Thursday, March 25, 2010


From time to time, I come across an individual's success story and think, "Efrita." It literally translates into "fiend." In Morocco, this term does not describe a demon or diabolically cruel person. It means someone who is highly skilled at something. It means someone who can move mountains. It means someone who is driven and can create change. It means beast.

This morning, I was at Douia's house, the Association treasurer. After breakfast, we went over photos of an Agadir training she participated in last November. Douia pointed to one the presenters, "Hiya efrita. She's a beast. Tbark allah 3liha. May god grant her grace." Apparently, this trainer was a self-made women. She travels across Morocco , involved in this project and that. She motivates people. We talked some more about her experience in Agadir. Shortly after, Douia joined her sister on the couch to watch TV. Apparently, there is not anything pressing to accomplish this morning.

So you see some of my doubts. The Association has received many "gifts." Planet Finance had a two-year partnership with the Association. They conducted numerous workshops in the village. They financed countless trips to craft fairs and trainings for the women. Peace Corps Volunteer after Peace Corps Volunteer has come, lived and worked along side of them. Mushmina came for a product development workshop. The two sisters recently stopped by again, for another order and crochet samples for a fall order.

Could it be that they're use to someone else doing the work for them? Could it be they're waiting for an efrita instead of taking initiative themselves? This past week, I've explained my frustrations working with them. They understand the points I make. They know what they should be doing. But the question remains, who will be the first to change? I've asked a handful of women. I've yet to receive a comforting response.

Mid-April will hold the second Marche Maroc, organized by the Ministry of Artisana and Peace Corps Volunteers. I'm leaving for Spring Camp. Then I'm taking a strategic vacation to the desert dunes and gorges. Let's see what they can accomplish for the craft fair. Perhaps I need to step back a bit for them to fend for themselves.

A fellow Peace Corps Volunteer recently came across the story of Faiza Hajji Wozniak. I think she, like many other Moroccan women, have an undeniable drive and beauty of spirit. Hiya efrita. I wish some of this spirit would rub off on my ladies.

Faiza Hajji Wozniak: Recycling Plastic Waste for Development
Interview by: Romen Bose
(AFP Foundation, 2008)

Faiza Hajji Wozniak, 27, gave up a career as a telecommunications engineer to help a development project that combines environmental protection with the campaign against poverty and illiteracy in her home country, Morocco.

"We have a neighborhood called Douar Mika, that means the neighborhood of plastic because all the plastic bags of the city are taken by the wind there so it's completely black," she said.

"I thought, how can we take these bags and make something interesting from them and I tried to use the local technique of weaving and apply it to the plastic bags, and this is the result."

Her prize-winning entry in the photo essay category shows women in Berkane, near the Algerian border, weaving handbags for export from discarded plastic bags.

Twenty-one women now work on the project, which also includes literacy classes. The illiteracy rate in Morocco is about 52 percent but among women in rural areas it has been estimated at 80 percent.

Faiza hopes the project will lead to others to promote education and help girls to go and remain in school.

"In these areas, girls are taken out of school after they are 12 years old because the families don't have the means to pay for further studies, and it is not in the culture either," she said.

Faiza was educated in Morocco but studied telecommunications engineering in France. After graduating, she worked briefly as a consultant before going to Mexico and later Sri Lanka to work with Planet Finance, an NGO which promotes micro-finance all over the world.

She was interviewed in Kuala Lumpur, where she coordinates projects in Sri Lanka and other countries in the region.

"From when I was a kid, I wanted to help people. Life gave me things and took things away from me, but not this wish to help people," she said.



IFASSEN is a fair trade project that was launched by Faiza in partnership between the Government of France and her hometown in Morocco. Through IFASSEN and with her two partners, Faiza has been working to decrease the number of plastic bags in the environment, while helping Moroccan women receive a fair income.

IFASSEN, which means ‘hands’ in Berber, employs 21 craftswomen in the making of fashion accessories. The women collect the discarded plastic bags that litter their community’s fields and streets, then clean, dry and weave them together with local alfa grass that they pick. The women use a method of basket weaving that is traditional to the region. It takes about 100 plastic bags to make a typical IFASSEN bag, a small but hopeful percentage of the 2.5 billion plastic bags discarded in Morocco each year.

