Export Reform & The Artisan Lobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Trouble With Change

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

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

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

The Artisan Lobby

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The Future of Moroccan Artisan Design

 

Part I: Traditions

Anou Artisans Morocco Fair Trade Rugs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Soon

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

Part III: Anou’s Collaboration Tool

Refining the Vision of Anou

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

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

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

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

We decided to commit.

Building Community

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

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

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

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

Anou’s Vision

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Post Office Profitable, For the First Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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!

Are you a socially conscious riad or tour agency in Morocco? We want to hear from you!

After talking with Anou’s customers during the past several months, we’ve learned that they all share at least one of four characteristics. These characteristics are those who 1) have been to Morocco in the past or are planning a visit, 2) are socially conscious travelers and consumers, 3) have met an artisan in person during a previous trip, and lastly, 4) have a solid understanding of Anou and the fundamental role Anou plays within the artisan community. The more of these characteristics a customer had, the more likely they were to be champions of Anou and help us spread the word about what Moroccan artisans are doing  to create equal access to local and global markets. This sets the framework for how the Moroccan artisan community can best market itself.

Our goal then is to ensure that every socially conscious traveler coming to Morocco knows about Anou and the role it plays within the artisan community here in Morocco.  However, the big question is, how do we do that?

While being featured in the Lonely Planet helps tremendously, Anou’s most effective marketing strategy is when artisans are responsible for marketing themselves. The logic behind this is pretty simple:  almost no one believes that Anou is not a middleman until they hear it from the artisans themselves. Therefore, we must connect tourists traveling through Morocco with artisans, so that artisans can explain Anou in their own words.

As such, during the past several weeks we’ve been reaching out to socially conscious riads, tour agencies, and other businesses to see how we might be able to connect their clients directly with artisans in the Anou community. Our initial conversations have been incredibly promising.

One of the exciting ideas we’ve discussed is providing socially conscious businesses exclusive directories of Anou artisans. Take a look at this sample guidebook we put together for Dar Roumana in Fez. Such guidebooks will easily help riads like Dar Roumana create truly authentic experiences for their guests that go beyond typical, uncomfortable experiences with middlemen in the medina.  In return, these businesses will agree to take no commission from the artisans when their guests visit Anou artisans. In addition, they will help us inform their guests about the artisan community and the important role Anou plays within it. Many of these ideas have been outlined in a draft Memorandum of Understanding that we’re still modifying as we try and find the right blend of idealistic, and realistic, ideas.

If you’re a socially conscious, tourism related business that wants to support Morocco’s artisan community while aligning your business with an up and coming socially conscious brand , we want to hear from you!

E-mail us at hello@theanou.com and let us know why supporting the artisan community in Morocco is important to you! We’ll look forward to hearing from you!

 

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.

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! 

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.

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.

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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!

The Importance of Building an Artisan Community in Morocco

The legacy of Moroccan artisans is well known throughout the world. As once vibrant communities, Moroccan artisans turned windswept garrison towns into iconic, UNESCO world heritage cities — by hand. The cities artisans built, such as Meknes and Fez, now serve as centuries-old reminders of the towering potential of Moroccan artisans when they work together as a part of a larger community.

Today, however, Moroccan artisans hardly resemble a community. Instead, artisans are individuals trapped in the belief that their work is a zero sum game. With no community, the potential and wealth of artisans is divided amongst numerous fiefdoms of resellers that dominate the Moroccan artisan market. It is no surprise then that artisans continue to be impoverished despite their tremendous skill.

Anou’s Vision

Many projects or social enterprises are implemented in Morocco with the aim of pulling artisans out of poverty. But the troubled fact is that these projects almost always focus on bringing costly outside skills to support individual artisans. These efforts and their focus on individuals, rather than a community, further isolate artisans from each other and instill the belief that help can only come from abroad.

The reality is that many Moroccan artisans already have an immense amount of skills. But in the absence of a community, these skills are siloed throughout Morocco. If artisans were part of a community in which they were encouraged to support and learn from each other, it could create the most cost effective solution in building artisan capacity — and wealth — at an unprecedented scale. Building this community of artisans in Morocco is at the heart of Anou’s vision.

