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

IMG_2904.JPG

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

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

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

Familiar Problems

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

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

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

Domestic Demand & Confusion

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

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

Launching The Atlas Wool Supply Co

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

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

Get Involved and Support Anou

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

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

IMG_1593

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

Rabha

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

imelghaus

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

Kenza

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

IMG_5861

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

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.

The British Council’s Design Explore Anou Residency Program

british-councilAfter several months of development, we’re excited to officially announce our collaboration with the British Council’s highly successful Design Explore program. Starting this August, the British Council will sponsor a British designer to live and work with Anou’s artisan leaders. The goal will be to exchange ideas, culture and techniques in their respective crafts in order to spur both the artisans and designers’ ability to create new and innovative designs.

At the conclusion of the month-long residency, the artisan leaders will fly to London for one week. In London, the artisans will work with the designer alongside a UK curator to set up an exhibition to display the work they created together in Morocco at the London Design Festival, one of the largest and most dynamic design events in the world. At the festival, the artisans will be able to observe cutting edge design all while sharing their experiences as Moroccan artisans and what they learned working directly with expert designers. During the week, the artisan leaders will visit leading designers in their studios and also meet and exchange ideas with students and professors from the top design schools in the United Kingdom.

This program has an immense amount of potential to benefit the artisan community in Morocco. In order for Moroccan artisan community to truly thrive, direct access to the market isn’t enough. Artisans themselves must also learn how to innovate and create new designs that blend their traditional craft with current and future trends in the global marketplace. Artisans will never be able to earn more than a fair wage if they just continue to work as labor. Through the direct access to market Anou provides, in combination with the one-of-a-kind experience the British Council program will provide the community, Moroccan artisans will be able to make the leap from merely being producers to designers and ensure the sustainability of their craft and livelihood.

If the pilot proves successful, Anou will continue working with the British Council to expand the program next year so it can benefit more Anou leaders and highly motivated artisans. We can’t wait for this program to begin!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Artisan Led Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Long Arc to Artisan Independence

 

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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.

Image

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

Where There Is No Inspiration

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

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

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

 

The Arc Of Artisan Development

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

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

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

Anou’s New Monthly Newsletter Just for Artisans

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

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 1.53.57 PM

A typical post on Anou’s Facebook page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pages from Anou's artisans newsletter.

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

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

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

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

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:

Image

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.

Anou and Ebay: Making Markets Work For Artisans

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

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

Image

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image

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

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

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

One Step Closer To A Fully Artisan Run Platform

Image

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.