AUSTIN, Texas -– Many Moroccan artisans work in the informal economy. Consequently, middlemen can exploit artisans by purchasing their goods below their value, marking up prices and keeping profits. Crises like COVID-19 pandemic also make artisans vulnerable because of a lack of financial support. However, government programs, artisan-led associations and businesses seek to create change.
Moroccan Artisans and Their Crafts
Roughly 2 million Moroccans work in the craft sector, which includes everything from rug-weaving to ceramics. This sector makes up 8% of the country’s GDP. Common handicrafts include pottery, leather art, woodwork, metalwork and jewelry. Textiles, including woven carpets, are one of Morocco’s signature handicrafts, often found in Rabat and Fez. Various rugs use distinct knot and weaving techniques and are important cultural elements for the Berber people, who originate from North Africa. Amazigh women weave these rugs on a loom primarily using sheep’s wool, which they must prepare.
Amazigh artisans usually live in rural areas, far away from bazaars in city centers. Because of the inaccessibility of large markets, rural artisans rely on middlemen. These merchants buy their wares and then sell them in markets. However, they can take advantage of these artisans by buying their products far below their value. Artisans, often women, often suffer meager conditions due to meager profits given to them.
Furthermore, the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic affected Moroccan artisans more than people in other sectors. Artisans often do not work in the formal sector. Thus, they lack insurance and social security, so bad business results in lost income without a safety net. Additionally, during lockdown restrictions, it was difficult for artisans who collaborate with other craftsmen and traders to do their work.
Moroccan artisans also largely rely on international tourism and suffered from the 78.5% drop in tourist arrivals in 2020. The Economist reports that an estimated 35% of Morocco’s craft businesses closed as of September 2020. Because of the challenges artisans face, young people are less willing to take on traditional crafts such as rug-making. Some fear that these skills will disappear with future generations.
The Moroccan Ministry of Tourism, Handicrafts, Air Transport and Social Economy aims to help artisans market their handicrafts and ensure high-quality products together with the group Maison de l’Artisan. In 2007, the Ministry launched Vision 2015, a ten-year plan to improve the handicraft sector. Its goals included bettering artisan working conditions, creating more than 100,000 new jobs and establishing 300 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). According to the Oxford Business Group, Vision 2015 had exceeded some of its goals but not yet met others. By 2013, Morocco had 680 new SMEs but only 53,000 new jobs. Vision 2015 also invested in artisan job training, providing management and accounting classes for around 19,000 people.
To address lost business from the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 20, 2021, the Ministry and Maison de l’Artisan started a program for artisans to market their crafts in Morocco’s major cities. Through this program, artisans displayed handicrafts in shopping centers during Ramadan. The Ministry and Maison de l’Artisan also created a social media campaign advertising the event.
Crafting Solutions: The Anou Cooperative
The Ministry also works with seven e-commerce platforms to promote Moroccan handicrafts. The Anou Cooperative, a collective of 600 Moroccan artisans, is one such platform. Anou strives to go beyond fair trade, which does not always entail opportunities for artisans to advance. Anou instead uses an “artisan owned” model. Through this model, Moroccan artisans are the owners and managers of the cooperative. They thus gain skills and leadership rarely granted to craftsmen.
Hamza Cherif D’Ouezzan, Anou Operations Mentor, explains, “Fair trade is a helper model and has led to benefits in the past […] where Anou is a vehicle for artisans in creating wealth and needed structural change now and into the future.”
Through Anou, artisans earn 80% of profits. Anou invests the remaining 20% in training for things like marketing and design. Artisans, along with mentors, also run these trainings. To eliminate middlemen, Anou’s e-commerce platform allows artisans to showcase products, purchase materials and interact with buyers from their smartphones. This platform has also allowed artisans to sell their work more easily during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cherif D’Ouezzan notes, “[T]he context has also highlighted the solutions that Anou brings [to]what’s structurally needed for the crafts sector to thrive and lessen its dependency on the tourism sector.”
Crafting Solutions: Kantara
Another business working with Moroccan artisan cooperatives is Kantara. Kantara presents itself as an ethical trade design business that buys rugs from artisans and sells them through their Los Angeles-based showroom and their online catalog. Founder Alia Kate started Kantara in 2008, after visiting Morocco and witnessing artisan exploitation by middlemen. She recalls the experience: “It’s disempowering, to say the least, but it also impacts the women’s financial independence. They may be the makers of these beautiful heirloom rugs, and yet they are often cut out of [the]commercial side of the operation.”
Kantara works with the same 30 female weavers, developing trusting relationships while promising fair compensation and respect for work. Kate says in the past 15 years, she has witnessed improvements for Amazigh women, including better education and greater involvement in business and cooperatives. She hopes Kantara will further this empowerment by supporting what artisans want. Kate says that in the beginning, she taught topics such as design and product photography to artisans in workshops. However, in recent years she has focused on allowing artisans to take charge of their work, stepping in only when asked.
Kate says, “More than anything, I listen. They are the artists and have the skills that go back decades and decades.” Many young women are entering careers outside of the handicraft sector. Yet, Kate hopes that listening to artisans while increasing weaving’s profitability will encourage more women to learn the trade.
A Thread of Hope
The craft industry is still recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, there is more to do to improve conditions for Moroccan artisans across the industry. However, Morocco’s Handicraft Ministry, the Maison de l’Artisan, cooperatives and businesses striving for artisan empowerment actively work to forge change. So far, efforts by these stakeholders have provided more direct power to artisans and increased the sustainability of handicraft trades. This collaboration threads a silver lining for the artisans of Morocco’s quality leather, intricate pottery and distinctive carpets.
– Annie Prafcke