The project has won several awards, including a prestigious award from the French Ministry of Finance. IFASSEN's products are exported to France, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States. "A wise man was saying that we must be the change we want to see in the world,” Faiza said. “I have grown up with the will to change things little by little, even through a tiny contribution.”

Currently Appreciating:
*Blossoming flowers and their fragrant scent.

Teaching Amean to count. I went over to his house, originally to tutor his older sister in English. We used almonds to solve addition problems. By the end, he counted to 30 almost perfectly!

*The start of 6:30 walks in the nearby field. 10 ladies came out today!

*Researching about Canada and coming up with lesson plans. It's not as boring/tedious as I thought! Instead, it's a refreshing change of pace.

*On Monday, a foreman came to the Women's Center to scope out the building. After talking to the president and secretary, he gave us a list of all the building materials and amounts needed. On Tuesday, a mean who organizes children's activities came to talk about possible plans. Although we're still waiting on the right to build, they have things set in motion.

*Switching between three good reads: "The Essential Gandhi" by Mahatma Gandhi, "Writing to Change the World" by Mary Pipher and "The Food Revolution" by John Robbins.

*Juicy oranges and fresh strawberries.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Make a Difference And Make Yourself Happy

A Peace Corps Volunteer's job description is not quite like any other. The more I examine the realities of my job, I see myself as a behavior change agent. I can't give them the magic formula to running a successful craft business. I don't have the foresight of which retailers will continue a steady, if not growing, business relationship with them. However, I can teach them some basic business skills and knowledge. I can impart some advice on colors, styles and customer tastes. I can teach them new crochet techniques. I can lead them through trial and error. And I can model good behavior. All of this is done in hopes that one day my counterparts see the value in changing their current habits.

I'm finding that two years service is not enough time for dramatic behavior changes. The challenge is that they need to decide to change. This goes back to the constant nagging question of motivation. How badly do they want this small business to succeed? I wonder.

Filling and shipping orders in a timely fashion is a key component for business success. An RPCV had placed an order of bracelets back in late October. The ladies did not finish the bracelets before she left Morocco in November. When I left for vacation in Spain, I gave them an envelope with her address.

Before I left, I told them, "Whenever bracelets are done, send it in the mail."

In hindsight, I should have said "Next week, when you finish six bracelets..." Then again, maybe not. I'm not the boss. Time passes. It doesn't occur to me to follow-up. Until February, when I realize no one has made the bracelets. Why? I don't understand. In the meantime, they made plenty of tea kettle holders and lace doilies. (Note: none of those items are for sale.) Time doesn't seem to be the limiting factor. Hmm. Lucky for them, the RPCV is forgiving and still wants her order. I personally mailed the bracelets. It's almost five months since the secretary recorded the order in the Association notebook. I wonder.

I face the same confusion when trying to understand why ladies refuse to buy their own crochet hook. There's one extended family that share one crochet hook between three ladies. To me, sharing one crochet hook is an unnecessary hassle. Some ladies have their own hooks but only have one. I repeatedly talk about the importance of gauge and needing various crochet hooks for different threads. For the new line of headbands, I want a loose crochet for a softer feel. Ladies need to work with a number 5 crochet hook. I reiterate this concept during the product critics. Hooks sell for 2dhs. Why do some ladies still refuse to make this investment? Why do they come everyday to the nedi and pester others (myself included) to borrow a crochet hook? They just spent 3 dhs on half a sardine sandwich the other day. See why I wonder about their motivation?

The issue of motivation makes me question my purpose here. If they can't pay 2 dhs for a crochet hook, why am I trying to teach them new crochet techniques? Why am I attempting product development? Why am I working harder than them when this isn't my life?!

Thankfully, at the end of the day, I find this in more ways fulfilling than frustrating. You might argue that I'm wearing rose-colored glasses. I delight in small successes as if they were huge milestones. And maybe they are.