Anou’s Vision in Action

Last month, Rabha (http://www.theanou.com/store/3), one of Anou’s artisan trainers, arrived in Meknes to begin training artisans how to use Anou. For her trainings to be successful she knew that she couldn’t just train individual artisans, instead, she would have to begin building a community of artisans that could support and learn from each other.

When Rabha finished training Omar Zidou (http://www.theanou.com/store/25), the first Anou trainee in Meknes, she asked him to help with the next training.

Rabha and Omar meet in Meknes to begin training Hicham.

Rabha and Omar meet in Meknes before training Hicham.

Omar and Rabha then worked together to train Hicham Zaidi (http://www.theanou.com/store/24) and his collective of metal workers. Throughout the training, Omar was able to impart his experience and his perspectives in order to help support Hicham as he got online for the first time. As a result, Hicham quickly learned from hearing multiple perspectives, and Rabha and Omar refined their own skills by teaching. Most importantly, however, was that the training challenged the assumption that artisan craft is a zero sum game.

Rabha and Omar help Hicham learn the basics of photography on Anou.

Rabha and Omar help Hicham learn the basics of photography on Anou.

The Importance of a Moroccan Artisan Community

Creating this environment of mutual support is critical for building a flourishing artisan community. Etsy’s success, for example, was fueled largely in part by the strength of its community. American artisans created and filled numerous message boards, forums and blogs, which paved the way for other artisans to sell successfully on Etsy. Not only did this create a common culture and strong community among sellers, but it also substantially increased the wealth of the artisan community in America. This year, the community of artisans on Etsy is expected to sell over $1 billion in art.

Message boards and forums, however, aren’t tools many Moroccan artisans can use for obvious reasons. Even if they could, it is common in Moroccan culture to almost always seek advice from people they trust and know in their community such as fellow artisans, friends, or family members – not strangers online. This is why it is so important to connect artisans like Omar and Hicham with other artisans within their local community that they can meet in person.

Training Omar and Hicham represented only nine artisans in Meknes, but it marked an important first step in creating a larger community. After Rabha’s training, Joauad, the president of a local association that represents many artisans reached out and offered to help. He had heard of Rabha through Omar and Hicham and wanted to ensure that all artisans in Meknes had the opportunity to learn how to sell online. Within one week, Rabha and Jaouad had 50 artisans scheduled to attend a presentation on Anou. To help with the presentation, Rabha invited two other successful Anou artisans Mustapha (http://www.theanou.com/store/9) and Kenza (http://www.theanou.com/store/13). Together, the three Anou artisans demonstrated how Anou worked and outlined the site’s vision of creating an artisan community in Morocco. It was no surprise when all 50 artisans signed up to be trained; the artisans wanted to join something larger than their own cooperatives or associations.

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Anou trainers, Rabha, Kenza, and Mustapha (pictured below) provide Meknes artisans a walkthrough on how Anou works and answer any questions from the audience. Apologies for the blurry photos!

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Of all the people at the meeting, no one was more excited than the local representative of the Moroccan Ministry of Artisans who happened to attend. He had tried building a site for Meknes artisans in the past but it had failed. After seeing three artisans, from rural villages no less, demonstrate how the site worked, he wanted to get involved and invited Rabha to meet his staff at his office. During his meeting with Rabha, the Ministry of Artisans in Meknes committed to sponsoring a meeting of all Meknes artisans and also committed to providing an internet equipped computer lab free of use for any artisans in Meknes who want to use Anou. Within just a couple of weeks, Rabha, a rural artisan, gathered artisans and existing resources to lay what will become the foundation of a thriving community artisans in Meknes.

Supporting the Growth of Morocco’s Artisan Community

All of the success Anou has had in Meknes wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for artisans leading the site. When artisans present Anou or lead trainings, it creates a belief amongst the artisan community that artisans are capable of becoming more than just labor. But more importantly, an artisan led site — while it can sometimes slow Anou’s growth — enables Anou’s artisan trainers to build real world experience managing a complex organization and develop extensive knowledge of the needs of artisans. In turn, they invest this knowledge back into the rest of the community so that every artisan in Morocco can benefit. One does not need to look further than what Rabha and Brahim (http://www.theanou.com/store/5) have done with their leadership positions in Anou for proof of the impact that Anou’s artisan team can have.

