On the 25th of February, I received this message on my Facebook page from a certain Dan Driscoll :
I’m gonna be brutally honest here : at first, I got a little perplex as I thought it was one more western hero and one more project taking advantage of local artisans while marketing it as a “ social business ”. See however hard I try, and even though I belong to the generation Y, I still have that old fashioned metropolitan-raised perplexity. But you’ve guessed it, I was wrong. And let me tell you : I’ve never enjoyed being wrong that much. Dan, the “western hero”, turned out to be more engaged for the good of the local communities than I ever was. Oh, and he also happens to speak Tachlhit (=berber language quite rarely spoken in urban areas even by Moroccans).
But let us start from the beginning and set some context; I hit the road to Rabat on Friday, I woke up Saturday to a rainy wheather, took a taxi to “Quartier Hassan” because the taxi man did not recognize the Technopark –neither did everybody I met that morning, up your communication game Technopark Rabat, would you! – and I thought I could easily get there. Once again, I was wrong. I got lost for a solid 20min. But I finally stumbled upon the colorful building and went in for my meeting. I entered the 15m2 office to find the five board members of the ANOU cooperative waiting for me. To the surprise of my perplex self, Dan annouced to me right away that he was in fact leaving for a meeting and that he was gonna leave me in company of the rest of his team for them to answer my questions.
I first interviewed, Rabbha Hakkaoui, a middle-aged women, one of the three main Artisans leaders, president of the association Shorouk in Tounfit specialized in textile. At first Rabha met with some representative from peace corp that helped her found the Shorouk Cooperative. Grouping women of Tounfit wasn’t that easy she says. “ The association begun with 26 women then when there was no revenue, there were only 7 left. The rest left the association and the art of craft itself as they started drifting towards other jobs like house keeping or agriculture.” The income that the members would get from the sales at a showroom they would re-invest to participate in other showrooms. They used to struggle a lot with commercializing their products as there were only a few artisanal showrooms over the year and the region where they are located is not touristy. Since Anou, they stopped going to showrooms. “ Now the revenue is a little better “ Rabbha says before correcting herself to general laughter “ Not a little better, much better! God bless!” she then continues “ There are craftwomen who were able to contribute with their husbands to build a house, to buy pieces of furnitures, to help their kids with school. They even started to buy pcs for their kids as now they could see the benefits from such technology. And when the lives of these women changed, more women artisans started coming back to us wanting to join! ”. Rabha dropped out from her fifth year in primary school. Nonetheless, she was on her laptop when I first came by. This right here sums up the impact Anou had on many people around Morocco. Artisans from Tetouan, the Atlas moutains, Tiznit, the south; Souk l’had, Azrou…” People from regions that bearly have decent roads use this technology” Rabha states. She tells me how the abuse to what artisans were subject really used to put them down so that’s why when a chance like this comes up they stick to it. Rabha, once empowered, also undertook a project within the association which aims to provide a source for revenue for widows in order to prevent the family from collapsing and the kids from having to work as sheep keepers and house keepers.
So how does it work? The artisans have access to a language-free platform where they have virtual shops to what they post their products with pictures and all the informations. When an order is registered into the platform, the artisan who’s product was ordered receives an SMS with the reference of the said product and the address of the client, he confirms subsequently the availability of the product through the platform, packages it and goes to the post office to send it. Once that is done, he sends another SMS with the product reference and the package reference, which is sent through the platform to the end client so he can receive his product. That way, the ANOU team is no middleman, they only provide training and post-training assistance to artisans. And that is the story of how a wool carpet woven in the Atlas mountains makes its way to a fancy living room in Seattle.
I then went on to have some insight from Mustapha, an artisan leader originally from Souk El Hed, province of Ifran, specialized in wrought iron. He says that the sales were doubled up to x8 times since joining Anou. 80% to 90% of the artisans are illiterate so at first they get scared at the idea of such a technology, but the platform being intuitive, they get used to it easily. As Tifaout, the project manager, the youngest of the team and a business school graduate, says “ Often when we go to give trainings on how to use the platform, they think that we’re gonna be the middlemen, they do not understand that we’re giving them a tool they can work with independently“. Their antidote to the reluctance of artisans : proximity, a peer to peer approach. Most of the artisans already knew Ibrahim, the original artisan leader. The trainings given also include courses in design and patterning aiming to modernize the patterns used to better suit the wants of foreign costumers.
Furthermore more on how the artisans life got better, Mustapha narrates how the members of the cooperative of Souk El Hed used to work from home while they now have their local siding the road, and how they started organizing and going on tourism-aimed trips to Marrakech, Rabat, The south…”That is something that wasn’t imaginable before, especially for women of such regions!” he emphasizes. “ I founded the cooperative of women, and got the women to go out of their homes to showcase their products, and now they have better phones than mine! “ Ibrahim adds. Local communities empowerment, women emancipation, culture appreciation…ANOU, just like its name states, is decidedly an inexhaustible well of good things.
And last but not least, I interviewed Ibrahim, the original artisans leader specialized in wood sculpting from Ait Boughmaz, province of Azilal that basically co-founded Anou along with Dan.
Ibrahim had a workshop at home, he met Dan as he was volunteering in environmental issues at Peace Corp, the two became friends and through this friendship Dan got a peek at the issues artisans were facing. He first suggested using Etsy.com, it worked, they sold many products but it was not easy to use and needed a middlemen. Dan then went to Yemen to study, he came back after the events of the arab spring, and they started ANOU, they thought it will be done in 3-4 months but it took them far longer than that. The idea sprouted in 2008 but the platform didn’t start running business until 2011 on a beta version and officially in 2012.
“ One time there was this artisan from Tiznit that was perplex and wouldn’t trust us, and I really wanted him to join, so I helped him enter his infos and the pictures of his products on the site, and on the same afternoon I called Dan and told him that we had to find someone that would buy from him right away so he could trust the concept, so Dan found a foreigner that bought a ring from him, the artisan came back to him all happy that his products are being sold. Now this artisan is among the best sellers.” Here, a lesson of Management brought to you by ANOU.
I left Technopark truly overwhelmed, bought myself a freshly baked apple croissant, stood there on a rainy Avenue Mohamed V, begun digesting what I just witnessed while watching the pigeons feeders, and suddenly my eyes teared up out of joy. That is to sum up, if this whole article did not do so, how inspirationally genuine this initiative and its people are.
Psst, if you liked the initiative, make sure to go show ANOU people some love through their different social media :