseller. Sometimes, artisans don’t want to even know because it can complicate the fragile operations of the group. Othertimes, artisans say they simply don’t care to know the price. All this combined with low literacy levels goes to show just how easy it is for artisans to be taken advantage all while creating incredibly unstable working environments.

The importance of transparency, as we’ve written numerous times before, is key for the long-term success of Morocco’s artisan community. This is why we’ve prioritized transparency through tools such as our innovative text messaging system to ensure that every member knows what price their work sold for. When each artisan knows the price, they themselves can hold everyone accountable to ensure that they are paid what they agreed to as a group. This tool has been so effective that many presidents of artisan groups decline to work with Anou because it will likely end their position of power and personal profit. It is why the president of the candle group would rather keep selling at craft fairs, to tourists, fair-trade shops, or wherever else that requires little to no transparency within the group.

Is there ever too much transparency?

Despite the success of this tool, it remains imperfect. For example, does every artisan that receives a text message with the price their product sold for understand what the text message means? Did the text even go to the phone they own? We admittedly haven’t followed up on this after every sale. If we did, we are certain we’d uncover some non transparent practices. In fact, there are two groups currently on the site that we suspect are not paying all their members transparently. Unfortunately, we haven’t gathered enough evidence to intervene and shut down their accounts. The question for us is how far should we go to ensure complete transparency? If we followed up every sale or tightened our transparency tools, would we blow up more groups? Do artisans whose group disintegrates end up worse off as a result of transparency?

As you might have guessed, we are huge advocates of complete transparency. There is much, much more we can do to ensure full transparency of every sale, but we have to act carefully.  Ultimately, our ability to create transparency can only go only as far as the artisans’ customers desire it. Even the most non-transparent groups in Morocco would become more transparent if it resulted in more sales. As long as there are easy ways to sell work with little to no accountability, Anou’s impact across Morocco will be limited. And unfortunately, groups like the candle makers prior to Anou will continue to operate with very little incentive to change.

Envie d’acheter d’Anou lorsque vous êtes au Maroc? (French)

La question qui revient souvent à chaque fois que quelqu’un découvre Anou est, “Est-il possible d’acheter des produits du site lorsqu’on est au Maroc?”. Malheureusement notre réponse a toujours été non. Mais cela va changer à partir d’aujourd’hui! Vous pouvez désormais faire vos achats sur Anou même lorsque vous vous trouvez au Maroc.

Tout ce que vous avez à faire est de cliquer sur n’importe quel produit et vous pouvez avoir accès au prix en dollar incluant les frais de livraison aux Etats-unis et en Europe AINSI QUE le prix en Dirhams Marocains incluant les frais de livraison au Maroc. Si vous souhaitez acheter un produit, il vous suffira de nous envoyer un e-mail, et nous vous expliquerons les options de réglement. Ensuite les artisans n’auront plus qu’à vous faire livrer votre achat à votre adresse Marocaine.

Tout ce que vous avez à faire est de cliquer sur n’importe quel produit et vous pouvez avoir accès au prix en dollar incluant les frais de livraison aux Etats-unis et en Europe AINSI QUE le prix en Dirhams Marocains incluant les frais de livraison au Maroc.

Tout ce que vous avez à faire est de cliquer sur n’importe quel produit et vous pouvez avoir accès au prix en dollar incluant les frais de livraison aux Etats-unis et en Europe AINSI QUE le prix en Dirhams Marocains incluant les frais de livraison au Maroc.

La première est qu’il existe une forte demande pour les produits marocains au sein des communautés d’expatriés au Maroc. Et même si ces expatriés ont accès aux médinas, ils ont toujours exprimé leur désire d’acheter au travers d’Anou afin de s’assurer que leur argent est transmit aux artisans de façon directe et transparente.

Deuxièment, cela permet de renforcer le rapport de confiance parmi les clients. Lorsque des acheteurs voient que les prix affichés sur Anou sont diférents de ceux qu’on retrouve en médina, ils peuvent supposer qu’Anou se fait une marge sur le prix de base tandis qu’en réalité il ne s’agit là que du prix incluant les frais de livraison aux Etats-Unis et en Europe. Avec cette nouvelle option, tout le monde pourra avoir accès au prix d’achat au Maroc et à l’étranger, ce qui représente une information essentielle pour la transparence d’Anou.

