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Virtual Souk: The 1990’s Proof of Concept That Showed Grassroots NGOs Could Use the Internet

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Virtual Souk: The 1990’s Proof of Concept That Showed Grassroots NGOs Could Use the Internet

Virtual Souk: The 1990’s Proof of Concept That Showed Grassroots NGOs Could Use the Internet

These outdated looking web pages with low-quality photos are from a project I did in Morocco called “The Virtual Souk.”

There’s a mobile friendly version of this content below. But keep reading to remember (or learn) the full context. Here’s a brief reminder of the state of technology adoption 1997.

Connectivity, Digital Photography, and the State of the Web in 1997

The US was a leader in technology adoption in the 1990s. However, less than 20 percent of Americans had internet access at home, and if they did it was almost certainly dial-up. Most American businesses were still offline. The Wi–Fi standard had just been hammered out, but almost nobody was using it outside of tech laboratories.

Cellphone penetration in the US was also at about 20 percent, but these were just basic phones. Phones with cameras were still a few years away. For digital photographs, most people who needed them still scanned photos taken with film cameras. Consumer digital cameras started at about $500 US. And most websites were coded by hand.

Whatever the technology adoption rates were in the US in 1997 – and whatever the specific technology – the adoption rates were lower nearly anywhere else in the world.

Other developed countries were close behind.

The global South was far behind. It was often asserted that “half the world’s population has never made a phone call.”

Never Mind All That: The Developing World Can Join the Digital Revolution

It was in this context that the late Daniel Salcedo was in Washington DC making an audacious proposition to international funding organizations: Grassroots producers in the developing world can start using the internet now.

Dan was my boss, the executive director at PEOPLink, based in Maryland. I was the first employee. I had only been working for Dan for a few months when he made his audacious proposition in the World Bank office of Azedine Ouerghi. Azedine happened to be one of the coordinators of an upcoming event called the Mediterranean Development Forum (MDF) to be held in in Marrakesh, Morocco. The objective of the MDF was, in part, “To investigate the impact of knowledge and information technology on economic growth.”

Dan convinced Azedine to send me to Morocco to work with a grassroots, rural NGO for a week or so before the conference. I would do some training on Web technology, and we’d unveil the results to the MDF.

I could hardly believe it, but that’s what happened.

The Virtual Souk Team

Azedine dubbed the project “The Virtual Souk” – souk is an Arabic word for “marketplace.” He paired me up with Susan Schaefer Davis, an Arabic-speaking American anthropologist with expertise in Moroccan textiles. We were sent to Taliouine, Morocco, to work with a small NGO called Migration et Développement Local (MDL). My trainees were R’kia Agni, the project coordinator in Taliouine, and Majoub Ait Ali, an electrical technician with the NGO.

MDL worked with groups of traditional Berber weavers in and around Taliouine helping to support creating and selling Berber rugs to generate income for the women.

Web Boot Camp in Four Languages

For a packed week, we did a combination of field anthropology and tech training. We interviewed 22 weavers and photographed as many as would give us their permission. Most of the weavers only spoke Berber, so my questions in English were translated to Arabic by Susan, and then to Berber by R’Kia. The answers came back in the opposite order.

In bad French, I taught MDL how to capture digital images using a camcorder, a computer, and a $200 device called a Snappy Video Snapshot. (All of the photos in this article were captured this way.) I created HTML templates and taught MDL how to modify the content. We also covered basic photo editing and composition for websites. And, finally, how to upload web pages to a server using FTP. Although MDL did not have a website, one day they would.

The Unveiling in Marrakesh

After capturing photos, interviews, and rug specifications, we worked on the website right up until the opening of the conference. R’kia hauled 20 or more rugs to Marrakesh hoping to sell them to conference attendees.

On the morning of the first day of the conference, I handed a conference center technician a 3.5-inch floppy disk with the “final” version of the website. They made the site available on a small network of two or three workstations where people could browse the site.

Today, with our modern expectations of the Web, the site doesn’t look like much. But in Marrakesh, in 1997, people were impressed that a rural NGO had learned so much in such a short time. News of the Virtual Souk even caught the attention of journalist Mark Frauenfelder, who wrote about it in WIRED.

My boss, Dan, said that we “knocked the ball out of the park.”

The Virtual Souk

The OG Virtual Souk is archived here. Although it’s not mobile friendly, it’s preserved forever in amber (or rather, in HTML 3.2). But the main content is presented below (in responsive HTML5) so you can read it more easily on modern devices.

The Weavers of Taliouine Make Their Own High-Quality Yarn From Raw Wool.

Sheep grazing in Taliouine

All the rugs of the local weavers are made of wool. Sometimes they use the wool of local sheep, and sometimes they buy it in cities like Marrakesh. They often use the natural colors of white brown and black.

Raw wool

Sheep are sheared once a year, in May. This is done by male specialists who use large iron scissors. After being removed from the sheep, the wool is still held together loosely. Women then clean straw and burrs from the wool and wash it, only in water at this point.

