Anou Tech Updates: Bringing Artisans and Their Customers Closer Together

Over the past several months we’ve been working hard on our beta custom order system. Previously, when a customer had a rug custom made for them, most of the progress and data of the order sat in a system that was only accessible to the artisan team or Anou mentors. 

This meant custom order data and its progress had to be sent to artisans as well as the customer, which created more mistakes than we’d like to admit. Our old system pushed the limits of our technical capacity, but times have changed and our tech capacity is improving. Now when you start a custom order on Anou, all major interactions such as receiving a quote, paying for an order, and even shipping all happen directly between the customer and the artisan. Anou’s mentors and artisan team only get involved when there is a problem. 

Taking down barriers between artisans and customers

Our favorite new feature is the progress feature. Whenever a custom order starts, artisans now have an easy way to directly submit progress photos and videos to the customer. Artisans can use Whatsapp or a simple browser to seamlessly share photos of their custom work. This wonderful new feature already allowed dozens of our current customers to follow the progress of their custom product in real time !

Since we launched our beta, artisans across the Anou community have sent over 1,400 progress photos to their customers. We’re also testing out fun ways to enable customer and artisan interaction. For example, we introduced a beta feature where customers can send emoji responses for each progress update which are sent directly to the artisan who submitted the progress update. Over 500 emojis have been sent to date directly to the phones of artisans! 

Why does this matter? 

First, this new feature fully automates the needless labor of all the middlemen you find on Instagram and elsewhere, who serve as a gatekeeper between artisans and their final customers. 

Second, it enables artisans to do the work of photographing and sharing themselves. This ensures they learn these valuable digital skills, especially in today’s online commerce landscape. These skills will remain once the order is fulfilled, and are one more step towards artisans’ business independence. 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it enables artisans to create their own unfiltered content. Content that is true to their own vision, and that they can keep and reuse on their own social media accounts and soon, websites. For way too long, morccan craft-related content was made, owned and kept by intermediaries, not artisans. We believe putting artisans in charge of content production is long overdue.

A real life example

Our favorite updates lately have been from Association Tadighoust. The updates feature a mix of progress photos and touching videos of women working and singing traditional songs while making their rugs. Check out all the progress photos on our sample custom order page.

Such spontaneous videos created by artisans themselves, shared directly with their customers who then send emojis of encouragement in return represent a joy that seems to have been missing from craft for some time. 

While there is always more work to be done, we couldn’t be more excited to be bringing some joy back into craft !

Refining the Vision of Anou

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

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

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

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

We decided to commit.

Building Community

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

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

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

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

Anou’s Vision

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

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

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

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

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

Anou’s New HQ in David Beach, Morocco!

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Anou’s new HQ in David Beach. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Shipping From Rural Morocco to Any Country in 5 Days

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

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

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

What it Takes to Ship From the High Atlas 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Shipping Directly to Customers

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

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

Anou’s Office in Rabat

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Artisan Leader Rabha Akkaoui Wins GroupX Business Innovation Competition!

Rabha on the stage at X-Maroc!

Rabha on the stage at X-Maroc!

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

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

Come See the Common Thread Exhibition In London!

Common ThreadLast week, all the artisan leaders completed their rugs they designed during part one of the Common Thread project and shipped them to London. The rugs will be the centerpiece of the Common Thread exhibition, which will detail the design process the artisans used creating their rugs during the project.

We got a sneak peak of the exhibition designed by Moira and Kieren of the Faculty and it looks outstanding! More excitingly, all of Anou’s artisan leaders will be making appearances at the exhibition to answer any questions you have about the Common Thread project and the Anou community. If you’re in London, we’d love to see you in person!

Here’s everything that you need to know if you’re in the area! 

  • The Common Thread Exhibition will take place at Design Junction from September 17th-21st. Anou’s artisan leaders will be present at the exhibition on the 17th from 4-6pm. All days are free and open to the general public, the 17th however requires registration in advance (register here)!
  • On the 21st at 12pm , the leaders will be taking part in a panel at the Design Junction. Admission to the panel is free and open to the public!
  • Design Junction is located at 21-31 New Oxford Street and is within a short walk from the British Museum. Here’s a map.
  • Learn more about the London Design Festival and Design Junction.

As always, send us an e-mail at hello@theanou.com if you have any other questions! We’ll look forward to seeing many of you there!

Can Artisans Create Jobs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Artisan Led Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Design Sponge, Anou, and Change

The best word to describe that state of Anou’s community in recent months is change. In January, we began to process of turning over the site’s operations to leaders in Anou’s community and we’re now in the midst of scaling Anou to reach more artisans across Morocco. It is only fitting then, that Grace Bonney at Design Sponge would feature Anou in a recent post about change. We’re incredibly honored to be featured by Grace as an organization bringing about change in the artisan community. Thank you for your support, Grace!