While artisans are a vital cornerstone to Anou’s success, so are you. Each time you make a purchase on Anou, you’ll not only receive an amazing hand-made product and support an incredible cooperative of artisans, but you’ll also be funding the growth of Anou’s artisan team as they work to build a vibrant, sustainable artisan community throughout Morocco and beyond.

Contributing To The Bright Future Of Morocco’s Start Up Community

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Last week, Rabha and Mustapha speak at the Moroccan Social Enterprise Conference in Casablanca. Photo courtesy of: Abdesslam Sallak

While Morocco’s community of start-ups and social entrepreneurs is relatively small when compared to many countries in the Middle East, there is a talented and driven nucleus of Moroccans set on changing this. Last week, Anou’s team was fortunate to be among many of these individuals at the Moroccan Social Enterprise Conference in Casablanca.

Several weeks ago, Anou was asked to present at the conference and we were excited to take part. Keeping in line with Anou’s vision of ensuring that it is a platform made for and run by artisans, we always ask standout artisans who use Anou to present, rather than myself. This gives artisans the opportunity to be recognized for the work, and risk, they’ve undertaken as some of Anou’s early adopters.

But presenting in front of over 100 people in a city an artisan has only heard of can be an intimidating experience. To prepare the artisans for this, we paired up artisan Mustapaha Chaouai (Association Nahda), who has never presented before, with artisan Rabha Akkaoui (Cooperative Chorouk), who has presented at a previous conference.

We spent the evening before preparing the presentation and then we did a last minute run through an hour before Rabha and Mustapha’s slotted time. The goal of the extensive preparation is not only to ensure that artisans do a great job presenting, but also to provide the artisans with the opportunity learn the why behind Anou, rather than just the how. This in turn helps us build a community of artisans that believe and advocate for the vision that Anou represents.

Anou has always been positively received at the conferences artisans have spoken at. Yet at this conference, Rabha and Mustapha started receiving applause halfway through their presentation and then received a standing ovation from the 100+ attendees when they concluded. Throughout the rest of the day, many attendees came up to Rabha and Mustapha to give them hugs and thank them for the inspiration to continue building their own start up or social enterprise. I have to admit that it was a little funny to observe the look of confusion on the face of Rabha and Mustapha as they were hugged – they felt that they had only given a presentation. What they slowly began to realize, however, is that they had struck a nerve in Morocco’s nascent start-up community.

There are a lot of reasons why Morocco’s start up scene lags behind many other countries in the Middle East. Mehdi Reghai wrote an excellent article  (sorry, it is only in French) that touches upon this and cites many reasons for this including: segregated geography, lack of research and development, poor infrastructure and crumbling education systems. Zak El Fassi, the first Moroccan-educated programmer to work at Google, believes that Morocco’s consumption economy has yet to evolve into a creation economy. From our personal experiences at Anou, we constantly feel an undercurrent in many of our conversations that Moroccans just don’t believe they are capable of achieving big things.

None of these opinions are wrong. In fact, they all contribute to what makes Morocco what it is today. From the weavers in a rural village who wait for others to sell their work for them to the aspiring social entrepreneur with a big dream who is sidelined by the pessimism of his or her community, Morocco is often caught waiting for something to happen rather than actively pursuing its future.

Mustapha and Rabha’s presentation struck a nerve because it challenged this very mindset. When artisans are able to innovate around infrastructure problems, perhaps the start up community may now perceive a lack of infrastructure as an asset rather than a hindrance. When an artisan with only a fourth grade education is capable of delivering one of the most powerful talks at a conference, then why can’t an ambitious university-educated Casablancan do the same, or even more?

This is why Anou matters. Yes, the easy-to-understand version of Anou is that it provides artisans a better wage than typical fair-trade. But a better wage is only the collateral of igniting the belief that yes, perhaps artisans themselves are capable of doing big things. This change in mindset is infectious beyond just artisans; this past weekend it spread to many members of Morocco’s start up community.

Excitingly, Anou is only one thread of many that is contributing to the fabric of Morocco’s exciting future as a leading start-up community. Because of people like Adnane Addioui and Manal El Attir, who are inspiring Morocco’s youth to launch their own ventures through Fursa Challenge and Enactus, Kenza Lahou, who is building a community of entrepreneurs in Start Up Your Life, Zak El Fassi of JobFinder.ma, who’s raw coding talent demonstrates what Moroccan’s are capable of with lines of code, and even the late Karim Jazouani of the Nexties, who fostered a community of selfless collaboration in Morocco’s tech industry, it is clear that the Moroccan start-up community’s best days are ahead of it.

