The Artisan Community Just Bought a Building!

Artisan leaders, Anou volunteers, and Moon (the cat) on the ground floor of the four story building we just acquired.

In the beginning of 2020, Cafe Clock, one of the most famous restaurants in Morocco, donated some space in their new experiential shopping center to The Anou Cooperative. Their space was a beautiful traditional riad that shares walls with the Cafe Clock restaurant in Fez. 

Today, it is with incredibly deep gratitude for Cafe Clock and a constellation of many private Anou donors from around the world that we’re excited to announce The Anou Cooperative has acquired the entire riad from Cafe Clock. 

When we launched the Anou Cooperative many years ago, our vision was to restructure Morocco’s craft economy so that it works for artisans rather than against them. The acquisition of one of the most valuable retail properties in Fez is one of many more steps to come that embody our cooperative’s vision. 

The ancient medinas of Morocco were built with artisan hands and used to be home to countless artisans. Over the past several decades those artisans were replaced by middlemen, many of whom used their prized locations to exploit artisans. 

We believe that having an artisan community run and owned cooperative outright purchase such a beautiful building sends an important signal and pushes back against the status quo that too many have become comfortable with. Ultimately, The Anou Cooperative’s purchase will ensure that genuine artisans from across Morocco have a rent-free forever home where they can learn, design, work, and grow their businesses — all in the center of one of Morocco’s cultural and economic capitals.

With purchasing the four-story building we now have quite a bit more work on top of the remaining store construction before we can officially open. While we can’t share too much about what is in store for the future, what we can share is that we’ll be redesigning the riad to support studios and training centers that will be accessible to all Anou artisans for free, particularly artisans in Fez. Equally exciting, we’ll be working with Rebecca Hoyes, a professor at Central Saint Martins to create Morocco’s premiere artist residency program to ensure the world’s best creative talent always pulses through our space and the wider Moroccan artisan community. Follow us on Instagram to keep up to date as we announce these developments in the near future. 

This dream would never have been possible without our donors and supporters. To every donor that made this happen, what more is there to say,  we literally bought a building. And equally, if not more important, we owe a huge thank you to anyone who ever purchased from Anou. There are many places where you can buy Moroccan craft, the best of which an artisan earns may earn a little more than what a middleman would pay. Instead, you purchased from Anou and enabled a marginalized community of artisans to transform Morocco’s crafts economy for the better. Thank you to you all. 

If you’re interested in supporting Anou’s long list of ambitious projects that will enable artisans to transform the fabric of Morocco’s craft economy, please do get in touch at hello@thanou.com.

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.

Tracking Number Gif

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.

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.

Anou’s New HQ in David Beach, Morocco!

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Anou’s new HQ in David Beach. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

Shipping From Rural Morocco to Any Country in 5 Days

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

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

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

What it Takes to Ship From the High Atlas 

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Shipping Directly to Customers

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

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

Anou’s Office in Rabat

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Anou Nominated for E-Commerce Site of the Year!

Maroc Web Awards We were excited to learn that Anou was nominated as Morocco’s e-commerce site of the year! In order to make it to the finals, Anou must generate enough votes to finish in the top five. From there a committee of heavy weights from Morocco’s start up and business communities will select the winner based on criteria such as innovation, impact and originality.

So in order to get Anou to the finals, all you have to do is vote for us on the Maroc Web Awards site. It’ll take 30 seconds of your time and three clicks of your finger!

Vote below!

http://marocwebawards.com/mwa8/anou/

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

 

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The Workshop of the Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus.

The Women’s Cooperative of Imelghaus has been one of highest selling artisan groups this past month. They recently shipped a massive custom order and just began work on another large custom order. The looms in their modest cinder block workshop are all booked solid for the next several weeks.

Recently, the cooperative looks as if it has always been successful but this could not be further from the truth. Fatima, the president, founded the cooperative in 2011 and then became the first artisan to be trained on Anou in the beginning of 2012, nearly two years ago. And since the day her first training on Anou ended, Fatima and the women of the cooperative have confronted an endless stream of challenges.

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Brahim, Anou’s artisan director, walks Fatima through Anou’s first prototype. April 2012.

Relentless Challenges

Immediately after Fatima completed her training on Anou, men in the village told her she could not sell her rugs online. The reasoning of the local men was not because they did not want photos of their wives online as one might initially believe. Instead, the men’s resistance was rooted in the fact that their control as resellers of the rugs would decline as the women learned how to do it on their own. Women, the men said, should focus on making the rugs and not selling them.