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.

Making Custom Orders Work For You And Artisans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Potential of Djellaba Button Jewelry

Since the beginning of Anou, the Women’s Cooperative of Khenifra has been one of the site’s top sellers. This is no surprise given that the cooperative’s jewelry, made of traditional djellaba buttons, strikes the perfect blend of contemporary and traditional Moroccan design. Despite their tiny size, the djellaba buttons used to make the jewelry have the potential to make a huge impact on the lives of many women across Morocco.

The Labor and Background of a Single Button

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A standard Moroccan djellaba. Djellaba buttons can always be found vertically lined up beneath the djellaba’s collar. Photo credit: Shukrclothing.com, a socially conscious retailer.

While the exact origin of the popular djellaba button is unknown, many trace it back to the Jewish communities that used to reside in Fez. The buttons may have originally been used as actual buttons for clothing, but today, they are used as decorative pieces for djellabas, Morocco’s ubiquitous traditional dress.

As the demand for djellaba clothing continues, so does the demand for djellaba buttons. Many women in towns across Morocco, most notably in Sefrou and Khenifra, eagerly fulfill the demand to earn any income they can.

The process women go through to create djellaba buttons pays little and is time consuming to say the least. To start the process, the women go to a local store to buy sabra, a thread made from agave plant fiber that is traditionally spun and dyed in Fez. Using a simple needle, the women thread sabra into incredibly intricate buttons. It can take a weaver four to ten+ minutes per button depending on their skill level. Once a weaver completes about 400 buttons — the approximate amount of buttons that can be produced from one 3 dirham ($0.36) spool of sabra — they take it to the local dealer and sell their bundle of buttons for $0.015 per button.  (Note: all prices and times listed are approximate as there a numerous buttons with varying complexity and material).

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Members of the Women’s Cooperative of Khenifra buy spools of sabra at a local store. Photo credit: Christine Carlson-Aljani

Expanding on these numbers provides a glimpse at the income of your typical button maker. For example, it would take a relatively fast weaver (5 minutes per button) a little over 33 hours to complete a bundle of 400 buttons. When the weaver sells a bundle to a local dealer, they’ll earn a total of $6. Push these numbers through fairwageguide.org’s fair wage calculator and puts the wage of such a button weaver 31% below the $2/day poverty line and 88% below Morocco’s minimum wage.

The Slow Evolution From Laborers to Creators

In 2007, a Peace Corps Volunteer named Linda Zahava began working with a talented group of button makers in Khenifra in order to find a way for them to earn more for their work. The weavers and Linda experimented and eventually repurposed the djellaba buttons to make jewelry with the belief that it could command a much higher price for the weaver’s work. To say their experiment was a success would be a gross understatement. Since the founding of the cooperative, the women have sold tens of thousands of dollars in jewelry in local and international markets.  Their success has even spawned numerous other djellaba button cooperatives and associations across Morocco.

Yet over the years the cooperative began running into the ceiling of their potential. As recently as 2012, the cooperative heavily depended on a revolving door Peace Corps Volunteers to facilitate orders from a small group of resellers both domestic and international. Since the resellers held near exclusive access to the popular jewelry via relationships built with volunteers, resellers were able to sell the artisan products to other resellers at prices five times more than the cooperative’s original price.

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Djellaba button jewelry for sale by fair trade certified Global Goods Partners: $69 (including shipping). Photo credit: Global Good Partners

After seeing the high prices their ‘partners’ were able to command for their work, the artisans decided to raise their prices. However, they were quickly met with resistance. Resellers, even fair-trade certified organizations, told the cooperative that by increasing their prices they would be unprofessional and violate the loyalty that they had demonstrated to the cooperative. In addition, the resellers cited that their mark up enabled them to help market the products and provide access to markets the women wouldn’t have otherwise. With no other means to sell their products, the cooperatives only marginally changed their prices. As a result, artisans continued to sell their standard necklaces for $15, while their partners resold the same products for $69 (including shipping).

To put such prices in perspective, each $15 necklace takes the cooperative about 21 hours to complete. Pushing these numbers through the fair wage calculator (www.fairwageguide.org), the cooperative earns a wage that is 59% lower than Morocco’s minimum wage and 62% below the recommended fair wage pay. To be clear, the $15 necklaces are resold as fair-trade certified products that are branded with buzzwords such as female empowerment when the artisans aren’t even earning a Moroccan minimum wage, much less a fair wage.

Evolving From Creators to Independent Businesses

When Anou artisans first started talking with members of the cooperative, they expressed that they no longer desired to depend on volunteers to sell their work. Instead, they wanted to sell independently, if not for a better wage, then at least for a more dignified way to sell their products. But they didn’t know how. Anou finally offered them this chance.

