The exploitation of Moroccan artisans by middlemen spurred Dan Driscoll to upend the industry to enable an artisan-led and owned economy anchored in resilient communities.
The New Idea
In a crowded market space, where accessibility, sales opportunities, and the supply of raw materials is controlled by middlemen, Dan has identified and is working on the key levers to shift the exploitive nature of market and build an inclusive sector for all artisans. He is building an artisan-led and owned economy anchored in resilient communities through a methodology that eliminates the exploitation of artisans by middlemen, and builds a sustainable future for disenfranchised artisans.
By using the example of an artisan-led and owned cooperative model, he is empowering artisans to develop bottom-up solutions such as online sales accessible even for illiterate artisans, innovations in the logistical chain, and access to high-quality non-toxic materials. On a micro-scale, Dan is transforming the role of artisans- from being physical laborers to full-fledged “business-people” in full ownership of the complete value chain. Further, by mobilizing and empowering them to advocate for policy and to self-advocate for policy changes, artisans are bringing themselves in from the fringe of their economy to the epicenter of it to shape the trajectory of vibrant Moroccan crafts in the 21st century.
Almost every month, Morocco witnesses a myriad new businesses and social enterprises launching “to save” the Moroccan artisan sector. Despite the ambitious ideas and initiatives, the sector continues to struggle with the number of artisans declining year by year. Moroccans not only reject becoming artisans, but also rapidly flee from the space. In 2007, the number of Moroccan craftsmen had reached 1.1 million, and less than 10 years later there were as few as 300,000 (2016). To equip youth with artisan skills and lift them out of poverty, the Ministry of Handicrafts sponsored a massive training program targeting school drop-outs, only to be faced with nil sign-ups.
Shockingly, this decline exists during a boom in demand for Moroccan crafts, both domestically and internationally. The artisan sector’s yearly revenue is $2.2 billion with an annual increase of 7-12%. Every month several businesses are launched to chase these statistics with the goal of helping artisans. An alarming dissonance evident in market trends indicates that the existing model of the artisan marketplace is broken, but not beyond repair.
The obvious reason for this discrepancy is the sector’s monopolization by middlemen resulting in the merciless exploitation of artisans. On average, middlemen keep 96% of the final selling price, meaning that artisans are only paid 4% of the final selling price of products they independently created. There are even some areas, where artisans are not even paid in cash, and are simply paid in the form of more material to create more products. In many cases, middlemen have succeeded in optimizing the labour cost to zero. This power dynamic instils in artisans the belief that this is all they deserve, and shapes their self-perception that they are incapable of doing more – they cannot survive without middlemen. Even organizations that claim fairer pricing and wages (i.e. fair trade organizations), still only manage to pay artisans 25% of the final price; 25% may put food on the table and enable an artisans to afford school supplies for their children, but without making the full margin of their revenue, they are indefinitely trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and exploitation.
While middlemen dynamics exist everywhere, particularly in the artisan space, the dynamics that exist in Morocco are unparalleled in the artisan space. Numerous experts in the global artisan space always note that Morocco’s artisan sector is the most difficult to change or find ways to access authentic artisans. Evidence for this is that major companies all have moved production of their Moroccan products out of the country. This is important because Morocco’s greatest national resource is its culture and design, and if the artisan community is run away, not only will a key part of Morocco’s culture disappear, but a potential strength that Morocco has on the global stage.
Further, the current power of middlemen is deeply rooted in existing Moroccan policies. In 1974, a law and subsequent legal structure were formed, making it extremely difficult for artisans to sell internationally without the support of a middleman. Even within the domestic market, artisans with low educational levels, who are often illiterate or from rural areas, find it hard to gain market access and are obliged to succumb to the middleman system. Today, this law leaves artisans stuck with no legal way to ship their products to an international market and become self-sustainable. Despite the unfair legislation, the law has remained in place for 60 years due to restraints on civil participation. For grassroot artisans who are, in fact, able to collectively come together to form a cooperative, there is no official means to register for an export number required for any export to take place. If artisans want to sell and ship their products internationally, they must do so in a way that is illegal or resort to a middleman.
