The Online Businesses Empowering or Exploiting Berber Women?

By Shaan Khan (22/04/21)

North Africa is a conglomerate of vistas, from beaches to sand dunes. But there is more than meets the tourist’s eye than just geography & a mimosa cocktail by a palm tree; it’s Berber culture.

Berber women are entrenched in a rich history of producing ornate crafts & wares that capture the hearts, minds & wallets of people worldwide.

Many tourists flock to the city bazaars of Marrakech and Tunis, hoping to obtain a treasurable piece of Berber culture unfounded in their homelands; to place on their mantels or wooden floorboards back in their foreign abodes.

The Essence of Berber Arts & Crafts

Berbers go through intricate processes with locally sourced materials to create their crafts & wares, making them a rare commodity shrouded in generations-old practises that have now seeped into their traditions.

The nomadic lifestyle of the traditional Berbers is the special sauce of their wares & crafts. Their creations are integral to the rural regions & livestock they live off rather than a factory of labour.

Berber men typically tend to livestock, allowing Berber women to collect plants to dye materials such as wool sourced from livestock to weave kilims which are a tapestry style carpet.

Hand-woven carpets take months to produce through a delicate knotting technique passed down by elders. The art & materials in each craft are unique to one another, highlighting a combination of influences from regions, tribes and individual preferences.

Berber practises are respected throughout North Africa and not subdued, but rather treasured by Berbers who no longer live nomadically, as it represents their cultural roots & tourists appreciate the authenticity.

The capital value of Berber arts & crafts presents an opportunity to empower Berber women through business. But why would this matter to nomads?

The Importance of Berber Women Empowerment

Being born & reliant on nomadic living that operates on an aged system comes at the cost of isolation from the global mass market of advanced goods that can drastically improve the lives of Berbers.

By obtaining capital through business ventures that doesn’t diminish their nomadic lifestyles, Berbers can use their gained money to acquire new-age technology to improve their way of life. Increasing efficiency or supporting better sustainability; possibly forming eco-villages.

Capital gain in modern-day society has many benefits to offer Berber women. It alleviates them from the limitations they once were subjected to; it gives women more choice on how to live and contribute to the world.

A limitation Berber women face is the lack of access to healthcare & higher education. With schools & hospitals being concentrated predominantly in urban settlements, Berber women like those residing in the rural Atlas Mountains suffer from road infrastructure issues and lack of transportation to access these societal amenities.

With the aid of financial gain, Berber women claim the right of choice to have themselves or their family relocate to a city for further study, maybe even arrange a short-term stay for medical purposes or even spend time together at a theme park!

So yes, there is a myriad of reasons why the financial empowerment of Berber women is important. While business poses itself as a gateway solution—history dictates otherwise.

A History of Exploitation – The ‘Middleman’

According to a 2009 article by VOA News, Berber crafts & wares found in the shops & bustling markets of North African cities are typically not sold by the artisanal Berbers who create them.

Instead, middlemen; that scout the rural landscapes the Berbers reside, paying them a sum amount for their crafts & wares such as woven rugs, finally selling them in tourist hot spots to make a significant profit.

VOA News reports this practice had caused discontent amongst Berbers & humanitarians for the unfair cut a Berber woman would receive from a middleman after months of attention to detail gone into weaving kilims.

Berber women’s isolated rural living, language barriers and travel inaccessibility has caused them to be vulnerable. Middlemen can hold leverage over their limitations—leading to an unfair pay-out in this partnership where privilege matters most whilst talent & work effort are swept under the rug.

The act of this exploitative deal presented by middlemen to Berber women within traditional business took a hit at the tribal women’s morale, as their hopes of continuing their nomadic lifestyles whilst being empowered by business were seemingly crushed by the middlemen.

More Berber women over time would have to unwillingly give up their traditional lifestyles for ordinary work—stagnating the flourishment of Berber culture in the process.

Over a decade later, the idea of online business presents itself as a new stem of hope for Berber women empowerment, but what makes it different to traditional business? Will it twist & rot into another deceptive means of exploitative practice?

The Power of Online Business

As businesses increasingly shift towards selling their products online and shipping them to customers worldwide, foreigners seeking Berber crafts can now save costs on travelling to North Africa by paying for international delivery. Efficient consumerism in the digital age arguably played a pivotal role in the 4.9% annual growth of the global home décor market, garnering an estimated value of $792.6 billion by 2025.

Those in the business of home décor can utilise online marketing to draw the attention of international audiences to their landing pages of well-marketed products on sale. The number of internet users that flock to online stores can outcompete with the daily tourists perusing through a bazaar being heckled by merchants.

Folks & Tales

A home goods company taking advantage of the benefits of online business and the global appeal for Berber crafts & wares is Folks & Tales. Founded in 2018 by the 29-year-old Moroccan woman, Dounia Bounahmidi. In an interview by Forbes (2020), she expressed that her mission is to tackle the business tradition of middlemen preventing the artisans of Berber communities from making a living from their work, that ‘artisans are left behind and remain the weak link of complex supply chains.’

Although born in Morocco and passionate about her culture, Bounahmidi was fortunate to graduate abroad and has a passion for design and visual arts. Her unique experience brought upon a best of both worlds scenario that was, in part, fuelled by her interest in social entrepreneurship.

Bounahmidi returned to Morocco after graduating and would venture to rural parts of the country to seek out Berber women handcrafting art & wares. Bounahmidi’s knowledge of modern design & business practises led her to start up a website where she would sell the crafts of Berber women she met—forming partnerships with them.

