$1 Million

Earlier this summer The Anou Cooperative surpassed $1 million USD in total sales since we launched the Anou market place several years ago. This is a major milestone for any business. Businesses are hard. Only about 6% of business ever reach $1 million USD in sales. For Anou, this milestone is special because it was achieved by the effort of people erroneously believed to not be business savvy at all: artisans.  

Artisans across the Anou community have to make a huge jump and take on large challenges to transition to selling directly to customers. In addition to photographing and posting their own products, there are the challenges of how to scale their businesses and manage their growth.  It’s not an easy learning curve.

The biggest learning curve of all is that of Anou’s artisan leaders.  Artisan leaders work as a team by working shifts at Anou’s HQ in order to help manage quality, manage materials for the artisan community such as wool and dye work, collaborate with partners such as our retail, shipping, donor and government partners, and help advise newer groups on how best to organize their cooperatives. Through this work, artisan leaders like Kenza of Association Tithrite, Brahim of Association Ighrem, Mustapha of Cooperative Nahda, Rachida of Cooperative Tiglmamin, Rabha of Cooperative Tamlalt, Fatiha of Cooperative Tifawin, Halima of Association Zaouia, all have set the bar for what artisans can achieve.

This milestone and the success of all Anou’s artisan leaders all comes back to you, our supporters. To everyone who has helped advocate on Anou’s behalf, or purchased a product (or several!), told their friends and family or had their orders delayed due to various growing pains, none of this would be possible without you.

The Anou community is deeply indebted to all of our customers and partners who have made this milestone a possibility. There is still much more work to be done in building Anou’s community and reshaping Morocco’s craft economy but with all of your support we know the best is yet to come.

 

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Kenza (left) of Association Tithrite.

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Rabha of Cooperative Tamlalt

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Fatiha of Cooperative Tifawin

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Brahim of Association Ighrem

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Halima of Association Zaouia

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Mustapha of Association Nahda

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Rachida (left) of Cooperative Tiglmamin

 

Officially Partners: The Ministry of Handicrafts and The Anou Cooperative

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Brahim El Mansouri, woodcarver, co-founder and president of the Anou Cooperative, shakes hands with Minister of Handicraft H.E. Dr. Fatima Marouane after signing an unprecedented agreement. 

After two and half years of writing proposals, meetings and hard work, the Anou Cooperative has finally signed an unprecedented agreement with Morocco’s Ministry of Handicrafts, Social Economy and Solidarity. The agreement elevates The Anou Cooperative to an official partner of the Ministry — a status traditionally reserved for government agencies and large international organizations.

More specifically, the agreement creates the framework for the Ministry to include members of The Anou Cooperative in its programming and initiatives, share data and research on Morocco’s artisan economy with Anou’s artisan leaders, and work closely with Anou’s artisan leaders to create policy that better enables artisans of the Anou community to grow their businesses, such as streamlined customs and export processes. Even more exciting is that through the agreement the Ministry has officially endorsed the Anou Cooperative as one of its preferred means to buy from artisan associations, cooperatives, and small businesses across Morocco.

It is truly difficult to underscore the importance of this agreement. After traveling across Morocco and meeting with hundreds of artisans over the past several years there is a tangible feeling of shared helplessness amongst the artisan community who feel they have little control over their future. What often frustrates and isolates artisans the most is the feeling that those elected and chosen to represent their interests in Morocco’s government fail to do so and rarely interact with artisans as serious stakeholders.

Enabling the Moroccan artisan community to build the future of the artisan economy in their country starts with instilling the belief that they actually can. Nothing is more powerful in creating this belief than when Brahim El Mansouri, the president of the Anou Cooperative, a woodcarver, is able to sit down at a table with the Minister of Handicraft as equals and sign an agreement that will alter the future of artisan craft in Morocco.