Further, policy workshops organized by the Ministry are exclusive to government representatives, middlemen and foreign-based fair trade organizations. The disempowerment of artisans and the structural biases against them has made it nearly impossible to prosper.
Despite the tremendous squeeze on artisans’ profits, competition is still fierce. Since middlemen also control how raw materials are bought and sold, they have also partaken in unethical practices to increase their profit margins. In 2016, most if not all Moroccan wool used in the creation of Moroccan rugs was not actually 100% wool. It was dyed with carcinogenic materials to cut costs, leading to allergic reactions in artisans, who could never determine the cause of their illness.
From market access to unfavorable policies; skewed power structures to hazardous raw materials, the issues infesting Morocco’s artisan sector are multi-dimensional and complex, which require the complete overhaul of significant parts of the artisan economy that can only ensue from and be controlled by artisans themselves.
Through a set of methodologies bolstered through technology, policy changes and advocacy, carefully crafted organizational restructuring, legal work-arounds and the securing of harmless raw materials, Dan is piloting his diverse solutions to establish an ecosystem that allows artisans to thrive.
Founded to address the lack of market access of Morocco’s artisan community, Anou’s platform uses symbolic references to enable illiterate artisans in remote areas to independently sell their goods instead of having to resort to middlemen.
Since it only requires basic numeracy skills, and artisans can completely manage the process through simple mediums such as SMS messages, the platform was designed for artisans with little or no technological background to sell their products.
Dan continues to iterate and incorporate technologies that are widely used by illiterate populations to make the platform as simple as possible. For example, Dan has integrated machine learning image analysis into Whatsapp so artisans can begin to manage key parts of their online store with only taking photos as opposed to entering any data (e.g. artisans send photos of tracking slips to Anou’s Whatsapp account and Anou’s algorithm will automatically extract a tracking number and send it to the artisan’s customer).
To gain users, Dan identifies cooperatives in Morocco ready to be part of Anou, and teaches them how to use the platform. He teaches them how to take pictures of their products, how to price and upload the pictures to the website. Cooperatives are then responsible for creating, evaluating and pricing their products. For artisans who do not own smart phones, Dan made the platform accessible to anyone with internet access, so artisans go to local internet cafes to access the platform. Once a product is sold, the artisan receives a text message with the shipping address and item, which is then taken to the local post office to be shipped. This approach not only grants artisans market access and empowers them economically, but also upends power dynamics. Instead of merely creating products, Anou artisans are now in ownership of the complete value chain. While traditional models purchased handicrafts from artisans at 25% of market value with the remainder reserved for operations, Anou empowers craftspeople with over 80% of revenue going to the creators, and the remainder dedicated to sustain Anou’s operations. For example, the cooperative of one of Anou’s artisan leaders- a female- became the largest employer in her village, Tounfit, excluding the government.
After building an innovative platform that created market access for all artisans, traction of sales was not high or fast enough to reverse the decline of the artisan sector. Throughout the development of the first iteration of Anou’s marketplace, it became clear that the marketplace was only one of several pillars of Morocco’s craft economy that would have to be transformed if the decline was to be reversed. Dan committed to working with the artisan team to see through these transformations, starting with organizationally restructuring Anou.
When a cooperative excels, it is largely because of some key calibers within the group. When Dan identifies these individuals, they are invited to join Anou’s administrative team to help with the platform’s overall management. They later become Anou’s Artisan Leaders. Their tasks include quality control, logistics, customer support, or providing support to various groups, training and on-boarding new groups, and ensuring artisans are fulfilling orders. Similar to the innovative technologies he has created for the marketplace, Dan has invested equal time to building digital tools that enhance the productivity of the artisan team. These tools enable the artisan team to complete complex tasks in a fraction of the time of highly educated middlemen, both domestic and foreign.
Today, Anou has a team of 8 Artisan Leaders, who work in shifts at Anou’s Headquarters. Artisan Leaders take turns working two-week shifts at Anou’s Headquarters. They then return to their villages and apply learnt skills to their own cooperatives. If an artisan serves as an Artisan Leader for over three years, s/he is eligible for a spot on Anou’s board and has voting power over Anou’s key decisions. While Dan is the founder, he serves as the executive director and has no voting power on the board. The opportunity to become an Artisan Leader is massive, because artisans are paid above government wage salaries for all their work at Anou’s Headquarters, which provides them with additional income and the stability to actually think about and address larger problems facing artisans in general and their cooperatives in particular.