Enfin, la dernière raison est que même si la demande à l’international continue à augmenter, le marché Marocain reste le marché le plus demandeur, en particulier la zone Casablanca-Rabat. Même si cela pourrait en surprendre plus d’un, la demande des produits artisanaux au Maroc ne cesse d’augmenter. Et de plus en plus de marocains investissent dans la préservation de leur patrimoine culturel et leurs produits artisanaux. Il ne sera donc pas surprenant pour Anou de voir ses artisans commencer à livrer une grande partie de leurs ventes au sein même du territoire Marocain et ce dans les 5 à 10 années à venir. Et celà n’est pas vraiment extraordinaire lorsque l’on sait que seul 8% des ventes des artisans sont déstinées à l’export.

24 heures seulement après la mise en ligne de cette nouvelle option pour la livraison au Maroc, une coopérative a déjà réalisé sa première vente. Donc si vous êtes au Maroc et que vous souhaitez soutenir directement les artisans, n’attendez plus!

Living in Morocco and Want to Buy From Anou’s Community? Now You Can!

A question that always comes up when we present Anou is, “Can people within Morocco buy from the site?” Unfortunately, our answer has always been no. But starting today, we’ve changed this. You can now purchase products from the Anou community from within Morocco!

All you have to do is is click on any product page and you will now see the price in US Dollars with shipping to the US and Europe AND the price in Moroccan Dirhams with shipping within Morocco. If you want to purchase a product, just send us an e-mail at hello@theanou.com (English, French, or Arabic), we’ll explain the options of payment, and then the artisan will send your order directly to your address in Morocco.

You can now have products shipped within Morocco! Now all product pages display prices in USD with shipping to the US/Europe AND prices in Moroccan Dirham with shipping costs within Morocco.

You can now have products shipped within Morocco! Now all product pages display prices in USD with shipping to the US/Europe AND prices in Moroccan Dirham with shipping costs within Morocco.

This is an exciting and necessary change for Anou for many reasons.

One reason is because demand for Moroccan products is highest amongst the expat community. And while expats have access to local medinas, they’ve continually expressed to us the desire to buy through Anou so they could know their money was going straight to the artisan in a transparent manner.

A second reason is that it helps Anou create more trust amongst its customers. When customers see prices on Anou that are much more expensive than in the medina, they incorrectly assume it is Anou marking up the prices rather than the fact that Anou’s prices include shipping to the U.S. and Europe. With this feature, all customers will know just how much it would cost to buy in Morocco and abroad — an important piece of information that is essential for Anou’s transparency.

The third reason is that while we expect to see continued sales from international markets, we believe that the market with the biggest potential is the Moroccan market. While this might surprise some, the demand for artisanal products is growing in Morocco. As more and more Moroccans work to promote the preservation of their valuable culture, the pendulum is beginning to swing back. As a result, we expect that Anou’s artisans will begin to ship the majority of their online sales via Anou to customers in Morocco within 5 to 10 years. If you find this unbelievable, then you might be also surprised to learn that the Moroccan Ministry of Handicraft cites that as of today only 8% of all Moroccan artisan sales are exports.

While we’ve only released this feature in the past 24 hours, a cooperative has already made a sale to Marrakech. So if you’re in Morocco and you want to support artisans directly, what are you waiting for?

 

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:

 Image

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:

 Image

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:

Image

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:

Image

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!

Making Custom Orders Work For You And Artisans

Custom orders are quickly becoming an important part of how Anou is evolving. In one of our recent newsletters (What? You don’t know about it? You can sign up on our About Page!), we noted that a significant amount of sales on the Anou store during the month of October came from custom orders.

The most common custom orders were requests to change a product’s size and the second most common were requests for multiples of the same product. The third, but less frequent custom orders, were requests to change the colors of the product.

Artisans and Anou Team leaders at Anou have done a great job fulfilling custom orders but we haven’t been flawless. One challenge has been the use of estimates. When we receive a custom order request, we confirm the order with the artisan who then provides the customer with an expected completion date and quote for the work. So far, artisans have needed an average of 25%-50% more time than their original estimate. In addition to this, the estimated price given by the artisan has increased on two of the orders for various reasons. The artisan covered the difference on one and a customer gladly covered the difference on the other. Fortunately, we’ve have had nothing but incredibly gracious customers that have given us the space to work out these issues.

