Shop Keep

A fashion startup gives African artisans access to a global market.

We can sell anything online. And if you’re tempted to dismiss that as hyperbole, consider the following. The original Hollywood sign went for $450,400 on eBay. Justin Timerlake’s half-eaten toast? Also sold on eBay (for $3,000). And if it’s a Ouija board lunch box you seek, someone is selling those at Etsy online, too.


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But having all of this at your fingertips assumes that you have both a computer and a bank account. So for talented artisans in developing nations without either, the promise of the Internet isn’t so helpful. 

A startup called SOKO (www.shopsoko.com) has built a solution — Africa’s first mobile phone-based marketplace for goods. The company’s technology allows jewelry and accessories makers to set up their online stores, upload photos and even set pricing directly from their mobile phones. The products are then curated and promoted on SOKO’s website.

When a transaction goes through, the artisan receives mobile money on their phone, which can then be spent like cash on goods in stores, due to Kenya’s famously advanced mobile-money market.

The products themselves are stunning, from brass earrings to moon stone rings and beaded necklaces. The SOKO team curates them into collections — and you can also simply browse by artisan.

“SOKO was started to connect beautiful products from developing countries with fashionable buyers on the web,” said Diana Biggs, SOKO’s New York based chief strategy officer. “Many of our artisans used to have to [rely almost solely] on the local markets, which are dependent on tourist traffic,” she told us.

SOKO bridges a significant tech gulf with each transaction. Imagine a Kenyan necklace creator in Nairobi uploading images and managing pricing via text message on one side and a woman in New York, browsing the accessory collections on a shiny tablet on the other side.


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“What’s interesting is that every item is unique. For the artisans, [it’s entirely natural] to make each one a bit different,” Biggs said.

The result is far greater distribution, and because there are fewer go-betweens than in traditional offline transactions, the product creators (most of whom are women) earn far more. This is critical in a region of the world where 85 percent of women are self-employed in the informal economy. The platform also gives them business guidance on their shop, offering insight into which items are selling best, which are the most profitable and therefore which they should make more of.

SOKO’s development focus shouldn’t surprise: The four founders (Biggs, Ella Peinovich, Gwendolyn Floyd and Catherine Mahugu) have significant social enterprise experience between them.

As for the other side of the transaction, the buyers get access to handmade items that they couldn’t otherwise get, curated into fashionable collections by the SOKO team — and get to feel good about the purchase, knowing its supporting a self-employed maker.

The SOKO team (totaling 14) is a distributed one, with offices in Nairobi, Kenya, San Francisco and New York. And while Kenya is the first market, the team intends to add products, artisans and collections from countries around the world.



Content written by Chris Johnson, Co-founder of Wakefield Media. Wakefield Media is one of American’s many small business partners.

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