When Fatima and I discussed this problem years ago, she just whispered to me, “It doesn’t matter what the men want, I’ll go to the internet cafe to upload pictures of the rugs when they’re not looking.” After that moment, I knew she would eventually break through. But the cooperative’s problems kept mounting. Anou was plagued by problems and its development dragged on for nearly a year. The women continued to add products to the site even though the site broke every time they used it. Worse, the internet that was introduced in the valley in 2007 was unexpectedly cut by Morocco’s telecom company and the women were left to figure out new ways to get internet access.

When the site was officially launched last summer, their photography wasn’t very appealing, the designs of the rugs needed attention, and the pricing of their products was not consistent. Unsurprisingly, they didn’t sell anything in 2013. In the same year, the cooperative of over 20 women only sold 13 rugs at craft fairs and to tourists in their valley.

In early 2014, the cooperative finally made their first sale on Anou’s online store. The women passed on any income from the sale in order to collectively buy a new smartphone. With the continuous support of Anou’s artisan leaders, Fatima gradually improved her photography and posted the majority of her marketable products. But then their progress seemingly came to an abrupt halt when the president dropped their brand new phone into water.

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The women of the cooperative begin to get serious about their photography. November 2012.

Dead End?

After years of work with cooperatives and associations I’ve heard it all. Stories about cooperatives where their members each made 30 dirhams ($4 USD) each for a year’s worth of work are not uncommon. I still don’t fully understand the reasons why cooperatives and associations remain together after all that they endure.

In the case of Imelghaus, they were fortunate that they stuck together. Shortly after their phone was waterlogged, they sold several rugs on Anou. A consistent stream of custom order requests then followed. In the past month, they have sold over $1400 in rugs with more custom orders nearly complete.

Word of the cooperative’s success spread quickly. Once skeptical women in the village are now clamoring to join the cooperative. Ixf-n-Ghir, the village up the road, held a meeting this past week to discuss starting their own cooperative in an effort to model Fatima’s success.

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

Where There Is No Inspiration

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

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

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

 

The Arc Of Artisan Development

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

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

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

Developing Anou’s Vision for 2014

2013 was a huge year for Anou. At the beginning of last year, our vision for what Anou would become began to coalesce. By August, the vibrant community of artisans that defines Anou finally started to take shape. In November, Anou and the artisan community began to strain as sales tripled from the proceeding month. And, well, in December we had a bit of a surprise.

We initially thought that sales had unexpectedly declined in December. Compared to November, we weren’t putting out as many fires or providing as much support to Anou’s artisan team as the artisan community fulfilled their orders. In some ways it started to feel a bit quiet. But when we ran the numbers at the end of the month, Anou’s community had actually set another record in sales.

December was a telling sign of just how much Anou’s community has grown and matured over the past year. Most importantly the month demonstrated that Anou can be fully artisan run and be sustained independently. No longer do we have to write that artisan independence is a future we are creating because it is now a reality.

In the context of this success, many challenges loom for Anou both large and small. On the small side, the photography artisans post on the Anou store needs improvement; attention to detail with packaging can be insufficient at times; some orders have taken too long to ship; and artisan profiles sometimes lack the depth customers on the Anou store would like to see. However, we believe these challenges will slowly resolve themselves as Anou’s artisan team grows and gains more experience building Anou.

Anou’s larger challenges can be defined with one question: While Anou can now sustain itself independently, can it grow, adapt and thrive independently? The only way this is possible is with vision. More so than money or talent, vision is the scarcest resource of any successful organization.  Can Anou’s artisan team, with some members who lack even an elementary education, develop the vision required for Anou’s long-term success?

We believe that all visions are rooted in the experience of confronting challenges. That is why on January 14th, Anou’s artisan team will take over the full responsibility of managing Anou for a period of 30 days. To get ready, we’ll be bringing our entire artisan team together in Figuig for four days next week to prepare them.

During this experience, Tom, Anou’s technical director, will continue to push forward features and I will continue to manage customer relations, but only at the request of the artisan team. For Anou’s long-term success, the artisan team will also be identifying pain points to refine Anou’s operations. And most importantly, Anou’s artisan team will confront the challenge of managing Anou head on in order to begin developing the vision necessary to take Morocco’s artisan community into 2014 and beyond.

We can’t wait to see what Anou’s artisan team will do.

One Step Closer To A Fully Artisan Run Platform

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

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

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

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

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

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