Opening the wool

After washing the wool, the women do what they call “opening” it; they pull it apart to make it easier to card.

Carding wool

The woman on the left is carding the wool, which makes it soft and fluffy and removes small pieces of weed and dirt. The woman on the right is spinning the carded wool into yarn.

Winding wool into skeins

After spinning, the women wind the wool into skeins. To do it this way you need a friend; to do it alone, you can put the spindle in a basket to keep it from rolling across the floor.

Braided wool

The spun wool is braided into large skeins, and when a large amount of wool is ready, it is washed with detergent.

Wool quality

This shows two different qualities of wool. The wool on the left was bought from the Marrakesh market and was spun by machine. You can see the burrs and particles of dirt still in it, and rugs with this wool sell for less than those of homespun wool. The wool on the right was spun by a woman from the local group. You can see how fine and clean it is. The local association is exploring having several women spin wool for other weavers, so they can use this high-quality product – and also generate income for the weavers.

Creating These Handmade Rugs Is a Laborious Process Requiring Patience, Skill, and Creativity

Weaving rugs in Taliouine

Women often work together on weaving. The woman on the left is winding wool into into balls, and the one on the right is weaving a flatweave piece called, in Berber lehemel. A flat weave is a piece that has no knots; it resembles a blanket but is heavier. She is weaving on a metal loom that the local group gave her and which she will pay back gradually from her rug sales.

Flat weave

This woman is also making a flat weave or lehemel.

Detail of a knotted rug

This is a detail of a knotted rug still in the process of being woven. Knots are tied onto the long warp threads, and weft threads added over them to hold them in place.

Taliouine women working on a rug

Several women, either from one family or a group of neighbors, may work together on a rug. There are four here.

The Weavers of Taliouine


Naima is originally from Tazenakht, the main weaving town in the area. Although she is not one of the poorest women, she was encouraged to join the women weavers so she could teach them new techniques and help them perfect their current skills.


Anaya is a widow, and in the past wove for neighbors on the “half” system: they would give her wool to weave into garments or blankets for them, and give her the same amount to use for herself. Other people had her weave and paid whatever they wanted; it is not polite to demand a specific price. Now she sells her products for cash, which she uses to visit her married children, pay household expenses, or to buy fuel to irrigate her parcel of land to produce more income.



M’hjouba is divorced and has four children; two are still living with her, including a divorced daughter. Like many women, she uses her weaving income to pay household expenses, like groceries and the electric bill. However, one recent payment she used to buy a silver bracelet and necklace for her other daughter who will marry soon. It’s important for a young woman to have this jewelry; through her weaving, M’hjouba was able to provide her daughter with proper wedding accessories.


Keltoum was the first woman in her village to start weaving with the local group, and her dynamism has encouraged other women to join. Twenty years ago Keltoum’s husband went to France and did not return, leaving her with two small daughters. She lived with her husband’s parents for six years, but then they assumed he had died and left her on her own. She moved in with her brother’s family and did housework for others – who paid whatever they wanted, not a set price, and sometimes in kind with oil or sugar or flour. Now she earns a cash income from weaving sold through the local group, which she uses to buy groceries and pay her electric bill, and recently she ordered an armoire to store her clothing.


Khadija has four children, one son and three daughters. One daughter is in school, and the older ones of 16 and 18 weave with her; one has attended school. Her husband does not work, and in fact was absent for seven years and has returned. He does not work, but has a little land he farms. While he was gone she worked for village families to support her children. Khadija used her last payment for the electric bill and to pay for irrigation water; before that she paid off credit amassed at the village grocery shop.



Zaina is married and has four children; her husband works as an itinerant barber. Three of the children are too young, but one son is in school and a daughter will enter next year. Zaina has sold seven items through the local group; her most recent payment was 450 dirhams or almost 50 dollars, and she used it to buy groceries and clothes for the children. In the past she has used her earnings to buy schoolbooks for her son and to pay off credit she used to buy the children holiday clothes.

Chtto ID ALI

Chtto ID ALI

Chttou is an older woman, a widow who lives alone. She has a married son who lives in southern Morocco, near the Sahara. She used her most recent payment of almost 40 dollars to pay for irrigation water and pay her electric bill for the last four months. The local group runs the village electric system and allows poor subscribers credit when money is short; this is the same group that works with the women weavers.



Aicha has a large household. She lives with her husband, who guards the traditional granaries or Agadir, and they have 7 children. Two daughters and three sons live at home, including two married sons and their families. Aicha has sold 5 pieces with the local group and uses her earnings for groceries and to buy more wool to weave.


Fadma is a handsome widow of 60 who has 7 children, at least three of whom still live at home. In the last year she has sold six pieces through the local group, often using money for household expenses. However her last payment of 532 dirhams [57 dollars] she spent to repair her roof and start building an indoor latrine, one of the few in her village. When asked what she would like to do with future earnings, she responded ‘buy sheep,’ which would generate more income for her family.



Fatima is married, but her husband is ill and can’t work; in the past he worked part-time in construction. They have five children, the oldest 17, and only one son is in school. Her profits from her last rug sale went toward household expenses.