None of this would have been possible without the tireless efforts of the visionary support of those at the Ministry such as Boubker Mazoz, Nada Baâl, Adil Ibnoutalib, Abdelkarim Azenfar and of course H.E. Minister Dr. Fatima Marouane. This agreement is a testament to how committed the current administration is to building the artisan community and social economy of Morocco.

With an inspired community of artisans empowered by an endorsement and a true partner in their government, it is clear that the best days of Morocco’s artisan community are ahead of it.

The Future of Moroccan Artisan Design

 

Part I: Traditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming Soon

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

Part III: Anou’s Collaboration Tool

Refining the Vision of Anou

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

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

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

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

We decided to commit.

Building Community

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

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

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

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

Anou’s Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

 

 

Anou Just Became Morocco’s First National Cooperative

After a year of intense wrangling and hard work, we’re finally excited to announce that our community has been incorporated as Morocco’s first national cooperative. We have been waiting for what has seemed forever to announce this exciting news because this is a big deal.

The vision behind Anou has always been clear: enable the artisan community in Morocco to establish equal access to the global market. But if there is anything we’ve learned since we began our work is that to fully realize this vision we must ensure that community, meritocracy, and ownership are woven into every aspect of how we operate. Our cooperative status enables us to do exactly that.

Community

There are only two conditions to join the Anou Cooperative. First, an individual must be a motivated, Moroccan artisan that makes the products that she or he sells. Second, they must agree to Anou’s transparency requirements. Any artisan that meets these conditions can reach out to us and request to join the cooperative. Artisan trainers and leaders will then meet with the prospective artisan in person at their workshop and if everything checks out, we’ll open their online store and provide them with a basic training so they can hit the ground running. This ensures that every artisan in Morocco can both benefit from and contribute to the community.

Meritocracy

Once an artisan’s store is opened, our platform will soon automatically rate an artisan’s performance managing their online store through key performance indicators such as their product ratings, order fulfillment speed, custom order accuracy, among many other important factors. Performing at a high level will soon enable the artisan to lower the fees added to the products they list on their online store. Additionally, when artisans reach a high level of performance they will be eligible to become a trainer for the cooperative.

Trainers are those the cooperative relies on to either verify and train new artisans interested in joining our community or provide support to those artisans who may be struggling with aspects of their online store. Through this work, a trainer can earn additional income and skills to supplement their sales. But most importantly, the experience as a trainer serves as a rich, real-time training in understanding the aspirations and struggles of artisans across the country. This understanding serves as the foundation for each trainer to develop a voice and a vision for the Anou Cooperative, and in essence, the wider artisan community in Morocco.

Ownership

Trainers who then have a long track record of success trainings and have consistently volunteered to support other artisans or help complete daily operational issues of Anou can then become a leader. Leaders are those in the community who have at every level proven their commitment to supporting the artisan community. They are those who were eager and quick to master the tools on their online store and then just as quick to help others learn as they did by becoming a trainer. Because of their rise through the cooperative, leaders possess a deep understanding of the needs of the community and embody the best of what Moroccan artisans are capable of.

Therefore, those who become leaders earn the responsibility to make the decisions that will shape the future of their community. And this is exactly what Anou’s national cooperative structure enables. Each leader gains one seat on the cooperative board, and with that, gets one vote to cast on any critical decision the cooperative faces. Decisions that were once the domain of others trying to help artisans are now fully in the hands of artisans themselves. How should the cooperative spend its profit? What rules should be implemented that foster a safe, vibrant community? Leaders will have the full ability to decide. No more gimmicky artisan advisory boards for western non-profits. No more for-profit businesses that act in their own interest and then ‘donate’ to the artisan community to compensate. The Anou Cooperative enables true ownership.

Establishing Equality

Creating equal access to markets doesn’t start with developing sophisticated technology or overpriced fair-trade certification. It starts with ownership. Without real ownership of the Anou Cooperative, no artisan would want to spend any of her or his time helping another artisan. And if no artisan is willing to help another artisan, no artisan will develop leadership skills or new ideas that come from teaching and working with others. And with no skills and little incentive to work together, the artisan sector would continue to look as it did prior to when our community began: a powerless group of 1.3 million individual artisans trapped in a zero sum game waiting for their next savior who controls all access to opportunity.