With Anou’s platform, the potential of the women is now only limited to the amount of work they are willing to invest in their business – not what resellers deem is ‘enough for them to get by’. Over the past several months the cooperative has invested an immense amount of time into their online store by adding a diverse range of products and relentlessly improving their photography. In fact, their photography is improving so much that many consider their photos to be better than the professional organizations that resell their products. Based on the increasing amount of sales they’ve generated on Anou, their hard work is literally starting to pay off. In short, they are beginning to operate as an independent business.

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Djellaba button jewelry for sale on Anou by the artisans who made it: $36 including shipping. Photo credit: Fatima Nouaman (djellaba button weaver)

Today, the weavers sell their standard necklace for $19 on Anou. Adding in costs of shipping from Morocco, Anou’s 10% fee (and other fees such as credit card fees) you can find the product listed for $36 on Anou. Putting these numbers through the fair wage calculator, and the artisans still have work to do so they can continue to raise their prices. To earn a fair wage, the cooperative will need to increase their prices for $50 on Anou – still cheaper than what fair trade organizations currently sell their work for.

Redefining Fair Trade

If anything, such numbers prove that the only way artisans can actually earn a fair wage is when they do the work themselves. Fair trade organizations today simply manage the entire value chain process in the name of good will, while artisans just provide the labor. As such, artisans don’t just get paid poorly, they don’t gain any skills either.

Because of the members of the Women’s Cooperative of Khenifra, the djellaba button has become a source of wealth for many women in Morocco rather than a symbol of their poverty. However, much more work needs to be done in order to ensure that women can gain the full value of each djellaba button they create. With Anou, it is entirely up to the artisans themselves to fully realize the potential of each djellaba button.

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!

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.

Made In China? What Artisan Growing Pains Look Like

In our trainings and follow up calls with artisans, we try and cover as many scenarios as possible related to their online business. Pricing, photography, sales, market demands, and packaging – the list goes on. No matter how intuitive we make the selling process for artisans, there will always be a lot of moving parts that they will need to master. We’ve noticed that for many artisans the gap between their current skill sets and what it takes to be successful on Anou shows how far some artisans need to go as they build up their 21st century business skill sets.

Woven into our DNA at Anou is the belief that artisans will never gain mastery of such business skills through trainings alone. Instead, we believe that the only way artisans can gain mastery is to learn by doing. Accordingly, all the tools we build are centered on getting artisans directly connected to market as quickly as possible so they can learn directly from their successes, as well as their mistakes. We don’t expect artisans to be perfect from day one, but as they learn and grow with guidance, direct market access and real world experience, we know that they will become successful.

It is no surprise then that when artisans first get started on Anou they make mistakes. But we view these mistakes as a good thing and we don’t shy from letting artisans make them. Yes, we could scale much more quickly, and we could generate a bit more revenue if we micromanaged artisans so they never make mistakes. But for Anou’s long-term success, artisans need to grow skills organically rather than having our team jump in and do everything for them. That is why you’ll see the occasional blurry photos or a few exorbitantly priced products listed on Anou.

Yet some of the mistakes that artisans make can be a little bit more painful than blurry images. One mistake that has occurred several times is when an artisan forgets to remove a product from Anou if it sold in their shop or at a local craft fair. Even though artisans can easily remove products from Anou with a simple text message, every now and then they forget. Then when a customer buys a product on Anou that no longer exists, we have to return the customer’s payment and write an apology. This week, we had to return a $130 payment. Writing apologies with the hope that a customer ‘understands’ is never any fun.

This past week however, we experienced a truly painful mistake, one of those ones you just can’t plan for.  Not only did an artisan send an item with the incorrect color, (one of the first times this has happened), but the artisan unknowingly placed their product in a bag with a “Made In China” sticker labeled prominently on the front:

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The customer contacted us understandably upset. Not only did they not get what they ordered, they felt fleeced by Anou and the cooperative thinking that we sold them knock off Chinese goods.

When we followed up with the cooperative they were completely unaware that they had a ‘Made in China’ sticker on the packaging. They weren’t lying — we know the cooperative well. Not only has the cooperative worked with Peace Corps Volunteers for more than six years, we have verified that they are in fact the group that makes their products – they wouldn’t be on Anou otherwise. Moreover, the cooperative is just now getting online for the first time so it is safe to say they don’t have the experience to outsource their work to Chinese companies.

When we reached out to the artisans we discovered that the actual reason behind the now infamous sticker was a bit less incriminating: the cooperative reused a bag that they just had lying around.

As ridiculous as the situation is, damage has been done: Anou and the cooperative lost a loyal customer.  It is safe to say that we’ll make sure we inform artisans in future trainings that it is prohibited to place anything resembling the words “Made in China” or any country other than Morocco on their products or packaging.

Mark that as a lesson learned.

Creating Transparency In An Environment That Is Anything But

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anou and Ebay: Making Markets Work For Artisans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.