Artisan Led Quality Control

The initial idea behind Anou was to enable customers to buy directly from artisans and have artisans fulfill those orders themselves. This was a pretty common sense solution to a lot of the inefficiencies that define the artisan sector and fair trade industry today.

This was also in retrospect rather bold. Getting artisans to ship products abroad and assume there would be little issue without oversight might be perceived as a bit naive.

Unexpected Surprises

That said, from Anou’s launch til mid 2016, our error rate or return rate of items artisans shipped directly was a low 3-5%. Such an error rate was satisfactory and even though the occasional return or problem would really take a bite out of our budget and bandwidth, it was manageable.

Starting in mid 2016 though, our error rate ballooned to 25-40%. The reasons for this are complex but it was a combination of several factors. The initiating factors was that our team was consumed with the implosion of an artisan group and spending immense time battling archaic custom rules that prevent artisans from shipping their products directly.

With these issues eating up all of our time, it required the artisan team be primarily responsible with following up artisans after sale. Not only did the team do a marginal job, the artisan community felt they would be able to get away with more with simply artisan oversight alone versus if a follow up call or visit came from a foreigner like myself. There’s more to this, but this is the basic idea for purposes of our blog.

As problems grew, we didn’t have the bandwidth to deal with the increasing amount of upset customers and problems exponentially grew from there. In short, the past several months were nothing that no sane person would describe as a good time.

Turning Problems Into Assets

On the subject of sanity, no sane business person would ever take on a business model where there is even a remote potential of a 40% error rate in orders. This explains why the existence a status quo in Morocco where artisan businesses are never fully artisan led. If Anou were primarily a business, we certainly would have taken proof of the last several months as reason to go a more traditional route. While we operate as a business, it’s not our primary raison d’ être.

Anou exists to enable artisans themselves to shape the future of Morocco’s artisan economy so that it works for them, rather than against them. As such, this is a problem that simply needs to be addressed, not avoided. If artisans cannot learn how to ensure quality and accuracy of their shipments, they’re not going to change how the economy works in Morocco. And let’s be real, if you start with the assumption that artisans aren’t capable of this, why bother working in this space?

The status quo deals with such issues by drawing up grants and doing trainings and workshops. In Morocco, those don’t work. Therefore our starting point in solving a problem is not workshops, but creating real-time learning experiences for artisans. How, for example, do we turn problems into a continuous stream of learning experiences where we can train hundreds of artisans at a fraction of a cost of a workshop all while building both our bottom line and a critical mass of artisans that have a nuanced understanding of quality control? Over the past, several months we’ve been working closely with our partners at Amana (Morocco’s national post system) and DHL to do exactly that.

An Overview Of Our Updated Quality Control Process

We’ve been testing this new process over the past month and we now project that we’ll be able to decrease customer side issues and stateside returns below 1%, if not 0%. Now in the majority of cases artisans ship their orders and Amana delivers directly to our office.

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Members of Association Tithrite working at Anou’s HQ receive shipments from artisans across the country and prepare them for inspection.

 

The artisan leaders then open and inspect every shipment and look for common errors such discrepancy between dimensions listed on the site vs the actual item, stains, bleeding dyes (if wool was not purchased through our Atlas Wool Supply Co initiative), color discrepancies between the listed image and the actual order, among other potential issues.

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Artisan Leader Mustapha Chaouai walks Rachida of the Khenifra Women’s Cooperative through quality control on a weeks worth of orders. Members of Association Tazrbit observe and eventually step in and try their hand. 

 

If the issue can be fixed on the spot, the artisans at the Anou HQ will fix it. If not, the artisans get experience using professional grade cameras and learn photography techniques to better show the product and errors to the customer, all while learning skills they can apply to their own photography when they are back at their cooperative in their home village.

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After the pictures are complete, the artisans use a small app that we built to enable the artisan team to fill out a simple form about the product using Tashelheet/Arabic, and once submitted, sends an e-mail directly to the customer in English notifying the customer of the problem with detailed pictures. It is best to never pass up an opportunity to enable artisans to feel the direct discomfort of informing customers of a problem. The customers can accept the order as is or they can request a refund and we’ll ship the rug back to the artisans.

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New tools enable Anou’s artisan leaders at HQ to send important information to customers directly. If you purchased an item from Anou recently, you likely received e-mails from members of Anou’s artisan team. 

This process is very much in the testing phase but initial results are incredibly positive. Instead of having a customer get an unexpected surprise and putting Anou on the hook for a several hundred dollar return, we can teach artisans how to address problems and improve their skill set all while creating a better customer experience at a max cost of about $12 USD per order affected by an error — a price that most artisans can generally afford to cover.

We’re incredibly excited about refining this process and making it live. It is important to note that none of this would have been possible without the incredibly understanding, patient customers we’ve had over past several months. Without their patience and support, we would not have had the space to fix these issues.

If you have any questions about this new process and want to learn more about this to ease any concern if you are on the fence with a potential order, give us a shout at hello@theanou.com

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!

 

 

 

 

Car Bumper or a Book Shelf?

Right when we think we got everything figured out, Morocco always throws us a curve ball. Last month, we had an artisan call in and say that the post office charged them almost double for shipping.

Normally, price discrepancies happen when artisans guesstimate the weight, but this never causes prices to double. We ruled out every valid reason why the post office could have accidentally charged such a high rate. We simply couldn’t figure out the problem.  That is until the rug the artisan sent arrived in the states.

The customer wrote to us saying they loved their rug but they were confused as to why package included this:

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This happened about a month ago and we still can’t figure out what it is. We’ve wavered between a part of a car bumper or a piece of a bookshelf. Your guess is as good as ours.

We started investigating and found out that the post office required the artisan to include the metal object in their package. We also learned that another artisan had the same problem and they didn’t mention this to us either. So far, one customer received a free tagine, a second customer received bars of argan soap, and the third customer got a car bumper. Oh, Morocco.

One of these post offices we’ve already flagged for corrupt practices and we’re still looking into the second post office. Regardless, we still can’t figure out if this is a way to skim money from the artisan or if the post office just doesn’t have a clue.

Artisans are now aware that they don’t have to add anything to their packages but in the rare case you find something extra, give us a shout!