"Buy a necklace from a local artisan—give her business for a day."
"Buy a necklace from that same artisan via her mobile vendor platform—support her as she scales her business globally."
So goes the ethos of Soko, an emerging social enterprise that enables individual jewelry makers to use their mobile phones to sell directly to anyone worldwide. Imagine Etsy sans internet, bank accounts, or easy shipping options. Founded by three women with expertise in technology and systems design, Soko (which means marketplace in Swahili), is based in Nairobi, with many artisans residing in Kibera, the largest informal settlement in Africa, scrutinized more for its open sewage systems than for its open technology platforms.
The story of Soko is one that not only helps shift the perception of a stigmatized slum, but also rewrites the business narratives of artisans based there. Take Veronicah, a Soko designer based in Kibera who collects discarded horns and bones from local butchers to craft elegantly beaded bracelets and necklaces. Since joining the Soko network 18 months ago, new revenue from global clientele has allowed her to devote herself full time to her craft and hire three to five employees. Through Soko, she was able to connect with other Soko artisans and mentors who helped her source materials and reduce her production time. When I interviewed her, she reflected on how her success had made her a role model, "Other women look up to me and desire to own their own businesses too."
Through her involvement in Soko, Veronicah has come to embody the type of economic and social transformation at the core of the company’s mission. Now she is hiring people, expanding her operations, selling to international consumers, saving money, and developing literacy in mobile technologies and business.
In addition to its mobile infrastructure, Soko runs on human factors—strong local social networks are put in place to enable each artisan to flourish. At support depots, community liasons offer artisans feedback on their designs, training in product photography, and tips on international trends. The company also links artisans with mobile money kiosks to process their payments, and a scooter network to pick up their products for shipping. Successful artisans can become mentors who recruit and advise high potential artisans, and support their adoption of the mobile platform until they are confident enough to use it independently. In exchange, mentors receive a percentage of that artisan’s final sales (deducted from Soko’s rather than the artisan’s margin). Kiosk agents receive small fees for stocking packaging and promotional materials, and for carrying out product validation and quality control. Kiva, a person-to-person micro lending platform, links artisans to loans so that they can purchase the supplies they need to scale their businesses – from bead polishing machines to smart phones. Through this holistic human infrastructure, artisans get access to the resources they need to sell their goods online in retail bulk prices, and to ship internationally.
Overall, Soko stands out as a critical cog in the international development ecosystem— a compliment to conventional investment initiatives. It can be replicated anywhere there are talented makers, mobile phones and local networks of knowledge and support to be catalyzed. It begs the question, is this the future of social entrepreneurship?
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