The Artisan’s Store

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Artisans Brahim El Mansouri, Mohssine Benjalloun, Rachida Ousbigh, Kenza Oulaghda, Mustapha Chaouai, work with designer Matthew Long to design Anou’s new artisan store in Fes.

We launched Anou many years ago in order to rethink how the craft economy in Morocco should work. What has become increasingly clear since those early days is that to create a craft economy that works for all artisans we would eventually have to rethink the role of retail as well. Now after a year of planning we’re incredibly excited to announce that we will be opening Morocco’s first artisan run store in Fes in early 2020, and then a second store in Marrakech in 2021.

Our vision isn’t just to create another store. In fact, there almost seems to be an inverse correlation between the number of new stores in the old cities of Marrakech and Fes and the number of artisans that still live and work there. Instead, our vision is to create a space that reflects the wider values of The Anou Cooperative and ensure that authentic artisans will always have a place in the increasingly gentrified medinas of Fes and Marrakech. 

To realize this, we are aiming to build a creative space where customers can not only buy products directly from artisans but explore craft first hand and learn about the people, design, materials and processes that go into everything displayed. The space will enable visitors to sign up for workshops with artisans or schedule visits to artisan workshops across the country. Further, the stores will be staffed by artisans from the Anou community because who else would be better to learn about a product than the artisan who made it. 

The store will be directly connected to Anou’s artisan office, so customers can see first hand the work artisans do to make Anou work. The office will be built so that customers and designers can sit down and collaborate with artisans to create new ideas and products. Equally exciting the store will also be connected to Anou’s dye house and yarn shop so that all visitors can see the materials being made first hand while having every color imaginable at their fingertips.

We hope that through the store we will be better able to educate visitors on craft and increase sales for artisans. Similarly, we hope that the store will serve as a live training ground for artisans so that in the near future Anou will be able to send highly capable artisans abroad to run pop up shops and directly communicate with customers no matter what country they are in.  

Ultimately, by pursuing this vision we hope we can create an artisan run store that all artisans are proud to be a part of. We’re excited to have you all on this journey in making this a reality. 

Realizing our upcoming Fes space would not be possible without Cafe Clock. Cafe Clock has provided Anou rooms and the roof of a riad that is currently under renovation. We are also indebted to Matthew Long, a furniture and store designer, who graciously volunteered to help design the space for Anou. 

Over the coming months follow us on Instagram and Facebook as we chart the progress until the opening day of Morocco’s first artisan store. And as always help us spread the word about Anou this holiday season as each purchase not only benefits artisans, but makes visions like this a reality.

Putting Technology To Work For Artisans

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Women of Association Afous Gafous review orders and designs.

With every new wave of technology comes the optimism that it will radically change the status quo or create more equitable societies. However, the reality is that each wave opens up small windows where societies can capitalize on the promise of new technologies. If these windows are properly managed they can can lead to the optimism of the Twitter-fueled Arab Spring in 2011. If they are not, the same social media technologies can (and have) quickly become the same tools dictators use in 2019 to entrench their power or manipulate public opinion.

These windows touch on all aspects of every society world wide. For Morocco’s artisan community it is no different. The wider fair trade community has dreamed about using technology to cut out middlemen and empower artisans. Yet with each successive wave of new technology nothing really seems to change. Today, technology has created more middlemen than ever and artisans remain worse off than ever. Without making technology work for artisans and using it to amplify the growth of artisan communities, technology will only be used to deepen the status quo.

The Evolution of Anou’s Vision and Technology

Our vision at Anou is to create an artisan-centered craft economy in Morocco that works for artisans rather than against them. With each wave of new technologies our window for realizing this future opens a little wider for a brief moment in time. It is our job then to ride each wave to bring us closer to our long-term vision before there is no time left. Equally important, it’s our job to ensure that the artisan community own and control such technology so they are the ones who financially benefit from it. As we’re learning in other parts of the world, technology can bring about consolidated, unchecked power. Morocco’s artisan community is already being decimated by lumbering giants like Etsy who in their Brooklyn bubble are singlehandedly and ignorantly doing more to destroy Morocco’s artisan community than any one middleman ever could alone.