Yes, we understand the concern of whether or not artisans can actually manage and set the direction of an increasingly complex organization. But while creating equal access starts with ownership, creating equal access ends with you. You play an important role in the growth and success of our artisan led community. Each time you tell a friend about your experience buying directly from artisans on Anou, it might just drive that much more traffic to the site and encourage more artisans to reach out and join the cooperative. Each time you like a new product an artisan lists on our Instagram account, that artisan may just gain that extra burst of confidence to believe they can help other artisans in their community. And every time you make a purchase, it gives the artisan leaders validation that their work and effort matters, fueling their ability to make the prescient decisions that will grow their community.

With our cooperative structure and your support, the dream of creating equal access to global markets is quickly becoming a reality for all Moroccan artisans.

Making Anou’s Expenses Publicly Accessible

Recently, a fair-trade business owner visited one of the cooperatives Anou serves looking to purchase several “fair trade” rugs. The artisans told the fair-trade business owner that their prices were the same in their workshop as they are on their Anou online store. The fair-trade owner complained that the prices listed online were too expensive and that they expected that prices would be cheaper at the workshop. However, all prices on Anou are set by the artisans that made the products. The difference between purchasing from an artisan workshop in person or via their store page on TheAnou.com is essentially zero minus the shipping costs.

Undeterred, the owner began to increase the pressure, refusing to buy anything if the prices were not reduced to a level the owner deemed acceptable. Since it was only two days before the biggest holiday of the year in Morocco, and a holiday for which everyone saves their money to buy food and gifts (Eid Kabir), the women of the cooperative panicked and gave the owner a 10% discount on their rugs, amounting to about $5 USD discount per rug.

We contacted the owner directly about sourcing products through Anou in the past, but they said,  “the prices listed on Anou are too expensive and I have business costs to meet.” One month later, the $45 rug was listed on their website for $366. A description of the rug stated, “with the purchase of this rug, you directly support [artisan’s name] so she can better support her family.” This begs the question, was discounting the artisans by $5 really necessary? And does an 813% retail mark-up really follow the fair-trade business owners claim that their fabrics are “fair and honest”?

A Lack of Transparency

The challenge of finding an answer to the question of whether a $5 discount was necessary points to the significant and troubling lack of transparency within the fair-trade industry.

Unfortunately, there is no incentive or even a remote expectation for fair-trade businesses to be completely transparent about their costs. Customers must simply trust that a business is fair and practices what it markets. This holds true for established fair-trade organizations as well. Their slick websites display dazzling statistics about their operations, such as impossibly low overhead costs so artisans can get the “fairest” price. But dig a little deeper and you often find that fair-trade marketing focuses far more on evocative photos than on substance.

To glimpse beneath the surface, track down an organization’s 990 report (you can do that on www.guidestar.org). 990 reports are where tax exempt organizations in the US are legally required to publicly list their expenses and revenue. While 990 forms don’t provide that much clarity on an organization’s budget, they’re clear enough to see some pretty big red flags. For example, the two founders of one artisan focused organization collectively earn over $200,000 in salary annually. These two salaries account for nearly 50% of their entire annual budget and is likely greater than the value of all products purchased and sold in the same year. To cover these “overhead” costs, the organization raises funds through charity. Do their donors understand how much of their donation is going towards initiatives that may or may not benefit artisans or follow “fair trade” principles? Do their donors know how much artisans really make working with this organization? Without full transparency we are left to simply trust the information they market.

This lack of transparency always leaves artisans in Morocco with the short end of the stick. Artisans are regularly coerced into giving much more than $5 discounts because of someone else’s business’ costs, fair-trade or not. The worst part? The end customer never even knows. As long as this continues, artisans will remain disenfranchised and poor, which only provides the fuel for the endless parade of organizations trying to save them.

