Quality Control in Morocco
In the medina you can occasionally find haute couture labels mixed-in with traditional handicraft products. But there is something wrong with the design: the leather smells, the lining is missing, the tailoring is skewed. These are the products that didn’t make it past quality control. Would-be exporters and designers who want to take advantage of Morocco’s surplus of world-famous artisan talent will have to face the issue of quality control again, again, and again.
At the second annual Morocco Business Forum in May, the US Ambassador talked about business ventures that have successfully worked between the two countries. He used Mustapha’s Fine Moroccan Foods as an example. That company started by importing bulk products to Washington state. When they ran into quality control problems, they established operations in Morocco and monitored quality control by lowering production quantity. They revamped branding and packaging and sold smaller shipments to upscale clients. The strategy seems to be working. I’ve seen Mustapha’s products treated to prominent display space in Crate and Barrel and the gourmet grocery store Balducci’s.
Small-scale production not only allows you to monitor quality, but it protects Morocco as a brand. Zid Zid Kids, a Marrakesh-based business that designs children’s toys and furnishings, benefits from the “Made in Morocco” label. Customers love that the little gold owl poof they bought for their child was in fact made in Morocco and not in China.
A few years ago I may have thought that a quality poof could only be Moroccan made. That view changed when I saw a Pottery Barn window filled with a display of dishes done in a traditional Safi pottery design. I turned the plate over to find the “Made in China” label. Where Morocco may have the design, China has the production. And, for retailers requiring mass-produced products, there are alternative ways to profit from the Morocco brand.
Morocco, despite its excellent location, isn’t easy to penetrate. Managing relationships in Morocco requires plenty of face-to-face interaction. Trustworthy partnerships are difficult to establish and require steady maintenance. In her book “Sacred Performances” M.E. Combs-Shilling writes about the foundations of social structure and authority in Morocco. “If every man simply knows his name, an elaborate organizational structure can be called into play that systematically specifies rights, duties, and loyalty among vast numbers of people…numbering in the thousands or tens of thousands.” This organizational structure includes “situational loyalty…that depends on the social context and alters according to the kinship relationship of those involved.” Perhaps this is why most successfully business ventures between Morocco and the United States involve Moroccan-American couples, as is the case with Zid Zid Kids.
From the perspective of Moroccan history, merchants come and go; Phonecians, Carthigians, Romans, and Nazarenes. These outsiders operated within Morocco according to their own rule and social customs until they reached the limits of profitability. For a Moroccan merchant, there is no social context for these business relationships other than that of profitability. Sell the most product at the highest price until the relationship meets its inevitable expiration.
On a tour of the Fes medina, out guide took us to a textile shop where weavers spun vegetable silk threads into colorful fabrics. The building was run down. Rain dripped into the open-air courtyard and the weavers and fabrics were stowed safely along the perimeter, shielded by the floor of the rooms on the second floor. I thought about this shop and asked to return to it the next day. Nothing in Morocco is a straight line, so this trip to the textile shop turned into another tour of the medina. I was taken to a shop that makes embroidered table linens. The designs are reversible and the products can be soaked in bleach without losing color. Under the Free Trade Agreement between Morocco and the United States, textile imports will be completely duty-free by 2015. I asked the shop owner why he didn’t export “This is cheap stuff.” As we left, my guide explained “For it to be worthwhile for him to export, he would need to sell a more expensive product. Besides, do you really think this product would sell?” I pictured the table clothes on display in Bed, Bath, and Beyond next to their Chinese and Indian peers. Maybe not.
When we finally made our way back to the textile shop, the place was swarming with German, Dutch, and Spanish tour groups. It looked as if 30% of the inventory had been sold in one day. Considering the lack of administrative work associated operating a business under these conditions, I understand why Moroccan artisans are looking to be exporters. Customers come to them. Why should an artisan complicate life with production efficiency, packaging, and order fulfillment?
Should the government succeed in standardizing the artisan industry, perhaps the artisans will find themselves motivated to take advantage of modern global trade. I say modern global trade because Morocco has always done business with other cultures and its artisans are well supported through tourism. However, type of trading international buyers want to do with Morocco is a nameless, faceless business transaction. There is simply no context for it.