Soko: Using a “Virtual Factory” to Include Kenyan Artisans in the Global Marketplace
Did you know that the artisan sector is the second-largest employer in the developing world (after agriculture) and is worth over $32 billion every year? If you have been to Latin America or Africa, this finding isn’t a surprise; there are so many open-air markets and stands of handcrafted goods just about anywhere. Artisans typically make the products (home décor, jewelry, and traditional clothing) in their homes or in informal co-ops and then sell locally.
Unfortunately, earnings are unpredictable and limited to what can be sold face-to-face on any given day. The majority of artisans live in rural communities, so they can’t simply leverage online marketplaces like Etsy to broaden their reach. Soko, a handmade jewelry company based in Kenya and San Francisco, uses mobile technologies to address this limitation in Kenya.
Soko built a mobile app that connects more than 1,300 independent artisans with global demand for their products. Through the app, artisans receive and fulfill orders, manage inventory and deliveries, and ultimately, get paid. Soko calls it a “Virtual Factory,” as it essentially coordinates supply and demand as efficiently as possible. Because artisans receive orders directly on their phone, they can start right away and work through quicker turnaround times. Hello, ethical fast fashion!
As for impact, Soko reports that artisans have quadrupled their earnings and that they are able to partner with 400+ mainstream retailers like Nordstrom and QVC.
Soko's signature aesthetic is modern and minimalistic. The earrings, bracelets, rings, and necklaces are made from upcycled materials, like brass, that are sourced locally. The team designs the jewelry in partnership with the artisans to ensure that the products are authentic to their culture and traditions, yet also appeal to international markets.
Soko was founded in 2012 by three female entrepreneurs, Gwen Floyd, Catherine Mahugu, and Ella Peinovich, and became profitable in 2015. Last month, Catherine Mahugu was identified by Vanity Fair as one of the "26 Women of Color Diversifying Entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley."
What I particularly like about Soko’s tech-driven approach is that the supply of artisans is not limited to a single factory or workshop in a single location. I was raised in a rural region where most formal jobs were 2-3 hours away in a more developed city, so I know the economic and social impact that geography can have on livelihoods. With Soko’s technology, independent artisans in rural villages can access stable employment opportunities right where they live and still participate in business at a larger scale.
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