The Moroccan rug trade is booming, but weavers are suffering, putting the art form in danger. Homegrown solutions aim to change this — and consumers can help.
Growing up in a remote town in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, Rabha Akkaoui learned to weave from the women in her family, who have worked with textiles for generations. “Since I opened my eyes, it was something that was always around me,” she said through a translator.
When she began selling her rugs, she encountered a challenge common to Moroccan artisans:
Unable to access buyers directly, she had to rely on middlemen offering extremely low payment for her work. One proposed to give her $7 for a rug worth $400.
Today, international audiences fascinated by the distinctive colors, patterns, and textures of Moroccan rugs can find countless options online. But women like Akkaoui seldom benefit from their sales. As a result, the very personality, quality, and ties to traditional culture that have made the rugs popular are threatened.
So how can consumers be part of the solution? For starters, by asking more questions about how rugs are made and who controls their trade.
Helping rug-makers and other Moroccan artisans thrive is the goal of the The Anou Cooperative, an organization that helps craftspeople manage their own sales. (ZZ has partnered with Anou on a special collection of Moroccan rugs you can find here.) Today, Rabha Akkaoui is part of the Anou’s leadership team, working to ensure that every purchase supports the interests of women like her.
Fatima Alibrahimi, one of the artisans of the Afous Ghoufous Association with her creation. Afous Ghoufous, or hand in hand, is a powerful saying in the Amazigh language in Morocco that signifies the solidarity of the Amazigh people. Image credit: Afous Ghoufous Association
Anou was founded in 2012 by Brahim El Mansouri, a Moroccan woodcarver, and Dan Driscoll, an American who observed the inequities of the nation’s craft sector while in the Peace Corps. From the beginning, their plan was for artisans like Akkauoi to take over the operations. But in the early years, they focused on building systems and infrastructure to enable craftspeople to sell their goods directly: an online store where they can easily post their products, even if they can’t read or write; shipping and quality-control systems; and training programs to improve their business and craft skills.
Changing artisan practices isn’t enough to create sustainable livelihoods, however; consumer behavior also needs to shift. A crash course in the complex dynamics of the Moroccan craft sector offers a glimpse at what ethical rug purchasing might look like.
Beyond fair trade
Moroccan rugs have traditionally been made in deeply conservative rural areas where textiles are one of the only occupations considered acceptable for women. Denied access to education and other resources until relatively recently (literacy rates among Moroccan girls have increased dramatically in the past few decades), women found that weaving on home looms provided a means of earning money, as well as a creative outlet.
“When a woman makes a carpet, it’s a time for her to forget everything and to be creative with her art”
...explains Asmaa Benachir, whose organization Au Grain de Sésame works with female artisans across Morocco. “It’s something very special and very important.”
Aisha Affi, an artisan in the Association Timouzounine, with her rug. The reds and yellows used in the design represent the landscape where she does her work. Image Credit: Association Timouzounine
Historically, their wares were destined for local buyers. According to Rabha Akkaoui, when a rug was complete, a man specializing in textile sales would put it on his back and tour the nearest market or town center, yelling out the name of the weaver and descriptions of the product. After a sale, he would take a commission.
As Moroccan textiles have become popular around the world, new kinds of digitally savvy intermediaries have come to dominate marketing and sales—and keep most of the profit. Today, weavers typically receive only 4 percent of the sales of their work, said Youssef Tlemcani, director of marketing at the Anou. But they often feel obligated to accept any offer, no matter how low.
The problem goes beyond a lack of access to consumers, he said. Weavers often don’t know the retail value of their products, and they struggle to assert their own worth.
These challenges lie behind the Anou’s tagline, Beyond Fair Trade. “Some companies will tell you, ‘We go out in the villages and ask the women how much they want for their products, and then we’ll give them this price,’” Tlemcani said. “This makes sense for someone who doesn’t understand the psychological composition of women in rural Morocco.”
“You’ve been in your shoes for 30 years, and your mother before you, you’ve always had the ceiling of very low expectations, and you’ve always been used by someone. You don’t really know the worth of your product.”
“So maybe you’ll think, ‘I’ll ask for $50, because it’s three times as much as the middlemen would give me.’ But it’s still not a fair price, because the retail price of this rug is maybe $1,000.”
Payments like these aren’t only unfair—they’re also not enough to live on. When artisans tell Asmaa Benachir that their price for a week-long embroidery commission is only about one US dollar per day—the going rate—she asks them to aim higher. “I explain to them, ‘One dollar is not [enough to cover] your food on the journey. It’s not [enough to cover] your electricity, your time, your medicine.’”
A sector in crisis
Today, the country’s artisans are suffering even as exports boom. According to Tlemcani, Morocco’s craft market has grown steadily for the past 15 years and is now worth around $2 billion (USD). But during this period the number of artisans has dropped from approximately 2 million to only 400,000.
Rug sales are now driven by low prices and online marketing — forces that could eventually topple the sector, Tlemcani believes.
“If we continue down this road, my prediction is that the vast majority of what we call ‘Moroccan rugs’ will be made outside of Morocco.”
Another looming threat is self-imposed. Some older craftspeople hesitate to teach younger generations their methods, Benachir said, fearful that they’ll misuse them. Geographical isolation and poverty can also make intergenerational knowledge transmission difficult. But without it, quality suffers and art forms wither.
Fatima Ahzmad and Aicha Meskour, Artisans of Numedia Tabudrart, a women's cooperative located in the High Atlas Mountains, are among the seven women who contributed to the weaving of this striped rug. Anou's app allows artisans to use their own photos to post their creations for sale through the platform. Image Credit: Numedia Tabudrart
Training programs like those run by Anou and Au Grain de Sésame, as well as craft schools in cities like Fez and Marrakech, help fill this gap.
The national government is also working to address the challenge, Benachir said. Part of the government’s solution involves encouraging artisans to form cooperatives rather than working alone, a model Anou has also embraced. Legal frameworks around cooperatives have been shaped with workers’ benefit in mind, according to Benachir—“to develop the skills and the capacity of the artisan, and to make them able to make more money.”
The big picture
The national government has strong incentives to intervene in the craft sector, according to Bland Addison, former co-director of the Morocco Project Center at Massachusetts’ Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The country’s economy relies heavily on tourism, and international visitors value seeing artisans at work. The craft sector also gives young people a reason to stay in rural communities instead of migrating to big cities where they often struggle to find employment and risk falling into violence and even terrorism.
But beyond economy and security, questions of identity and heritage loom large. For many supporters of the craft sector, “it is a cultural thing,” Addison said. “It promotes the heart and soul of Morocco.”
For Youssef Tlemcani of the Anou, it’s important to emphasize that this culture isn’t a faceless abstraction, but rather a living activity carried out by specific individuals—something that hasn’t traditionally been appreciated.
“We want to have a situation that is similar to Japan, where you have master artisans and their work is extremely valued,” he said. By contrast, in Morocco, “he or she is hidden behind the veil of the middleman and Instagram messages,” and the work is considered less valuable as a result.
With the support of buyers around the world, The Anou Cooperative and other likeminded organizations hope to change this for the better.
Sarah Wesseler is a writer and editor focused on design, cities, sustainability, and culture. She writes often for Yale Climate Connections and The Architectural League of New York. You can find more of her work here.
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