By Allie M. Glinski
A hot furnace, polishing tools, beautiful silver and gold bangles, and intricate brass chain necklaces with recycled bone and horn pendants are just some of the things that fill the room of the Kibera Art Center workshop – located in the largest slum in Nairobi and one of the largest urban slums in the world. While the artisans of the Kibera Art Center have been making and selling jewelry for many years, the opportunity to participate in Soko’s online sales platform has allowed their business to really grow.
Soko is a San Francisco, New York, and Nairobi-based e-commerce start-up that allows Kenyan artisans to sell their goods worldwide through technology. Founded in 2012, Soko aims to use technology to empower women, connect markets, and foster opportunities that change lives. The artisans post a product on Soko’s website and then provide a small inventory of the product to the local Soko office in Nairobi. When the product sells, Soko immediately sends the product to the customer and contacts the artisan to replenish the stock. As soon as the customer receives the product, the artisan receives an automatic mobile money payment.
Soko is doing more than just providing artisans with a connection to a wider network of customers. They also work with the artisans and artisan groups to come up with new creative designs that will appeal to western customers and they assist the artisans with project timelines, material sourcing, and even design techniques. Through working with Soko, as well as the other Soko artisans, the artisans are building their capacity and increasing their sales.
Over the last year, The International Center for Research on Women has been working with Soko to help them establish a monitoring and evaluation system to understand what is working well, what types of artisans or artisan groups are selling the most products, what product price ranges are most successful, and what recruitment and training methods are most effective. In addition, we conducted a qualitative performance assessment with the Soko staff and artisans to gain a deeper understanding of the company’s operations, what is working well and what could be improved, the initial impacts on the artisans, and what additional support would maximize their success.
Recently I conducted interviews with several of the active and inactive artisans and artisan groups in and around Nairobi to understand how they are benefiting from their involvement with Soko. One area that was frequently listed as an important benefit gained through their involvement with Soko is the importance of maintaining quality and consistency. Many explained that they previously hadn’t put much emphasis on quality and consistency, but they now understand the importance of maintaining these standards, especially when selling products to international markets. Through trainings, artisans have also gained valuable skills that allow them to enhance their products and increase their sales.
Another benefit that was frequently mentioned by artisans was their increased earnings through Soko sales and the impact this has on their lives. With the increased income, they are able to invest in and expand their businesses, as well as improve their quality of life and financially support family members. Many of the artisans reported re-investing in their business by buying machinery and tools that increase their efficiency and productivity. They also talked about the impact that this additional income has had on their personal lives, allowing them to support family members’ education or cover health expenses. One female artisan told us, “I have two brothers, but my income is more reliable and consistent, so I am the one who helps my mother. My mother doesn’t trust my brother to be able to provide for her.”
Many of the artisans also explained that one very important benefit of their increased sales and earnings is the ability to hire additional artisans. Providing other people with employment options brings a lot of pride and fulfillment to the artisans. One artisan explained, “It feels good that my employees are also able to support their families and are living a better life.” Another artisan added, “I have changed many lives by creating employment opportunities”.
The ability to expand their networks was also noted as an important benefit gained. As each artisan has different skills, having this network of fellow artisans gives them a pool of talented people to draw upon if they need help creating a certain piece or sourcing specific materials. One artisan explained, “One of the best parts of the training was interacting with the other artisans- it’s like a family- they were friendly, if you have a problem, feel free, they will explain and show you what to do.”
As an indirect result of participation with Soko, many artisans have been able to take out loans from Kiva. Several artisans stressed the importance of having Soko back them for the Kiva loan and how this loan has helped them to expand their businesses. Over time the artisans have taken out and repaid increasingly large loan amounts – a fundamental sign of a successful micro-finance program, in that it demonstrates the ability to build credit.
These are a few among many other benefits experienced by Soko artisans – all consistent with Soko’s goal to help talented artisans improve their livelihoods by connecting them directly with global consumers online. Artisans expressed the pride they feel in selling their products online to international customers. And what better way to shop – to have the opportunity to connect directly with talented artisans for high quality and ethically produced goods. It’s a new, smart way of business that is not only empowering the artisans in Kenya, but also empowering consumers by allowing us the choice to shop for a positive impact.