Breaking Ground : Africa’s first carbon-negative yarn

The genesis of the Atlas Wool Supply Co.

In response to finding toxic chemicals in dyes and materials artisans used in Morocco several years ago, The Anou Cooperative launched a trial initiative called the Atlas Wool Supply Co.

Our goal was to provide artisans and the wider craft community in Morocco with high quality wool, dyes and other materials that were safe for artisans, their environment, and their customers.

Since then, we have shipped tens of thousands of kilograms of wool and materials to artisans across Morocco. We’ve also developed deep expertise in wool, dyes, and their environmental impact gleaned from years of learning from mistakes, difficult lessons and trial and error.

The world since then has changed as well. Rising global temperatures, rapid rates of land degradation and a global pandemic. This has pushed us to ask ourselves : how can we create material that is not only safe, but material that actually regenerates the land and environment where artisans live?

Moving forward with Africa’s first carbon negative wool

Today marks the next phase of the Atlas Wool Supply Co. This past week in the High Atlas Mountains, we broke ground on building Morocco’s only integrated wool and yarn mill that aims to become carbon negative.

Tractor breaks ground for the upcoming Atlas Wool Supply Co. mill in Ait Bouguemez

Set in Ait Bouguemez, the future mill is not only the first of its kind in Africa, it’s also the first significant economic project in the area. This matters because Ait Bouguemez belongs to a region usually forgotten in economic development initiatives, where employment opportunities are limited and heavily dependent on tourism.

Water successfully found !

In parallel, in the upcoming weeks, we will also complete the construction of our carbon neutral dye studio, as well as a flagship yarn store in the old city of Fez.

As construction continues, we will slowly be opening our physical and digital stores to a select number of (patient) customers willing to join this journey and take part as beta testers. If you’re interested in taking part, you can register on the Atlas Wool Supply Co website.

As we work to our official launch later this year, we will continue to share our progress on the blog and via our newsletters. Please help us spread the word by forwarding our newsletters, sharing our Instagram content and website.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to the Atlas Wool Supply Co thus far and thank you for your continued support.

The Anou Artisans

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

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

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

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

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

Familiar Problems

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

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

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

Domestic Demand & Confusion

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

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

Launching The Atlas Wool Supply Co

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

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

Get Involved and Support Anou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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