These experiences have given us a tremendous insight into the patterns and trends of artisan custom orders. Our goal with this information is to create a robust tool that will enable customers to make custom orders directly from the artisans themselves with out the use of language. While we now have a solid idea of how this will be designed, we’re still trying to learn as much as possible about the entire process so we can create a platform that enhances artisan businesses, all while creating a great shopping experience for customers on the Anou store.

Image

Every product page now features a button so customers can request custom changes to existing items and previously made items.

Today, we’ve started to build this platform. Now on all the product pages there are small “Request Custom Change” blue button beneath the purchase button. With this button, all a customer has to do is leave their e-mail and the changes they would like to make (e.g. dimensions, color, quantity) and we will follow up with them to confirm their request.

Since we’ve also received multiple requests for previously made items, artisan store pages now display all previously made products below their currently listed products. On the pages of previously made products customers will also find the “Request Custom Change” button where they can have the previously made item remade or customized.

We will continue to monitor how customers are using these tools and we’ll be continually tweaking them based on what we learn. So give it a try and if you have any questions or comments about any of this, send us an e-mail at hello@theanou.com.

The Perils and Promise of Artisan Custom Orders

After spending a lot of time with many artisan groups, we’ve quickly learned that their businesses heavily revolve around custom orders. It is no surprise then that many artisans have asked if they could receive custom orders via Anou, rather than just posting the items they have already made.

We have considered custom orders since the beginning of Anou but we have proceeded cautiously. There are the readily apparent challenges such as communication barriers and amount of hours that goes into detailing how an item should be made. But there are also  subtler, more dangerous challenges, namely the fact that over specific custom orders can rob artisans of their culture and creativity.

To move forward, we knew we needed to determine two things. First, are custom orders a net-benefit for artisans in the long run? And second, is it possible to empower rural, even illiterate artisans to fulfill these orders independently?

Over the past several months we’ve immersed ourselves in the custom order process. We’ve talked with artisans whose businesses depend on custom orders and discussed with them their experiences, both good and bad, to learn more about the process. In addition to this, even though it hasn’t been publicized, we’ve been fulfilling custom orders via Etsy and our chat box on TheAnou.com. Needless to say, we’ve learned a lot.

The first thing we learned is that the vast majority of artisans fulfill custom orders based off products they already have. Meaning, someone will walk into an artisan shop and ask an artisan to make the same product, just in a different size or color. In fact, all the custom orders we have fulfilled on Anou follow this pattern. Nothing demonstrates the impact such sales can have on artisans more than the fact that approximately 50% of our revenue this month so far have come from this type of custom order.

The second thing we’ve learned is that a small fraction of custom orders take up most of an artisan’s time. This small fraction of orders are the dangerous orders. Customers write in or request incredibly specific designs. Tens of e-mails go back and forth detailing just how the customer wants it. By the time an artisan finishes a product, it may look Moroccan, but the artisan had little to no creative input in the process. Artisans may make money from these transactions, but at the cost that artisans stop making their own products and wait for others to tell them what to make. In essence, they become labor where the design, and ultimately the value, of the product stay in the hands of someone else.

If we’re truly serious about creating a thriving artisan community, rather than one that just gets by on the good will of others, we need to create a way that illiterate artisans can fulfill custom orders while fostering their innate creative talents.

We’re still manually testing custom orders, but we have consolidated how our platform will work based on the things we’ve learned. Soon, we’ll release a feature that will enable customers to request a custom order of a product an artisan has posted for sale, or one that they have sold before. From there, the customer will be able to request quantities more than one, modify the dimensions of the product, and select a color palette that artisan can draw from as they create the product. This information will be sent to the artisan in a language free format where they can accept the order (if they have the time and material available) and then reply with a price and estimated time to complete. If the customer accepts, they will then pay the price up front. From there, the artisan will be able to provide the customer with pictures of the product as it is being made in real-time. Excitingly, we’ll be able to create this process without the use of any language so even illiterate artisans can utilize it.