The Association still haven't started construction with the approved grant money. The legal paperwork to start construction have been stalled at the local municipality level. Yesterday, I ran into the President and Secretary after they had a meeting with the qiad. They were pressuring him to expedite the paperwork process. Sweet! Look at them take initiative and responsibility!

We recently had great success with a new line of headbands. In January and February, the ladies learned and perfected these new headbands. At the American Club Bazaar, these headbands sold like hot cakes. However, the production process has several holes. The thread is purchased unwound. Currently, a local tailor, Robio, winds the thread for us at 2 dhs a spool. Two spools produce one headband. With approximately 20 ladies, needing two spools of wound thread each, in addition to wooden beads and elastic bands, raw material cost adds up fast. Additionally, Robio misunderstood the proper thickness for the thread. On two occasions, we sent a bag full of thread to be rewound. Amina, who helped me send and collect the thread, was well aware of these costs. About two weeks ago, she bought her own thread-winding machine for 150 dhs. What great foresight! Go Amina! She's learning how to wind the thread for future headband orders at 1.5 dhs a piece. What a good personal investment!

**Photo: spring collection of headbands

These little victories are my reasons for continuing my service. I'm happy knowing that my time here has, in many small regards, made a positive impact. Apparently researchers Malte Klar and Tim Kasser also agree. In their study, activism revealed a positive association with increased social well-being. Read the recent Guardian article for more information:

Brain Food: Does activism make you happy?
By: Aditya Chakrabortty (Guardian, 2 March 2010)

Who'd have thought it? New research shows there is a link between being politically active and wellbeing.

Marching in the drizzle against wars in far-off countries, writing letters protesting the government's latest reactionary policy, sitting through interminable meetings that keep sprouting Any Other Business. It may be noble, but political activism is hardly a barrel of laughs. And yet it makes you happier.

So find two university psychologists in new research that looks for the first time at the link between political activity and wellbeing. Malte Klar and Tim Kasser started by interviewing two sets of around 350 college students, both about their degree of political engagement and their levels of happiness and optimism. Both times, they found that those most inclined to go on a demo were also the cheeriest.

So there's a link – but can politics actually make a person happier? In the third study, the academics took a bunch of students and divided them up into groups. The first were encouraged to write to the management of the college cafeteria asking for tastier food. The next lot wrote asking the cafe to source local or Fairtrade products. They were then tested on their wellbeing, and the group who had involved themselves in the political debate were far and away the strongest on the "vitality" scale: they felt more alive and enriched than those who merely complained about the menu.

There are many fascinating aspects to this . First, the activist-students didn't necessarily care about food ethics, but just taking action made them feel better. Second, sending a memo is hardly the most engaging political action – and yet it had a big impact on those taking it. Third, the study flies in the face of the popular wisdom that happiness resides in creature comforts and relative affluence. Perhaps activism gives people a sense of purpose, or of agency or just a chance to hang out with other people. Most likely it does all of the above.

"I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead," Barbara Castle told this paper in 1998. "And that's what keeps you alive." Maybe the Red Queen was on to something.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Copper Crochet Bracelets: A Prod Dev Case Study

In a recent chat with one of my predecessors, we talked about the Association's latest breakthroughs. Among other updates, I sent photos of our newest products. In response, she exclaimed, "I'm so excited about the broadening of creative ideas that are bubbling up in our little village!" While I appreciate her enthusiasm, this comment caught me off guard. Bubbling? I find it somewhat naive of her to think that's how events unraveled.

Perhaps from afar, it seems as if these ladies have finally tapped into their well of endless creativity. Innovative ideas and attractive designs are gushing out with the speed of Angel Falls. New products may seem to be "bubbling" to the surface. But that would disregard approximately a year's worth of work. It dismisses the hours I spent researching, experimenting, gathering feedback, researching and experimenting again. It discounts the numerous workshops and house visits I made for the ladies to learn new skills. It disregards the blood, sweat and tears exuded by these ladies. And it overlooks the money spent along the way.

When a writer hits a "block," he may want escape into a beach sunset until Callipo's muse starts playing. Pen won't touch paper until lyrical words flow from above. Maybe some writers work this way. I don't. Writing is editing. And editing is writing.