The Folks & Tales website’s visual design is centred around representing Berber ancestral crafts in light of a modern aesthetic; from the website’s theme to the backgrounds the products were photographed in for marketing material. The combination makes it easier for foreign consumers to envision traditional crafts in their modern, Westerly homes—soliciting further confidence for consumers that they’re making the right purchase due to the culture comfort of the website’s modern aesthetic.

Courtesy of Folks & Tales on their website.

Further appealing to the international consumer’s eye is the Diary page on the website, hosting journal-style blogs from the founder, who proudly instils a theme within them of her mission to empower Berber women. The blogs shed light on stories of positive change her company has been part of and the sad stories that inspired her. Meaningful content like this on the website offers positive reaffirmation for those shopping with Folks & Tales, knowing they support an ethical operation that creates their products.

Ameera London

Another company that aims to empower Berber women through partnership is Ameera London. Founded in 2015, they deal in the business of hair & skincare, distributing products both online & a physical store in London.

Their brand is marketed as an authentic Moroccan experience for consumers. The experience comes at the service of Berber women from North Africa creating the products for Ameera London to sell internationally.

Ameera London products such as Ghassoul facial masks and Pure Argan Oil have received praise from renowned publishers such as British Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

Similar to Folks & Tales, Ameera London package and market their products in light of a modern aesthetic. Bottles housing Argan Oil include minimalistic written labels detailing the origins of where the oil is sourced from to further appease consumers who are seeking authentic hair & skincare products that are taking over the industry by storm.

Courtesy of Ameera London on Instagram.

On the ‘Our Values’ section of their website, the company details that the Berber women from the Argan forest that source & craft product ingredients are ‘fairly paid for their work’ and are provided additional financial support and have been donated clothing for their children.

Dangers of Demand

Seeing how both companies have only been around for a handful of years, the rapid success of bringing new products to the global market online can be seen as both a blessing and a curse.

The curse could potentially be the rise in demand. Companies fixated purely on profit end up overlooking ethics, they begin overworking Berber women or outsourcing factory workers in countries like China or India who are praised for producing more for less.

Fortunately, Bounahmidi has gone on record denouncing companies outsourcing and overworking Berber women. Her company steadily tackles the rise in demand by working with more Berber women; in 2020, the number of artisans she worked with had reached 170 in total.

When detailing her five-year plan, she mentions collaborating with more artisans is a key value of her business. Highlighting the self-entrepreneur’s value in ethics, where empowering Berber women is a goal akin or greater than securing profits for self-gain.

While forward-thinkers like Bounahmidi consider the risks of demand and plan accordingly, some companies haven’t yet in this fresh online business powered by Berber culture.

Even though these online businesses are pro-Berber women empowerment, what’s to say, self-entrepreneurs that follow suit will be just as ethical? After all, whether it’s physical or online business, these companies still hold power & control, being ‘middlemen’ in nature.

Removing The Middleman

When middlemen were exploiting Berber women back in 1997, a group of 17 women from Tidzi village in Morocco decided to band together to become pioneers of the Ajddigue cooperative. They would support each other’s means of living while forming a business as a team—producing, packaging, and selling Argan oil to clients & businesses.

The cooperative received support from national and international organisations, paving the way for this one step towards empowerment. The cooperative was a support structure ran fairly & equally that women could join and be a part of the business—pulling Berber women away from middlemen.

Over time, the cooperative gained big international clients themselves; women part of the business would start to prosper. The founder, Zahra Knabo, expressed that the Berber women would now finance their homes and obtain ‘electricity, televisions and fridges’.

The success of this cooperative women-led business makes it a star example that success is achievable without middlemen. The Ajddigue cooperative is now made up of 137 women who all have access to education and health care.

While the cooperative was a brave start to something new, the digital age can make it much easier for women to cancel out the middlemen.

Etsy

Although women can create their own websites to market and sell their products, the truth is, it’s hard to get people onto your website. Its why self-entrepreneurs build companies consisting of multiple teams to grow attention/retention to their websites.

Some self-entrepreneurs who are popular social influencers and are computer literate could set up a successful website themselves, but many are not fortunate enough to have these attributes.

Websites like Etsy give internet users a platform to display & sell their products to a large userbase who casually browse Etsy for new & unique goods.

Etsy has already become an avenue popping with Berber crafts & goods! Many likely being from self-entrepreneurial ‘middlemen’ who may ethically or unethically partner with Berber artisans creating the merchandise.

Screen capture taken on Etsy.

It’s a platform anyone can use, including rural Berber women with access to the internet and a smart device—making it another viable means of business that eliminates the middleman.

In reality, a major reason stopping the rural Berber artisans from taking ownership over the online distribution of their products on Etsy is illiteracy. According to a study by the University of Colorado, Berbers in rural communities speak in a distinct language mostly communicated orally.

With Berber women growing up in communities where reading text is uncommon and speaking a language that isn’t available online, many are held back by this gap of limitation from becoming self-entrepreneurs themselves.

Fortunately, humanitarians are bridging the gap by volunteering to provide Berber women with an education. One such group is International Volunteer HQ, who runs The Women’s Education program in Morocco, which teaches English, French and Arabic to impoverished Berber women in rural communities. Also, the program provides classes to Berber women on computer training, sewing and offers academic support and occasional childcare.

The organisation and its volunteers equip Berber women with the tools & knowledge to start a business and enter the global mass-market online.

What We Need to Do

To empower Berber women is to offer support. Whether you seek to be an ethical ‘middleman’ or be a volunteer educating Berber women; both choices will undoubtedly empower Berber women. Liberating them from limitations & suffering, also allowing them to use their power for good in a way they received their power.

This fresh system of the humanitarians giving, over the archaic system of imperialists taking, is a cultural ecosystem that breeds positivity from cooperation & empathy.

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