Image

Fatima Haddu of Cooperative Chorouk (http://www.theanou.com/store/3) takes a picture of a custom order at the halfway mark.

Such a system will not just preserve the artisans artistic creativity, but expand it by providing artisans with additional insights into what the current trends are in the global marketplace. And most importantly, artisans will be able to retain the value created by their designs and products.

We’re incredibly excited about this feature and we’ll be sure to announce here when it is ready to go.  In the meantime, please reach out if you have thoughts that you would like to contribute to Anou’s future custom order process. And if you would like something custom made, reach out to us at hello@theanou.com. We’ll look forward to hearing from you!

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.

Image

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.

Anou and Ebay: Making Markets Work For Artisans

Beni Ourain rugs are one of the post popular Moroccan artisan products. The rugs effortlessly blend traditional Moroccan design with a timeless contemporary feel. The rugs have been featured in numerous design magazines including Vogue and as a result, Beni Ourains can command incredibly high prices.

A quick search for Beni Ourain rugs on Ebay and Anou will quickly show the disparity between artisan and reseller prices. Take the following rug posted by Association Nahda for example. It is a large, amazing Beni Ourain style rug that was listed for sale at $320, including shipping:

Image

Now, take a look at the recently sold Beni Ourain rugs on Ebay. The rugs are selling anywhere between $500-$2000 dollars.

The work that goes into making a Beni Ourain style rug is in some ways indescribable: it takes multiple weavers weeks of threading wool and tying each individual pile knot to create these highly sought after rugs. Yet the monetary value created by these rugs doesn’t stay in the hands of artisans, it stays in the hands of anonymous resellers on Ebay.

But that’s how a free market works, right?

At Anou, we’re not a charity, and we’re not looking for sympathy for the weavers who get paid poor wages. Instead, we simply train weavers in the skills they need and equip them with the tools so that the market place works for them rather than against them.

After being trained by Anou’s artisan trainers, members of Association Nahda worked tirelessly to take great product shots of their Beni Ourain style rug. Once they received high enough ratings on Anou from shoppers, the rug was automatically posted it on to Ebay. Since we knew it was undervalued, the listing was created as an auction with the starting bid of $360 (Nahda’s Anou price + Ebay/Paypal Fees).

Within a couple of days, it sold for $480 dollars. Earlier tonight, the text message that Anou sends out notifying the artisan of the sale was accompanied with a phone call from Brahim, Anou’s director. Brahim told the association, “Yes, your rug sold, but it actually sold for $120 more than what you listed it for. Surprise!”

Image

$120 is 1,008 Moroccan Dirham, or approximately half the average month’s wage for the average Moroccan (or 25,200 Ryal for all you Morocco PCVs counting in units of 20 out there).

With Anou, the artisans got a huge pay increase, and the buyer is ecstatic that they were finally able to buy a Moroccan Beni Ourain style rug directly from the weavers who made it.

Because that’s how a free market should work, right?

Building Up the Photography Skills of Artisans on Anou

Taking great pictures is hard, isn’t it? There are numerous variables you have to contend with to pull off the right shot: lighting, focus, background, angle, the list goes on. This is all a little overwhelming, particularly if you’re a rural artisan who has never used a camera before.

Despite this, we believe that remote artisans can learn how to take stunning pictures if given right tools and guidelines to follow. So how do we bridge the gap between the initial photography skills of Anou’s artisans and the pictures that will help their items sell? By providing simple photography trainings and continuous feedback.

During the process of bringing a new artisan online, an Anou Trainer will teach the artisan basic photography skills that familiarizes the artisans with the basics of a camera and how to take a picture. This focuses on basics of every picture such as centering objects and making sure objects aren’t cut off in the view finder.

Once they start feeling comfortable with the camera (usually right around when they figure out the difference between the subtle focus button and the full take-a-picture button), the Anou Trainer will start to slowly immerse the artisans into the details that make up a requirements for product pictures.

some_text

Annemarie, RPCV, teaches Fatima Haddu how to take her very first picture.

Add MediaWhat we’ve learned from teaching many Moroccan artisans is that the quickest way to start teaching such a complicated skill is to create basic, yet strict, guidelines that apply in every product photo they take. The guidelines create a predictable pattern for artisans to follow, which in turn helps them navigate the endless list of variables by focusing on a single core task for each picture they take.