In the same sense, product development requires constant "editing." In business, product development represents the complete process of bringing new products or services to the market. Therefore, the heart of product development lies in feedback- from the target audience, design experts and producers. What knowledge and skills do these ladies have? What can they produce? What want or need does that product X fill? To whom? What are they (the customers) saying about product X? Is product X unique? Does it reflect current color trends and tastes?

About a year ago, I carefully prepared questions with my tutor to ask the Association. In hopes of understanding what I might be doing, I had to understand what was and is. My language was still chicken scratch. I had difficulty making sentences, much less conjugating verbs properly and agreeing adjectives with nouns. Therefore, we discussed possible responses. He then scripted dialogues. I memorized key terminology. I even rehearsed these hypothetical dialogues alone in my room. By the time I actually sat down with Aicha, the president of the Association, I already had the conversation 20 times over.

"What are the Association's biggest needs?"
"A childcare center. And a market for our products."

Up until that point, the conversation flowed as I had expected. I was even encouraged by my comprehension level. What I had failed to anticipate the crushing weight of responsibility being dumped on my shoulders. How can I move mountains in less that two years? Where do I even begin? Blank. My mind went momentarily blank. All I could do was nod in agreement.

"Mushkila kbira. Big problem." I added after a couple minutes of awkward silence.
"Mushkila kbira." Aicha repeated.

After further questioning and countless hours of observation, I realized how thin their product line actually was. After digging here and there, I found holes in their colors choices, designs, styles, sizing, craftsmanship and raw materials used. Why weren't the Association's products flying off the shelves? Wait. Rewind. Step back. Why weren't these products on anyone's shelves except ours? Their products brought limited success not because there was no market, rather the products themselves were weak.

I'm not a designer but I am a picky buyer. Therefore, I went to my favorite Fair Trade retailers, found similar items to that of the Association's or made with the same skill set. About every two weeks, I printed out these photos and brought them to the nedi. I wanted to show the ladies products in the market and hopefully inspire to create something similar. The ladies always chattered wide-eyed with excitement. On several occasions, Amina and Houda sat down with me to experiment. Although I began growing friendships with them (and others in the Association), nothing that could be counted in profits came of this.

By spring, I realized that the best place to start would be with their line of crocheted bracelets. While these are not featured in any boutiques, they had a respectable reputation in the Peace Corps community. I brought bracelets with me to any and all Peace Corps gatherings. During VSN training in March, I set up shop in Karen's house. When invited to speak on a PST panel, I brought along bracelets to sell. Vacation up north? Yup, a stash of bracelets came along for the ride. By the time IST rolled around in June, a handful of PCVs emailed me requesting to purchase bracelets!

**Photo of the crochet bracelets at the time I began working with this Association.

During this time, I collected feedback, specifically on colors and designs. I told the ladies to keep careful inventory. After these trips, I would ask them which designs sold the best? Which colors were most popular? I even had my staagmates fill out a color survey during IST. We then adjusted production accordingly.

Even with these small adjustments, I had my doubts as to how big the market is for crocheted bracelets. I love the touch of soft, fine thread. I love the artist taste in textile jewelry. I appreciate the labor of these women. And I believe whole-heartedly in the Association's mission. However, I can see why our young twenty-something year old, socially conscience, potential female customers would pass over crocheted bracelets for a silver one... or wooden one.

That's when I wondered, what if they crocheted with something besides thin, rayon embroidery thread? What about wire? Browsing on and searching on google, I found several eye-catching crocheted wire bracelets and earrings. Like before, I printed out these photos. For weeks, I circulated these photos and eagerly hoped for someone to take initiative. But nothing beyond excited chatter. What's wrong with them? Don't they understand we just hit jackpot?

During IST, Heather, the founder of Mushmina, came and did a workshop on product development. She repeatedly stated the importance of "connecting the dots" when translating ideas into new products. If you want carpet weavers to start making carpet purses, make a real-size paper prototype. Draw out the design to scale. In this way, weavers can unfold the prototype next to their looms. They see exactly what they have to weave. No wonder new bracelets weren't flying out of my village and into a boutique near you! That leap was too big for the ladies to make on their own. The photos I printed represented exciting ideas and promising possibilities. But what my ladies needed was a map and step-by-step directions.