Our team, and many artisans across Morocco, are excited to be a part of this bright future.

Participants at the Moroccan Social Enterprise Conference gather for a group shot at the end of the day.

To learn a little more about several start-ups our team has gotten to know, several of whom were presenters at the conference, check out the following links:

Looly’s Pearls: A female led cous-cous venture set on rebranding Morocco’s culinary traditions.

JobFinder.ma: A Moroccan job search engine with regional aspirations.

Stagaires.ma: A portal for Moroccan students to find internships.

Clothes That Care: A buy one, give one online retail store.

Start Up Your Life: A community of Moroccans committed to building Morocco’s start up scene.

Moroccan Center for Innovation and Social Entrepreneurship: A platform committed to spurring social change in Morocco through innovation and entrepreneurship.

Anarouz: A social enterprise committed to supporting female artisans.

IT Pills: A electronic system that helps remind patients to take their medication. Started by two young entrepreneurs.

Nexties: Morocco’s online tech magazine.

One Step Closer To A Fully Artisan Run Platform

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Dan and Brahim work on an erosion project in Ait Bougamez in 2009 supported by sales from Brahim’s woodcarving shop.

This week marked a truly exciting milestone in Anou’s development: Brahim, Anou’s Director and artisan, has officially taken over the Anou’s operations in Morocco from me. This is a significant step as we work to make Anou a fully artisan run platform.

Up until this point, much of my work focused on supporting our pilot group of artisans as we worked through the growing pains of Anou’s prototype phase. Now, Brahim will not only support existing artisans on Anou, but also take the lead outlining and pursuing Anou’s strategy as it expands its artisan network throughout Morocco. My role will evolve into a supporting role for Brahim and enable me to focus more on the messaging and marketing of Anou.

I am confident that Brahim will succeed in his new role simply because he embodies Anou’s vision of empowering artisans in Morocco. For those who may be just learning about Anou, Brahim was my counterpart during my Peace Corps service from 2008-2010. Our work together outlined many of the challenges artisans faced in Morocco and it was Brahim who convinced me to return to Morocco to build Anou and fully address the challenges we identified.

The decision to return to Morocco was easy because of Brahim’s belief that artisans could sell to global markets with independence, and most importantly, with dignity. Since we started early last year, Brahim’s belief in artisans proved to be much more than just words. Brahim, an apple farmer, has logged countless hours on the road away from his family, orchards and woodshop in order to become a reluctant leader for Anou’s vision in a culture that often shuns initiative. Most tellingly, he did all of this without pay.

With Brahim’s resolve combined with our growing and talented team, I am certain that Brahim will not only do an outstanding job, but that the rest of 2013 will be an incredibly exciting time for Anou.

Big Changes

Today, we’re excited to announce that we’ve officially transitioned from Anou’s prototype website and pushed products and operations over to an entirely new site now available at www.theanou.com.

This change is the result of many hours of hard work transforming Anou to make it easier for artisans to sell their work independently online. These efforts were led by Tom Counsell, Anou’s Technical Director as together we reimagined the Anou platform.

Many of the changes in our latest release are found on the artisan side of Anou. We’ve taken the countless hours spent observing artisans on the prototype site and created an experience that even illiterate artisans can master in a short period of time. We’ve done this by blending culturally responsive design with advanced web development practices so our platform can succeed on the oldest internet browsers in local internet cybers and outdated versions of Android that power an increasing amount of phones across Morocco. We are now proud to report that Anou works practically anywhere and on any device that Moroccan artisans have access to.

We’ve also made many changes to the customer side of Anou as well. We’ve listened to a lot of feedback from our customers and created a new way to search through the products on the site, eliminated the need for customer accounts and also enhanced the site with responsive design so that it works on your computers, tablets and smartphones.

While we are excited about these changes, we are even more excited about the new changes we have in the works for future releases.  When these changes are introduced on the site, we’ll be sure to announce them here on our blog.

Please let us know what you think by sending us feedback at hello@theanou.com and we’ll do everything we can to incorporate the best ideas.

Thanks for your support as we continue to empower artisans to sell independently.