Since Anou launched in 2013, we’ve experienced profound shifts in technology. The first iteration of Anou’s marketplace was designed to take advantage of the first technology wave in Morocco: universal access to internet via cyber cafes and feature phones. This wave is what launched Anou. The big questions back then were how do we ensure artisans don’t upload viruses from cyber cafe computers into our database, or how do we create safe environments for female artisans to go to a cyber cafe to upload products. 

Today, we’re in the middle of another technology wave of $50 USD smart phones and machine learning. In the past couple of years alone, almost all of Morocco’s communication has moved from voice calls and SMS to Whatsapp. There is no official number out there on this, but a safe guess would be to assume that at least 70% of Morocco’s SMS volume has moved to Whatsapp.

Over the past year, we’ve begun the work of overhauling a lot of our backend technology to take advantage of these changes. As such, we wanted to take this chance to show you all a small window into how artisan tools on the Anou platform are changing and how we’re putting these new technologies to work for artisans.

From SMS to Whatsapp

Currently artisans upload their products to Anou’s marketplace and get a product ID for each product they upload. When such an item sells, they would receive an SMS text with the product ID of what sold and the address to send it to.  While easy, it was still challenging for artisans because they might not have forgotten which product goes with which product ID. Artisans could go to their account on Anou, and many do, but for some it’s just not easy enough. Some artisans tag each product with a physical tag and write the product ID on it, but that’s not easy enough either. Whatsapp allows us to change much of the communication processes and bring it all into an easy, visual process in a program they are already using in their day to day lives. Now, with recent updates artisans can simply send the product ID plus the tag emoji to Anou’s Whatsapp number and it will provide them with a detailed breakdown of the product and its picture:

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Tag Creation

Through the above tool, artisans can visually match the product ID with the image of the product they posted online. However, the better solution is to make sure that artisans have physical tags with the picture of the product on it. Now, if artisans want to easily create a tag, artisans just have to add an email to the end of the tag emoji and product ID  and it will send the designated email a printable tag. For many artisans, they can simply send their tags to a local print shop in their village. The tags show the product, its local price with pictures of everyone who was help make it (here’s an example). It’s as simple as this:

 

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Text-Free Tracking Numbers

When a product sells, artisans can now confirm the order via Whatsapp just by sending in the product ID number. This will generate an email to the customer letting them know the artisan has received the order and they’re getting ready to ship it to them.

Once the artisans ship their order though, things get a little complicated. One problem that we’ve always had is ensuring artisans submit the tracking number that they receive from the post office. With many semi-literate artisans, entering the tracking number (which is 13 digits long) can be a huge barrier — artisans sometimes can’t even locate the tracking number on the receipt. If an artisan’s local post office is good, they’ll help artisans locate the number and maybe even text in the tracking number for them but this isn’t always the case. If the artisans can’t sort it out, they’ll usually just ignore the step and their customers end up writing to us concerned that their product may have never been shipped.

Here is an example of a tracking slip. The tracking number is below the bar code (Tracking Number: LD635465289MA). If you’re not a great reader, then you can see how this sheet may just look overwhelming:

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To solve the problems around this we’ve integrated cutting-edge computer vision machine learning algorithms right into Whatsapp. Now all artisans have to do is submit a picture of their tracking slip along with the product ID to Anou’s Whatsapp number. Our system will then analyze the picture, even in poor light conditions or with a poor resolution camera and identify the tracking number with 99% accuracy.  With the tracking number in hand, Anou’s system sends it back to the artisans to confirm it worked and then notify the customer immediately.  Here’s the analysis in action:

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Computer vision finds all potentially relevant text, and then works through it all to extract what best matches the tracking number.

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With machine reading technology as sampled above, it is easy to envision how the Anou marketplace will soon no longer require artisans to even know any product ID. Simply print out your tag when you post a product, then when the product sells online or in person, just take a picture of the tag and let the computer find the ID and the computer will figure out what you wanted to do. A completely effortless, text-free approach to managing online stores is in reach for any artisan who can send a picture via Whatsapp (Update:  Text Free Shipping Confirmation has now been released.)

