The ground squished under my feet as each step was greeted with a mixture of mud and plastic bag waste. Veronicah, a Kenyan artisan, guided me as we navigated the narrow alleys of Kibera, a sprawling slum on the outskirts of Nairobi – one of the world’s largest, with a population of between 600,000 and 1.2 million. Children kicking a ball, a salon owner braiding hair, used clothing sellers hawking shoes and t-shirts, men sipping local brew – the place buzzed with life.
Veronicah led me through a gate and it was if we had entered a village of bustling artists’ studios. We were suddenly surrounded by workshops of all kinds – someone welding an iron gate, someone carving a wooden chair – before making our way to Veronicah’s creative space in a small corrugated tin hut.
Veronicah crafts necklaces, bracelets, earrings and bangles primarily using cow bone and horn sourced from butchers and restaurants. Using the raw materials that are a bi-product of another industry makes her process very sustainable and environmentally ethical. After an extensive boiling and sanitation process, she cuts the bone and horn into smaller pieces, sands them into spherical balls, and drills holes through the balls to create beads.
While Veronicah has been involved in the jewelry business for a long time, it wasn’t until she partnered with an innovative effort called Soko that her business really started to take off.
Soko is a San Francisco, New York, and Nairobi-based e-commerce start-up that allows artisans like Veronicah in Kenya to sell their goods worldwide through technology. It was founded on the belief that technology can empower women, connect markets, and foster opportunities that change lives. While Soko is currently focused on Kenyan artisans, it aims to expand to reach artisans in other countries as well.
Still a young organization, Soko continues to iterate and hone its business practices as well as refine its website design and target different market segments. That’s where the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) comes in: We are helping Soko establish a monitoring system to track important data around various processes, such as artisan recruitment, training and sales, as well as to understand how artisans are benefitting from their involvement with Soko. We’ll then assist in analyzing and synthesizing the data – which will be periodically collected by Soko staff – to understand what is working well, where there are challenges, and how the business model can be improved to achieve the greatest impact. Soko will rely on the findings from the monitoring and evaluation system to best analyze new locations before expansion. They’ll also use what they learn from the collected data as they pilot their platform in new countries, including India and Mexico.
The challenge for Soko is to find a balance that is responsive to their artisans’ needs while also maximizing business outcomes. After meeting much of their young, energetic staff during my first visit to this groundbreaking effort, I have no doubt that Soko will discover the right balance to ensure long-term entrepreneurial growth for women like Veronicah.
So how exactly does Soko work?
Help economically empower Kenyan artisans this holiday season by giving the gift of a piece of Soko jewelry or a Soko gift card. Visit www.shopsoko.com to explore culturally traditional and modern creations.
Soko essentially designed a proprietary mobile platform to link artisans in developing countries to international markets. Using just a mobile phone, artisans are able to answer a series of questions via SMS to create an online profile, make a piece of jewelry, take a picture of it, upload it to Soko’s website, sell products to an international customer base, and receive payments via mobile money. Meanwhile, customers in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan can access artisans’ products through Soko’s website. (Soko plans to expand into other customer markets as well).
Soko’s unique model cuts out the middle-man, allowing artisans to maximize profits, while enabling the customer to buy a product directly from the creator. This is especially important to economically empowering women in developing countries who often are not involved in the formal labor market. Many also lack access to banking and credit. Additionally, even when women are able to earn money, they frequently do not have control over their own earnings.
Soko’s ability to connect female artisans to international markets, pay them via mobile money, and link them to local microfinance institutions boosts women’s independence and control over their sales and earnings. This type of increased access to resources combined with increased agency – the ability to make and act on decisions and control resources and profits – is deeply empowering for women. The life of the individual woman improves, as do the lives of her family and community members. And when women are economically empowered they invest more in their family’s health and education, contribute more productively to their communities, and ultimately help enhance the economic growth of their nations.
Soko’s innovative effort is contributing to all of that. During its first two years of existence, Soko tested different methods of product sales and marketing. Currently, the Kenya Collection contains products specifically designed for international markets that have either been developed in collaboration with Soko or have independently met a set of quality and style specifications. Soko’s website also contains a page with profiles of artisans, highlighting their personal story and the unique aspects of their crafts.
Veronicah, who used to work in an organization of handicraft artisans, is of course included in the profiles. After selling a few products through Soko, she decided to become self-employed. As the orders kept flooding in, Veronicah hired two artisans to work for her to keep up. She originally had only a basic mobile phone, and knew that she would be able to process Soko orders even faster and more efficiently if she had a smart phone. With Soko’s encouragement, she secured a Kiva loan; Soko serves as the trustee for artisans to obtain a loan from Kiva, its microfinance partner in Kenya.
In the end, Veronicah used her loan to buy a smart phone and cleared the loan using her Soko earnings. She now uses her phone to communicate with friends, exchange business ideas with other artisans through social networking sites, and even to connect with an old friend in New York who provides her with design ideas. She is also able to enhance her sales experience by using Soko’s mobile business tools.
As we sat with Veronicah in her dusty workshop, she told us how the increased income from Soko sales has enabled her to improve her living standard. She even bought her mother a gasoline stove, which is a big step up from the charcoal one she had been using. She also feels proud that she has been able to increase the living standard of her employees: They are now able to afford their children’s school fees. There is a twinkle in Veronicah’s eye when she talks about her accomplishments; her pride shines through. Being self-employed has given her a new self-confidence; she isn’t afraid to share her opinion and she has big dreams for her future. She’s quick to tell us of some of her plans: buy a larger workshop, purchase more machinery and hire additional staff.
I have no doubt that she’ll make it happen.