Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Artisans Take Sales Into Their Own Hands

It sounds idealistic, but impractical - getting illiterate artisans in remote parts of Morocco to handle sales of their own work. However, an enterprising group of people has made it a reality with the launch of a new website. It's a remarkable story of innovation and perseverance, writes Suzanna Clarke

In August the e-commerce website Anou - Beyond Fair Trade was launched. At first glance, it looks like a modest version of other e-commerce websites, but the photos of artisans' work it contains represent thousands of hours of labour. The man behind the site is Dan Driscoll, whose aim is to make himself redundant. 

"I wanted to build a platform artisans could use," says Dan. "For artisans to gain the full value of their work they have to be responsible for the complete process."

During his time as a Peace Corps worker in Morocco from 2008 to 2010, Dan discovered that artisans received a small portion of the sales of their work, with the rest going to middlemen. If artisans handled the sales, he reasoned, they could receive all the profit.

Founder of Anou, Dan Driscoll

The idea is that artisans can upload photos of their work onto the site, customers all over the world can buy them on line, and they post them out. It sounds simple, but when Dan came up with the concept he was living in a remote village with no road and no water, hours from the nearest town. "However, we did have internet," he explains. "It arrived in 2006 via cell phone towers and has made a huge amount of difference to people's lives."

Since then Dan and a dedicated team have trained artisans, who have themselves become trainers who go out into the field to teach other artisans - many of them illiterate - how to use the technology. "One of our best trainers, Rabha, has a 4th grade education, and a year ago she couldn't use a computer," Dan says.

Rabha Akkaoui is the President of Cooperative Chorouk. "Prior to Anou, we [Cooperative Chorouk] couldn't sell our products because we were very far from any city and if we did sell something, it was usually through a middleman," she says. "We didn't make much money when we did this. Now we have been able to sell work online, where most of our sales now come from and we have been able to increase our prices.

The new scheme has made a huge difference to Rabha's life, and the artisans she deals with. "I have been given the opportunity to travel to many places I have never been and meet many interesting people in order to train new artisans how to use Anou. The experience has taught me how to better sell and make my own products in order to help the women in my village. And I now understand problems many Moroccan artisans face across Morocco and I am happy to be able to fix them."

Now the Anou project has trained around 200 artisans, and new coops are joining the scheme every week.

"The training is free, and it's free to add products," explains Dan. "We are a non-profit organisation - we are in the process of formalising that in Morocco - and charge a 15% commission on products to cover our costs. All of that money is ploughed back into the business. It costs around US $1,500 a month to run, and we have six trainers who get paid for each training they complete. The trainers are always artisans themselves. The more trainers we bring on, the more we develop an established community of artisans who can support each other."

Not everyone is happy about the new scheme however, particularly the middlemen who feel that it has undermined their profit share. But Dan remains optimistic. "If you look at the market of somewhere like Fez, it's huge," he says. "Handicrafts are a big enough field for all of us." And, he reasons, encouraging the next generation of artisans who can see they can make a reasonable living for their families can only be good for the industry as a whole.

Weavers from Associate Tithrite in Ait Hamza

Dan began working with a group of woodcarvers in 2008, as a Peace Corps volunteer. "Before I came out to the village, I did a three month training course in the Amazigh language. And then I arrived here and found I had trained in the wrong dialect."

He was posted to Ait Bouganez, four hours from the town of Ben Mellal in the Atlas Mountains; one of 26 villages totalling a population of 16,000. Having no-one who spoke English around forced Dan to learn the language quickly. He found that the woodcarvers were having to take wood from the forest without permission, and helped them to legalise the arrangement. As deforestation had happened on a wide scale since the 1980s, he introduced the idea of them planting trees to replace those they used. But, as the woodcarvers received such a small return for their work this was unaffordable. So then Dan started to look for a way to improve the amount the artisans were getting.

Red charm bracelet by Mohamed El Asri
"Initially I tried to get them to use the Etsy and eBay sites, but they are really not designed for first time users. They change the layout of their sites frequently, and people would have difficulties using them." Despite this, Dan's belief in the potential of the internet was confirmed as the woodcarver's incomes grew to around 10 times what they had started with from online sales. In fact they were so successful, the group started to fund local infrastructure projects, focusing on waste management. They installed big metal drums to burn trash, which was too expensive to transport, and afterwards would bury the ash.

Dan took a year's break from Morocco, going to Yemen to work on a national newspaper in English there. However, he was deported from the country, as were most journalists, during the Arab Spring.

He returned to Morocco, with a vision of finding ways to create jobs in rural areas, "and trying to find a way for the artisan community to support itself. I am interested in trying to create resilient communities, with community led development." Inspired by his success with the woodcarvers, Dan looked for a way to replicate and improve the model on a larger scale.

"The internet has really changed the way people live," says Dan. "All of a sudden they can sell their products from their mud house...And its becoming even more accessible with the use of affordable smart phones."

Weaver from Cooperative Chorouk with her naturally dyed rug

"Anou is not so much about e-commerce - it's trying to solve the access problem," Dan says. "We want our buyers to create a personal connection with the artisans. Many of our buyers have travelled to Morocco before. In many ways they are better buying the product online, because they know that the artisan actually receives their money.

"Our aim is to create transparency in the market. We can give you a dirham breakdown on who gets what. We verify what people get paid by not only sending a text message to the head of the co-op who dispatches the product, but also one to the artisan so they know what sold and for how much."

It hasn't all been smooth sailing. When artisans encounter technical problems with the website, they are inclined to believe it is their fault and they have somehow broken the site. "I spend a lot of time travelling out to remote villages finding out what happened and reassuring people," he says.

How successful Anou is remains to be seen, but the signs are promising. Dan points out that the website is "not a power grab, but way of reshaping market in way that benefits the artisans."

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Anonymous said...

Fantastic project, so refreshing to see someone empowering people to help themselves.

Anonymous said...

The dedication of spending years on this work, not to make money, but to solve a problem and empower people is rather remarkable. Incredible work from an admirable young man.