Anou is owned and operated by authentic artisans. Outside of the founder, the entire team is comprised of Moroccan artisans, whose average education level is 7th grade. The team is the cornerstone of Anou’s vision of creating an artisan-centered economy and bringing about real change in the Moroccan artisan sector. In 2015, Anou was successfully incorporated as Morocco’s first national cooperative.
Taking over supply chains, and logistics, and inlaying sophisticated technology that enables moderately educated artisans to manage tasks at a highly-educated individual’s level cannot match real power in real artisan hands. So, Dan decided to leverage artisans’ bargaining- and lobbying power to counter laws that work against artisans. After a year of working at Anou’s Headquarters, Artisan Leaders gain advanced skills and experiences that enable them to begin working on issues affecting the artisan community at large. For instance, one of the larger unknown, structural problems artisans face is policy prohibiting artisans from selling and shipping products directly to customers outside Morocco which ensures artisans remain dependent on middlemen. There is no incentive for middlemen or organizations to change this policy, pressure can only come from artisans. Through Anou, artisan leaders have become policy and shipping experts that better understand the dynamics and struggles artisans face in exporting products. Today, Anou’s Artisan Leaders are regularly offered to share their expertise to influence and lobby how laws are set, and advocate for true artisans. In empowering them through the cooperative format, artisans and craftspeople self-organize around topics that matter to them, and contribute to policy development.
In 2014, the Anou Cooperative 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. The agreement creates the framework for the Ministry to include members of The Anou Cooperative in its programs and initiatives, in data-sharing and research on Morocco’s artisan economy, and to work closely with Anou’s leaders to create policy that better enables artisans of the community to grow their businesses, such as streamlined customs and export processes. 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. This was an achievement, since local artisans are often frustrated that those representing their interests in Morocco’s government fail to do so and rarely interact with artisans as serious stakeholders.
Because the lack of safe quality materials can no longer be overlooked and is essential to safeguard a strong infrastructure, Dan set up full vertically integrated, environmentally sustainable, wool sourcing operations and built Anou’s own dye shop. Today, artisans from across Morocco complete dye orders for the community from Anou’s Headquarters. Dan also built mobile apps that enable artisans to place orders for toxin-free materials, and complemented those apps with sophisticated programs where artisans working at the office could automatically print out dye cards for those orders instructing them on exactly how to replicate the requested dye color. This way, artisans gain access to any wool type and color, made with only environmental-friendly materials at minimum cost. The premium quality enabled Anou to sell dye services to companies in Casablanca to increase revenue for Anou and increase the volume of materials to drop material costs for artisans. More importantly, they also sell dye work to middlemen at a premium, which are certified for utilizing harmless materials. Either way, middlemen and fair-trade organizations find themselves “obliged” to work with Anou.
With regards to customs and exports, Dan sells shipping services to middlemen and outside organizations. He built apps to help artisans, middlemen and organizations efficiently process tedious, time consuming customs paperwork. Currently, Anou is working to exploit this volume to begin container shipments to the US. At current rates, if Anou is able to sell 20% of space on the container to competitors at 25% below the currently cheapest shipping option from Morocco, the container will be paid for in full, enabling Anou to make its own shipments for free. An additional advantage is that shipping via containers simplifies export paperwork and they are able to mitigate restrictions placed on individual exports.
Today, Anou works with 70 cooperatives and 600 artisans across Morocco with annual sales of 2,865,750 Moroccan Dirhams ($300,000) with an annual growth rate of 25-30%, and 2.5% ownership of Morocco’s exports to the US. Many artisan groups have gone from several hundred dollars in sales to several thousands to several tens of thousands in sales per year. Enough word has spread about artisans successfully making it on Anou that Anou does not need to do much outreach to find artisans who want to join. Artisans come to Anou and ask to be trained, which represents a huge shift, as taking the initiative and risk is not a huge part of Morocco’s culture.