If you’ve browsed through Anou already, you may have already deduced what we require for each picture. They include the five following types of pictures that must be taken outside in the late afternoon (courtesy of ):

Picture #1: Full Product Shot

some_text

       Picture #2: Close Up Shot

some_text

Picture #3: Alternative Side Shot

some_text

Picture #4 Surrounding Environment Shot

some_text

Picture #5:  Artisan Who Made It Shot

some_text

The Anou Trainer will work with the artisans until they can take each picture and can easily recall the five types of photos. Once they do a satisfactory job, the training moves on to other topics.

The training isn’t designed to turn artisans into professionals overnight (well, some seemingly do, as was in Cooperative Chorouk‘s case); rather, we use the trainings to equip them with the basic skills and tools so they can improve on their own with continuous feedback. Not surprisingly, the vast majority of artisans post some pretty poor pictures in the beginning! But that is where Anou’s feedback feature comes into play.

Once artisans start posting products online, they immediately receive visual feedback on their products from prospective customers like yourself, which includes a rating for their product’s photography (learn more about Anou’s rating system here). Again, the feedback keeps a complicated topic simple by providing them with a shaded color (red = bad; green = good) to convey whether their pictures are good or not. If they get dark green stars they’re doing great. If they get dark red, well, back to the drawing board. If they’re receiving poor ratings, they can browse and compare their ratings to the ratings of other artisans on the site to visually see what they could be doing better. If they still wish for more help, they can call Anou’s free support line for more specific feedback.

Just how much can artisans improve on their own with some feedback? Let’s check out Cooperative Atma‘s first attempt at taking pictures and adding them onto Anou. Cooperative Atma is lead by Fatima, who had little to no experience using a camera when she first started. After completing the initial training, Anou’s team left Fatima with a homework assignment: post one item on Anou the day after  our team left. Check out how she and her cooperative did with a collection of samples:

Example Set 1:
CoopAtma

Ouch! Atma’s pictures were pretty poor. Red felt background for a green and white rug? Uh-oh! Worse, they only posted one picture for this rug. They pretty much broke every guideline we discussed during our photography training.

We gave Fatima and Cooperative Atma a call and reminded them about the guidelines we discussed and how the quality of their pictures would impact their future sales. They politely brushed off our critiques and did not seem motivated to change their pictures. As a couple days went by and they received their ratings, they wound up with a dark red camera (a one star photography rating):

Screen Shot 2013-08-28 at 11.47.17 PM

Shortly after, we got a frazzled call from the president, “We got a star!? I will go back immediately and take a better picture!” An image of a single star had made much more of an impact on Fatima than our nuanced explanations as to why she needed to post better pictures. A few attempts later, Cooperative Atma posted the following photos:

Example Set 2:

8f9f19476187186779b7e303696c920e 370cd9393495c6aa9bbdd80dac6ece50 28736a1f87ed6457b4ab6113a8b2ad4c 45990d05195a6d9032a1b725f66959e0 9001253c3275cb313065e367086ebb7b
Much better; they were now following the guidelines even though it was clear that they were still struggling to hold the camera still and they did not realize how it was affecting the clarity and color of their images. What would you have rated their photo? They wound up with a light red camera ( a three star rating):

Screen Shot 2013-08-29 at 12.14.15 AM

Fast forward to today, and their pictures are even better. Check out this item they posted a this past week:

Picture #1: Full Shot

seller10_product192_rank5_time1377047969

Picture #2: Close Up

seller10_product192_rank3_time1377041374

Picture #3: Alternative Side

seller10_product192_rank2_time1377041370

Picture #4: Environment Shot

seller10_product192_rank5_time1377041382

Picture #5: Picture With The Artisan Who Made It

seller10_product192_rank4_time1377041378

What would you rate it? They received a perfect 5 stars. As a result, it was posted automatically posted on Ebay and Etsy and the rug sold within 48 hours after it was posted.

Cooperative Atma’s development demonstrates that if artisans are given the right tools, simple guidelines to follow, and continuous feedback, they can improve their skills. Currently, many more artisans are posting their products on Anou and could use your feedback. Be sure as you browse through the site to give them your honest opinion — it’ll only help them as they continue to become better product photographers!