Enabling Every Artisan to Accept Credit Cards In Person

There have been so many more features we’ve integrated to make it as easy as possible for artisans to manage their own store, but our favorite and potentially most transformative tool thus far is integrating Paypal into Whatsapp.

One of the biggest limitations that artisans have is that many of them cannot take credit card payments for tourists/customers who visit their physical store. In person visits for Anou artisans has been increasing in the past year as we slowly roll out our initiatives to enable customers to schedule visits with artisans across the Anou community. Solving the credit card problem has been top of mind for a long period of time now as this is a major reason why people continue to buy from middlemen in Marrakech or foreigners online.

Now, via Whatsapp, all artisans have to do is type in the credit card emoji, with the product ID, plus the email of their customer, and their customer will be sent a Paypal invoice for the cost of the product artisans listed on their store (minus shipping). Once the customer pays, artisans will instantly receive a confirmation message with a cash emoji all via Whatsapp:

Paypal Integration

 

Almost overnight all artisans across the Anou community can now receive credit cards in their village. All they need is an internet connection, which now the majority have. Again, it is easy to see how we can complete this process without a product ID and just one simple emoji. For example, artisans could just ask the customer to clearly handwrite their email on the product tag, then the artisan could take a picture of that product tag,  send it to Whatsapp and the computer will know that the artisan wants to send an invoice for the product on that tag to the customer’s email address. No text input required at all (Update: Text Free Invoicing has now been released).

The Future of Craft and Technology

All of these examples and more are now rolling out and we’re going to be spending the next several months observing and getting feedback from artisans how to make all of these processes as easy and reliable possible. Yet even in this preliminary stage, the future of technology and it’s relationship with craft in Morocco is clear and never has it been more important to get right.

The Financial Times (paywall; apologies) recently reported that emerging markets such as Morocco will be the countries worst hit “by the anticipated wave of creative destruction driven by the march of automation.”

Our experience in Morocco supports this. McDonalds jobs, the entry point for many low skilled workers in America and what should be a stable job in Morocco, are already largely automated in Morocco. Buy a Big Mac at the McDonalds in Casablanca and you don’t even have to deal with a single human. Morocco, whether it has realized it or not, is in trouble because the majority of jobs that exist now or were used by other countries to develop are soon going to be made obsolete by machines.

Future Proof a Country?

Craft, however, is one of the few jobs in Morocco that can not only survive in the age of automation, but thrive. Morocco’s natural resources like phosphate will one day run out. But the country’s rich cultural heritage rooted in the Arab, Amazigh and Jewish people and located at the corner of Africa, the Middle East and Europe, gives Morocco an unrivaled and inexhaustible well of inspiration for creativity and design. It is little surprise brands like Dior are launching their new lines from places like Marrakech. Morocco’s culture and design is worth more than gold in an overly mechanized world hungry for authentic product made by humans.

Whether Morocco’s craft sector can thrive all comes back to the brief windows that technology can open. If cutting edge technology can be put to work for artisans and placed under their control, artisans are all but guaranteed to generate wealth, not just a fair wage, and ultimately secure the future of Moroccan craft.

But the race is on. The window to make this happen is small and Anou is doing everything it can to make this a reality. If technology is never developed, or it simply is used to support middlemen on Etsy or Instagram, then the 17% annual decline in total Moroccan artisans will only accelerate. In some ways, the biggest challenge in ensuring artisans benefit from technology is not just building such technology, but building it all before the time when there are no artisans left.

When you buy Moroccan craft, you can certainly buy from sellers on Etsy or Instagram. There’s a small chance some money will get to artisans, but it certainly won’t contribute to any systemic change. If you buy through Anou, you’re not only guaranteed artisans will be paid well but also contribute to building the technology the artisan community and Morocco need to thrive in an increasingly automated world.

At the end of the day, the future of Morocco’s craft comes down to you, the customer. We need your help. Make purchases where they matter, and make sure all your friends and family do too. The future of Moroccan craft and Morocco’s economy depends on it.

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

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

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

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

Familiar Problems

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

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

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

Domestic Demand & Confusion

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

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

Launching The Atlas Wool Supply Co

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

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

Get Involved and Support Anou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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