I took that advice to heart. Over the summer, I experimented crocheting bracelets with different wires. However, the ladies laughed and said how much they look like the steel tagine scrubber. What about copper wire? I hunted my souq town until I found copper wire thin enough to crochet with. I spent about two months testing various versions of copper wire.

By September, I produced something I was proud of. For the whole month of October, I wore these bracelets everywhere I went. Wearing it in my village created a buzz among the ladies. It even attracted more women to the Association! Wearing it outside my village gave me invaluable feedback. Like before, I took advantage of every opportunity- at PCV gatherings, trainings, PST invite, friends and strangers sitting next to me on a bus ride. Afterwards, I produced new copper bracelets using the feedback.

In October and November, I helped the ladies produce their first trials of crocheted copper bracelets. I had them use my bracelets as examples. Learning how to make copper crochet bracelets will come quickley, I thought. This is same skill- crocheting, just with a different materials.

By the AIWA Bzzar in early December, most ladies produced two bracelets. We ran into the good signs! Their craftsman ship improved from bracelet number one to bracelet number two. I became better at noticing what made clean copper crochet work versus not. Therefore, I became better at giving the ladies tips. Ladies also transferred learned skills amongst each other. Saida Bachad was particularly good at teaching other women how to attach the clasp. Ikram helped countless women hide their ends. The copper bracelets I liked, all sold in the craft fair... and then some. A couple places in Morocco showed interest in stocking these. That's a good start!

But we had plenty of misses. Well, a lot more misses than hits. Working with a larger crochet hook and tougher material threw a curve ball at these women. And a fair majority of them were hit square on the forehead. To make matters worse, working with wire can be unforgiving. Mistakes are final. My loose directions provided poor guidance. Although the ladies are perfectly capable to producing lovely crochet thread patterns, lovely crochet copper patterns were few and far between. The ladies also chose their own accent beads. And they made some choices I would have never made and potential customers didn't like. All of these combined, means that there sits of copper bracelets. Most likely, they will remain unsold.

An interesting aspect about this Peace Corps experience is that I'm learning as my counterparts learn. I don't know everything. I've never done anything like this before. Heck, I graduated with an Economics degree. Not in design. How did I get to Morocco and get tangled up in product development?!

Late November, I stumbled upon a wonderful discovery. The Peace Corps librarian sent me The Encyclopedia of Crochet Techniques. From this book, I realized that most women could reproduce new crochet patterns which had a photo of the end result and a drawing of the directions. In fact, this was far more effective then having me work next to them. Better results and self-sufficiency! It's a win-win.

** Photo of how I translated new products to be reproduced.

That is precisely how I directed copper crochet production in February. I gave the women specific design patterns. I produced a sample and then drew out its pattern. The ladies were able to produce far more impressive bracelets! Instead of eight excellent copper bracelets and five ok ones, we have a real collection! And by the end of this week, we'll be ready to test them in several markets!

I worked in a similar fashion with Amina Yabis, the president of Cherry Buttons Cooperative. The Santa Fe Folk Art Festival has extended her an invitation to participate in this summer's craft fair. She wanted help with color selections and necklace designs. The first time I went, I gave her a free-form necklace made from jellaba beads. In the couple hours following a delicious chicken lunch, we jointly reproduced a similar necklace. Excellent! She learned something new! Right? Not quite. In the following weeks, the PCV in Sefrou gave me disappointing reports of her latest creations. Free-form was apparently too free. It was free enough to encompass scattered and incomplete artistic thoughts (or un-artistic thoughts).

Therefore, I created a different necklace that follows an exact pattern. Amina Yabis would have the freedom to change different jellaba beads. In February, I sat down with her again. This time we watched as I remade the necklace. The second one, she made on her own under my watch. Beautiful. She understood and she was able to reproduce on her own!

** A photo of Amina and I producing crocheted jellaba necklaces.