Opening Up Anou’s Expenses

Anou is breaking this monotonous cycle by empowering the community of artisans in Morocco to drive their own growth and development. Naturally, financial transparency has become the backbone of ensuring this community is capable of establishing equal access to the free market on their terms.

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When Anou’s artisan leaders input their expenses, they’re automatically categorized on our public budget.

This is why, starting today, Anou is making its real time data for expenses publically accessible. Next, we will begin building the tools to publicly display the revenue of our community in real time. This way when purchasing from artisans in the Anou community, customers will know exactly where their money is going. No need to take our word for it or believe that “all money goes to the artisan!”, you can simply see it for yourself. This document is what we use internally to record and track our costs, so you see what we see in realtime.

While this decision uncomfortably challenges the status quo, we believe it is absolutely necessary for us to do. We cannot create the trust needed for the artisan community to coalesce if only a select few can view Anou’s expenses — it is the artisan’s money after all. Nor can we create the expectation for artisans within the community to become more transparent if we do not set the example ourselves. Lastly, if we do not do anything, there is no incentive for anyone else in the fair-trade industry to ever change.

At first glance, full transparency might be perceived as naive, idealistic, and/or unrealistic. But is it really? One business in the US, Bufferapp, recently made all of their salaries and sales data open to the public in real time. The move was heralded as ground breaking, signaling a new era in how businesses are run in the 21st century. This company isn’t a social enterprise, nor does it have a traditional altruistic mission. Bufferapp simply develops a software application that enables people to easily manage multiple social media accounts. If a private for-profit company with no direct purpose in helping marginalized populations can execute transparency better than everyone in the fair-trade industry, it is naive and unrealistic to believe that fair-trade should remain the same.

As we continue our push to full transparency, we ask that you join and support Anou to realize a marketplace that works for both artisans and their customers. You can show this support by spreading the word about Anou’s work, purchasing through Anou, or doing something as simple as asking a question about our budget in the comments below so that we can make our budget more understandable. With your help, artisans will no longer settle for $5 discounts and customers around the world can buy with the knowledge that their money is going where it is meant to go. 

View Anou’s Real-Time Expenses:

English & Arabic 2014/2015/2016

Note: We’ll be exploring our budget more in depth in forthcoming blog posts. In the mean time, ask us any questions you have below!

Suspending a Cooperative From Anou’s Online Store

This month we decided to suspend the account of one of the most well-known cooperatives in Morocco. While the decision was difficult to make, particularly during the holiday rush, it was necessary because we believe that transparency is a cornerstone of Anou’s community.

As we’ve written about many times before, access to limited resources coupled with illiteracy and low-education levels all contribute to the challenging and opaque environments in which artisans frequently work. As a result, many artisans have little awareness of what happens within their own artisans groups, associations or cooperatives. Even when artisans have the awareness to see something wrong, they’re often too afraid to expose the issue so it can be resolved. This makes it frighteningly easy for artisans to be taken advantage of by anyone, including members of their own cooperative.

Sadly, this  was occurring in the cooperative we suspended. We had long suspected that a small group of women within the cooperative were embezzling money, or depending on your perspective, covering the ‘costs’ of operating the cooperative. However, we never had evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that money was in fact being stolen. 

Increasing Transparency

During the last several months, we have continued to tighten up our transparency efforts. This has included actively reaching out via phone calls to artisans tagged as the maker of specific sold products to confirm how much they had received as a result of their sale. In addition, multiple cooperative members became comfortable enough to reach out to Anou artisan leaders and alert them to problems within their cooperative. All of this enabled us to paint an accurate picture of what was happening within the cooperative.

The first thing we found was the true story behind two slightly incorrect custom orders the cooperative had recently made. The president told us that the incorrect designs were the result of having the items handmade. The customer of the rug graciously accepted them as they were.  However, in reality, the president instead bought similar rugs from a local market and pocketed a 400% markup.