For Dan, Anou can be deemed successful when it crosses the threshold of 10 million Moroccan Dirhams ($1 million) in sales per year. This amount is significant because at that volume of sales, Anou would be far more than self-sustaining. The profit Anou could generate at this size would be larger than the annual budget of the Moroccan Ministry of Handicrafts. This would put nearly government level control in the hands of Anou’s artisan community and enable them to make the requisite investments to improve the livelihoods and competitiveness of Moroccan artisans based on meritocracy rather than politics. Equally important, this amount would also be a tipping point in the artisan sector since it would signify 8% of Morocco’s total exports to the US, creating multiple fly-wheel spinning economies of scale.
Further, Dan aims to focus on the growth of Anou’s Atlas Wool Supply Co (material supply) and SFRM (logistics). He has been testing these ideas for the past two years and they are now ready to scale, and accelerate the growth of Anou. The capstone of these initiatives will include the building of Morocco’s first vertically integrated wool processing and yarn mill.
Through continuous technological improvements to both Anou’s online store and the artisan team’s tools to manage the site, building of new stores to increase sales, ambitious plans to reshape logistics and material supply in Morocco, Dan believes this will reignite the desire of Moroccans to seek craft as a respected, dignified profession and reverse the decline of artisan crafts and position Morocco to be a global craft and design leader.
Beyond this, Dan is committed to spreading his idea of building resilient communities across the region. He aims to codify his set of methodologies and put them in a format that could be easily processed and replicated by others. He also plans on open-sourcing the technology of his platform to create artisan-run and –owned platforms in different countries of the Arab World and beyond.
Dan grew up in a deaf household. His mom is fully deaf, while his dad is legally deaf (can hear with the help of a cochlear implant and communicate via voice), making his first language American Sign Language. While his childhood was normal, he did experience firsthand the difficulties that come for those who are varyingly abled- from not being able to communicate with a doctor when sick to the mental drain of having to navigate a culture that isn’t entirely his nor necessarily accepting of him.
He spent his life bridging between both cultures, which directly contributed to a deep empathy for people who were not like him. This empathy is what ultimately led him to decline an offer to become a professional triathlete after university and join the U.S. Peace Corps. Living in the mountains of Morocco for two years was the first time Dan had combined the persistence and endurance he developed as a competitive runner with his deep empathy for those in marginalized communities. In Morocco’s Highland Mountains, Dan helped a group of Berber woodcarvers negotiate with government officials to legalize their wood carving shops so they no longer needed to pay bribes. They successfully secured an agreement to legalize the shop if they planted a tree for each sold item. To propel sales, Dan started teaching carvers how to use a computer and sell online to fund the trees. The success of the online store led to the planting of hundreds of trees and the profit was invested to fund development projects throughout artisans’ villages. The experience ingrained in Dan the belief that even the most marginalized communities could find a way to change the trajectory of their own lives. He witnessed first-hand the power of an empowered community able to advocate for its rights, and the power of resilient communities and how they are built.
After Peace Corps, Dan sought more challenging experiences and moved to Yemen as a journalist. There, Dan wrote about controversial topics such as the efficacy of development organizations. His time coincided with the Arab Spring, allowing him to witness the complete shattering of Yemeni society. Similar to other Arab countries, the Yemeni “Day of Rage” started with only 7 university students, eventually reaching 20,000 protesters, shouting for regime change. For the first time in their lives, ordinary citizens desperately tried to shape and bend the course of their lives and the future of their country. Dan witnessed these protests, but also witnessed those same citizens shot and killed by their own government on the streets of Sanaa, the capital of Yemen capital, while international organizations stood idly by. Peaceful protesters were killed in rage, and Dan failed to reconcile what he saw. Dan’s worldview was permanently changed.
The experience radically transformed how he thought about social change. Due to his status as a journalist, Dan was forced to leave Yemen, but what he had witnessed would always accompany him. He made a pact to reconcile or at least try to partially reconcile the injustice he observed.
The emotional resilience acquired from the deaf community merged with the urge to curb the atrocities plaguing the world spurred Dan to develop an empathic idea to test community resilience, so he decided to return to Morocco. Building on his role as a Peace Corps Volunteer working with artisans, Dan decided to build local, resilient communities, where grass-root talents are allowed to surface, and empower them to build their own future and possess agency. The idea was Anou.