Kenya's new artisans

Social enterprise Soko uses mobile phone technology to connect Kenyan artisans directly to global customers

A social enterprise in Kenya is helping budding entrepreneurs sell handcrafted jewellery to global consumers at the click of a camera phone.

Veronicah’s latest bracelet is made of three types of beads: brass, and small, round brown and black beads lovingly cut, sanded and polished from cow horn. It takes an entire day to craft a piece of jewellery such as this.

From Kibera in Kenya, one of Africa’s largest slums, Veronicah runs her own small workshop with two full-time staff. Her transformation from artisanal hobbyist to employer has been quick. Just 18 months ago, Veronicah made jewellery for fun while she was out of work.

“I didn’t sell much, maybe five pieces a week,” she says. “In a good month, I would make about 20 sales. Now I get orders between 50 to 200 pieces through Soko.”

From the outskirts of Nairobi, Veronicah’s products can end up on the arms of fashion-forward hipsters in New York via Soko, a social enterprise using mobile phone technology to connect Kenyan artisans directly to global customers.

Soko focuses on products made of materials particular to Kenya, such as brass, Masai beadwork, cow horn, and cow and camel bone. The mobile platform has 250 registered artisans who take photos of their products on their phone, upload them to Soko’s online shop via SMS, and receive payment on their mobiles through the Kenyan-based mobile money system, M-Pesa.

“M-Pesa is much better than banking. You receive the money and can withdraw it immediately to go and buy the materials for the products,” says Veronicah.

One of Soko’s founders Ella Peinovich, an engineering graduate from the US, was working in Nairobi’s slums on an architecture programme.

“I loved going to the market and talking to the artisans about their work. I ended up buying suitcases of jewellery and selling them in my mother’s gallery back home,” she says. “The goods were globally competitive. That was where the idea came from: seeing the need for artisans to reach a larger, more global consumer market.”

Starting as a simple web portal, Soko has grown to develop a payment system transferring credit card payments to mobile money networks, and a logistics model that allows product tracking.

Launched in 2012 with $180,000 raised through grants and university competitions, it has just raised $700,000 from angel investors including the Insaan Group, a philanthropic organisation based in Dubai. Soko plans to expand outside Kenya to Tanzania, Ghana and Rwanda early next year and a pilot project is underway in Mexico. They have already completed a pilot in India.

“We intend to be a global platform. It’s just a matter of having the ground staff and scaling it in that region,” says Peinovich. Six shops in the US have signed up for wholesale since October.

“Of the 14 items purchased initially, we have sold seven; a great statistic for one month,” says Swato Argade, owner of Brooklyn boutique Bhoomki in New York. Soko has just opened up sales to Europe and Australia in addition to North America. Veronicah used to sell her products at a friend’s market near the railway.

“Most of the artisans are making good products. But they have to sell them at the local Masai market. They spend 500 Kenyan shillings on materials and they end up selling it for just 200 shillings because they sit waiting all day for a buyer – a throwaway price,” she says.

By using everyday technology in different ways, customers can enjoy individually crafted jewellery that means the world to its makers.