AUSTIN, Texas -– Many Moroccan artisans work in the informal economy. Therefore, middlemen can exploit artisans by buying their products below their value, raising prices and keeping profits. Crises like the COVID-19 pandemic also make artisans vulnerable due to a lack of financial support. However, government programs, artisans’ associations and businesses seek to create change.
Moroccan craftsmen and their crafts
About 2 million Moroccans work in the handicrafts sector, which includes everything from carpet weaving to ceramics. This sector represents 8% of the country’s GDP. Common crafts include pottery, leatherwork, carpentry, ironwork, and jewelry. Textiles, including woven rugs, are one of Morocco’s iconic handicrafts, often found in Rabat and Fez. Various rugs use distinct knotting and weaving techniques and are important cultural elements for the Berber people, originally from North Africa. Amazigh women weave these rugs on a loom using mainly sheep wool which they have to prepare.
Amazigh artisans generally live in rural areas, far from the bazaars of city centers. Due to the inaccessibility of large markets, rural artisans rely on intermediaries. These merchants buy their goods and then resell them in the markets. However, they can take advantage of these artisans by purchasing their products well below their value. Craftsmen, often women, often suffer from meager conditions because of the meager benefits granted to them.
In addition, the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic has 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 leads to loss of income without a safety net. Additionally, during the lockdown restrictions, it was difficult for artisans who collaborate with other artisans and traders to do their jobs.
Moroccan artisans are also heavily dependent on international tourism and suffered from the 78.5% drop in tourist arrivals in 2020. The Economist reports that around 35% of artisan businesses in Morocco closed in September 2020. Due to challenges faced by artisans, there are fewer young people. ready to get into traditional crafts like carpet 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 to market their craft products and to guarantee high quality products in collaboration with the Maison de l ‘group. Artisan. In 2007, the ministry launched Vision 2015, a ten-year plan to improve the craft sector. Its objectives included improving working conditions for artisans, creating more than 100,000 new jobs and creating 300 small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). According to the Oxford Business Group, Vision 2015 has exceeded some of its goals but has yet to meet others. In 2013, Morocco had 680 new SMEs but only 53,000 new jobs. Vision 2015 has also invested in training for craftspeople, by offering management and accounting courses to around 19,000 people.
To cope with business losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 20, 2021, the ministry and the Maison de l’Artisan launched a program allowing artisans to market their crafts in the major cities of Morocco. Through this program, artisans exhibited handicrafts in shopping malls during Ramadan. The Ministry and the Maison de l’Artisan have also created a campaign on social networks to promote the event.
Craft solutions: the Anou cooperative
The ministry is also working with seven e-commerce platforms to promote Moroccan crafts. The Coopérative d’Anou, a collective of 600 Moroccan artisans, is one of these platforms. Anou strives to go beyond fair trade, which does not always offer opportunities for development to artisans. Anou uses an “artisanal” model instead. Through this model, Moroccan artisans are owners and managers of the cooperative. They thus acquire skills and leadership rarely granted to artisans.
Hamza Cherif D’Ouezzan, Anou Operations Mentor, explains: “Fair trade is a model of aid and has brought benefits in the past. […] where Anou is a vehicle for artisans in the creation of wealth and the necessary structural change today and in the future.
Thanks to Anou, the artisans earn 80% of the profits. Anou invests the remaining 20% in training for things like marketing and design. Craftsmen, as well as mentors, also organize these trainings. To eliminate middlemen, Anou’s e-commerce platform allows artisans to showcase products, purchase materials, and interact with shoppers from their smartphones. This platform has also made it easier for artisans to sell their work during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cherif D’Ouezzan notes, “[T]he context also shed light on the solutions that Anou brings [to]what the craft sector structurally needs to prosper and reduce its dependence on the tourism sector.
Crafting Solutions: Kantara
Another company working with Moroccan artisanal cooperatives is Kantara. Kantara markets itself as an ethical trade design company that buys rugs from artisans and sells them through its Los Angeles-based showroom and online catalog. Founder Alia Kate started Kantara in 2008, after visiting Morocco and witnessing artisanal mining through middlemen. She remembers the experience: “It’s disempowering to say the least, but it also has an impact on women’s financial independence. They may be the makers of these beautiful antique rugs, and yet they are often cut from [the]commercial side of the operation.
Kantara works with the same 30 weavers, developing relationships of trust while promising fair remuneration and respect for the work. Kate says that over the past 15 years, she has witnessed improvements for Amazigh women, including better education and greater involvement in businesses and cooperatives. She hopes Kantara will foster this empowerment by supporting what the artisans want. Kate says that initially she taught subjects such as design and product photography to artisans in workshops. However, in recent years, it has focused on allowing artisans to take charge of their work, intervening only on request.
Kate says, “More than anything, I listen. They are the artists and they have skills that go back decades and decades. Many young women are pursuing careers outside of the craft sector. Still, Kate hopes that listening to artisans while increasing the profitability of weaving will encourage more women to learn the craft.
A thread of hope
Crafts are still recovering from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, there is more to be done to improve conditions for Moroccan artisans throughout the industry. However, Morocco’s Ministry of Handicrafts, Maison de l’Artisan, cooperatives and businesses fighting for the empowerment of artisans are actively working to forge change. So far, the efforts of these stakeholders have provided more direct power to artisans and increased the sustainability of the craft trades. This collaboration is a silver lining for craftsmen of Moroccan quality leather, intricate pottery and distinctive rugs.
– Annie prafcke