Ijja is a born comedian who kept the group laughing for most of the afternoon. Her husband operates the electric generator which the local group helped them install, the same group which helps the women market their rugs. Of their 5 children, three are in school, including a daughter in junior high, an age when many girls leave school. Ijja used her most recent rug profits to buy cement and windows to renovate her home. When asked what she wanted to do with future profits, she first said she would buy gold jewelry [a traditional way for women to save]. But then she got more imaginative – she first suggested buying a truck to transport rugs produced in the village to the town where they are marketed, then decided getting all the women bicycles would be more fun – and then they could have a race on the way home.


Fadma is different from most of the women working with the local weaving group in that she is not a female head of household or from a poor family. Yet she is not atypical in that sometimes the animatrice found it necessary to work with better off women to convince the poorer ones to join. She explained poor women were afraid of having problems if they could not repay their initial loans, and seeing a respected local woman participate helped convince them to join. Fadma’s husband farms and does some occasional labor, and they have 9 children, including a married son who lives in the household.



Zaina has an older husband who doesn’t work but has sheep which he herds. They have 3 small children, and in addition are raising three daughters from her husband’s previous marriage – their mother died. Zany used her last payment of 300 dirhams or 63 dollars to buy a sheep to celebrate Morocco’s major holiday. In commemoration of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, each Moroccan family kills and eats a sheep each year on this holiday; the fact that Zaina can afford this pleases her.



Aicha’s husband works occasionally in the village doing construction. They have 2 daughters and one son; one of the girls attends school. She has sold two pieces in the last year, and with her last payment she bought household items like groceries.



R’kia’s husband is a barber who earns a scant income. They have two sons and two daughters. Two attend the village school and a son and a daughter attend school in a nearby town with the help of scholarships; this family is unusual in the village for having two daughters in school. Her last rug brought a good price of 1850 dirhams [$200]. When asked who decides how to use her income, she said she gives it to her husband and tells him what to buy – and he does – with HER money.



R’kia is married and has 6 children, four sons and two daughters. One daughter is married and the other helps R’kia weave. A son of 18 has been hospitalized in the capital for about a month, being treated for a serious illness. She sent her most recent payment of 680 dirhams [about $75] to her son to buy medicine; the one before that went toward household expenses.



Although she is married, Fadma’s husband has a second wife in Casablanca and does not contribute much to the household. In fact, she said that “Men eat and sleep; women work.” However, in her one year with the local group she has produced 9 rugs; this was possible with the help of two of her daughters. While they have other household tasks to do, one is always at the loom and sometimes all three work together. She uses the money for household expenses like groceries, clothing, bottled gas for cooking, and school supplies. When asked if she ever bought herself anything like jewelry she said no, although she had kept out a few dollars to buy a skirt recently.



Fatima is married and has 7 young children; her husband does not spend much time at his trade of iron worker because he has back problems. Working with her 15 year old daughter, she has produced 6 rugs during her year with the local group. Her husband collected the last payment, and they used it for household necessities like sugar, oil, tea and bottled gas. The previous payment was spent in the same way, except she also bought wool to produce another rug.


Aicha is the youngest woman in her village weavers’ group, and had her 8 month old daughter with her when we spoke. Her husband has a low-level civil service job as a guard, and uses the money from Aicha’s rugs to pay household expenses. Aicha lives in a house with her husband’s older wife; it is split in half to minimize dissent. In fact a daughter of the first wife helps Aicha weave the rugs she sells.



Fadma is married, but her husband is old and does not work. They have no children but she has raised her brother’s daughter who now weaves with her. Because they have a lot of housework, including cooking and fetching water and wood to cook with, they only spend about 2 hours a day weaving. At that rate they can finish a rug of about 1×1.5 meters in a month. It might sell for 800-900 dirhams [about $100], which is not a bad monthly income in their rural village. Fadma’s husband used to take her rugs to a nearby market town to sell, but he had to pay transport and stay overnight with food and lodging costs; they both prefer her selling through the association.


Kebira is a widow who has 6 children. Two daughters and a son live with her, as well as the wife and two children of another son who works in the city. Sometimes that son sends her money, sometimes not; she has earned money to live on by washing and spinning wool for neighbors “by half”: they give her an amount of wool equal to that she processes for them. She just joined the local group, and will earn money by preparing wool for other weavers to use as well as for herself – hand spun wool is of much better quality and commands a higher price in rugs. In the past she wove only for family use, but now can sell them through the outlets of the local group – which in the future should include the Internet.

Khadija SAMIH

Although Khadija is married, her husband only works occasionally, and in addition his mother is “difficult” and prefers he give money he earns to her; it is common for sons to support aged parents. She has four children, including a son of 6 and a daughter of 14 who live in a nearby larger town with Khadija’s mother so they can attend school. Although Khadija attended primary school, the only way she could earn money was to work for other villagers, washing clothes or harvesting crops. She has just begun to work with the local group; she says she prefers to work wool: you’re out of the sun, in your own house.

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