We also learned that the members within the cooperative were unaware that they were only being paid 50% of the price listed on their online store on Anou. The officers claimed that the other 50% went to cover the costs of the cooperative. While it is none of our business how a cooperative distributes their revenue, it becomes a problem if none of the members are aware of this information nor agree to it. In this case, the members never knew about this information nor could they, or the officers, clearly explain what the costs were of the cooperative. As the officers fumbled trying to sort out their finances, it was discouragingly obvious that the 50% was exclusively going to three members of the group.

Anou’s Values

These actions not only violated the values of Anou’s community, but threatened the trust the community has built with the thousands of customers who have purchased from Anou’s online store. Anou’s artisan leaders quickly decided to suspend the group.

In preparing to suspend the cooperative, we investigated the situation further to outline what conditions they would have to meet if they wanted to rejoin the community. During our investigation, we found that the cooperative had not held a general assembly in over two years. Annual general assemblies are a legal requirement for Moroccan cooperatives. It is at these meetings where members agree on how payments are distributed within the cooperative. With no general assembly, there was no clarity on where their sales money was going and no one could be held accountable. This makes it incredibly easy for money to disappear.

We decided that if the cooperative wanted to rejoin the Anou community, they would have to hold a general assembly and establish, in writing, what percentage of their sales from their online store would go to cover the cooperative’s expenses. All the members would be required to sign it, and an Anou artisan leader may be present if requested. After a rather intense meeting, the artisans finally agreed to meet these requirements. Once this occurs, we will reopen their store on TheAnou.com and follow up with every artisan after they make a sale to hold them accountable. At the time of writing, the artisans still have not held their meeting but they have told us it will happen soon.

The Deeper Problem

Perhaps the saddest part of this story is that this cooperative is not the only cooperative where similar problems may be occurring. In fact, it is fairly easy to find these groups. We have learned that cooperatives where members are exploited often sell via fair trade businesses where honesty and equality are never measured and enforced down to the member level.

One of the challenges then is how do we continue to grow  transparency across Anou’s community if the cooperatives that have the most connections with fair-trade businesses will be the ones most likely to leave the community rather than to reform how they work. We’ve reached out to some of these fair-trade businesses to discuss having them source their orders through the Anou artisan community where transparency is enforced. Doing so would enable the business to guarantee that their payments were getting where they are supposed to go.  However, a recent fair trade business declined.  They said that by teaching artisans to sell independently instead of through intermediaries, Anou is teaching artisans how to “work outside the system rather than within it.”

When you Google the name of the cooperative we just suspended, you’ll find several articles written by fair trade businesses that canonize its female members. The articles paint the members that were embezzling money from the cooperative as examples of leadership and the steady hands that are working to preserve their craft and heritage. These statements are not false, but they generalize artisans into simple caricatures who need to be saved. This isn’t surprising because when you combine limited on-the-ground knowledge with the primary motivation of driving sales at incredibly marked up prices, these fair-trade businesses tend to gloss over the fact that artisans are no more or less human than the people who purchase their products.

The artisans that contributed to their cooperative’s suspension are not criminals nor saints. Rather, their actions were simply the result of the opaque, challenging environments they work in. Creating transparency in these environments is complicated, so complicated that the only individuals capable of setting the rules to create transparency is the artisan community leaders themselves. This is why having artisans leading the Anou community is so important. Even today, Anou’s  leaders are still sorting out how to create a truly transparent platform that works for all artisans. While it will take the community time to perfect the Anou platform, we couldn’t dream of a better system to create.

The Economics Behind Moroccan Beni Ourain Rugs

As we noted in a recent blog post, the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus became one of Anou’s top selling artisans. With more sales combined with encouragement from Anou’s community leaders, the women finally started to record all of the material costs and time spent on the rugs they make. The women were shocked at what they learned.

The first rug they began recording on was a beautiful, custom ordered 10’ x 8’ Beni Ourain style rug. The artisans listed the price on Anou for $380. Since the rug weighed over 21 kilograms, the cost to ship it to the US came to $260. Anou’s community fee, which is about 6% of final listed price, added $43 to the price.The credit card payment company we use to process credit cards added $21, or about 3% of the final price. All of this combined set the listed price on Anou for $712.

The Imelghaus Cooperative listed their Beni Ourain rug for $712 on Anou.

The Imelghaus Cooperative listed their Beni Ourain rug for $712 on Anou.

Providing this much detail in how prices are calculated is unprecedented in the fair-trade industry, but we can learn even more by breaking down the $388 the artisans earned using the material and labor information they shared with Anou. The cooperative recorded that they spent $125 for the wool to make the rug leaving them with a total of $236 for their labor. The women recorded that it took over 280 total hours of weaving. This puts the cooperative’s hourly wage at $.93 USD/hour, or $7.44 for an 8-hour work day. This wage is less than what a day laborer makes in the rural valley where the cooperative is based. It is also below the Moroccan minimum wage for agricultural workers, which is the equivalent of $7.50 per day (learn more about Moroccon minimum wage on Wikipedia or fairwageguide.org).

The women recorded that it took a total of 280 hours of weaving time to complete their Beni Ourain rug.

The women recorded that it took a total of 280 hours of weaving to complete their Beni Ourain rug.

The time spent creating the warp (pictured above) or preparing the wool was included in the 280 hours the cooperative recorded.

The time spent creating the warp (pictured above) or preparing the wool was NOT included in the 280 hours the cooperative recorded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The numbers are surprising because they are incredibly low. So low, in fact, that you might think the wages couldn’t get any lower. However, cooperatives are regularly faced with buyers, both fair-trade and regular retailers alike, who request prices lower than what they list on Anou. Worse, it is not uncommon for women’s cooperatives to unknowingly sell their products at price that only meets a quarter of their material costs when selling to traditional middlemen. This is largely why it is not hard to find rugs for sale in the Marrakech medina for prices cheaper than what is listed on Anou.

Take a moment for that to sink in. 

With no other sales avenues other than local craft fairs, artisans, much like the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus prior to Anou, never have had the knowledge or incentive to push back when buyers want lower prices.

For the first time, the women met and decided that they wanted to increase their pay to $1.70 an hour, or $13.60 a day. This new rate would exceed the Moroccan minimum wage for industrial labor, a big deal in rural Morocco. As such, similarly sized rugs the cooperative produces in the future will now be listed on Anou for around $912 USD, an increase of $200 from their previous price.

The Cooperative's rug at its new home in Brooklyn, New York. Is there a need for high end boutiques to make these rugs look great?

The Cooperative’s Beni Ourain rug at its new home in Brooklyn, New York. Rugs purchased directly from artisans look just as great, if not better,  than the ones purchased from high end resellers.

Recently, Anou was featured in an Apartment Therapy blog post in which they discussed where to buy Beni Ourain rugs because their “popularity…shows no signs of flagging.” The average price of similarly sized rugs listed on their blog (minus the product listed from Anou) was $2,564 USD. This number serves as a good indicator of the average market value for these type of rugs. Imagine the impact a sale would make if the women of Imelghaus could sell their rugs at that price or even half that price. The only way this is even possible is if the artisans are able to sell directly to their customers and customers are knowledgeable about whom exactly they are buying from.

The cooperative’s new price is a lot higher than before but still much cheaper relative to the other products listed on Apartment Therapy. Time will tell whether the cooperative will be able to continue their recent pace of sales at their new price. If they’re not able to, you only have to scan to the bottom of the Apartment Therapy article to see what the future of artisan craft in Morocco looks like if artisans aren’t empowered to sell directly to their customers: 10ft x 8ft West Elm “Moroccan” rugs made in India. Perhaps the trend of Beni Ourain will never “flag”, but it is obvious that the culture and artisans behind this craft surely will if artisans remain dependent on others to sell their work for them.

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.