Soko is a social enterprise that is revolutionizing international trade by connecting online consumers to global artisans from the developing world. We spoke with Diana Biggs, Soko’s Chief Strategy Officer to learn more about the Soko business model and its focus on empowering female entrepreneurs.
How did the idea for the Soko business model come about? Why Jewelry?
Soko was created by women for women to help “fashion a better world” through equitable direct trade of beautiful goods between artisans in the developing world and web consumers worldwide. Ella Peinovich, Gwendolyn Floyd, and Catherine Mahugu co-founded Soko in 2011 after recognizing a global need, as well as global opportunity, to disrupt the systemic patterns of poverty found across the developing world’s creative economy. Working in bottom of the pyramid communities around the world, they were inspired to develop a solution to the disconnect between the incredible cultural value of the goods artisans make and the disproportionality small amount of money they can earn from these goods.They realized that by leveraging pervasive technology and existing infrastructure in an innovative way, they could create a platform to enable any talented artisan to participate in international trade.
Since then, Soko has evolved to work even more closely with artisans, providing on-the-ground capacity building and training, to help support their entrepreneurial growth as they access new markets.
Jewelry seemed a natural choice, given the beautiful designs seen globally, and the ease of buying from afar, as finding a fit is easier than with clothing.
What does your role involve?
I am Soko’s Chief Strategy Officer and one of three US-based staff. Being a small start-up, you have to wear very many hats, but my areas of focus are mainly strategic business planning, marketing and partnership initiatives.
How did you get involved with Soko? What is your background?
I discovered Soko when searching for a combination of design, technology, entrepreneurship and development – it was certainly the perfect fit. After undergrad, I worked in international development out of London, and following my post-grad in Business, I was a management consultant for 5 years, working across Europe and Africa. At this time, I became particularly passionate about economic development in Africa. I had started a Microfinance Interest Group at my consulting firm and had been doing pro-bono work in this area on the side, so when I decided to leave my consulting job and move to the US, I first took 5 months to work with Kiva.org, advising in Strategy for Microfinance institutions in Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone.
How would you describe your personality, and is this reflected in your work?
I would say I’m a passionate person – I really go all in. Two passions are technology and design. I joined Soko as a Partner because I was inspired by the way in which simple, pervasive technology can be used to empower global entrepreneurs. As a design lover, I can also confess I am a jewelry lover. Last year, when I was living in Burkina Faso, I would frequently visit the local artisan market and speak to the designers. There were such beautiful pieces that I knew my friends back home would also love and I knew I wouldn’t be able to bring it all home. While they did not have access to the internet or computers themselves, the artisans were aware that things like Facebook exist and would ask me to take photos of their designs on their mobile phones and share with my friends worldwide in order to place orders. When I was introduced to the Soko Founders and they were working on creating just that, I knew I had to be a part of it.
Soko is a company that emphasizes on female empowerment. Why is it important?
Women in Africa produce 60-80% of the continent’s goods, yet they earn only 10% of the incomes. Women face economic discrimination that leads to disproportionate representation in the informal economy, leaving them unable to access financial services such as banks, loans, or credit, and vulnerable to the dangers and limitations of the cash economy.
The lack of economic opportunities for women is one of the greatest barriers to sustainable development. “When women are able to overcome the institutional discrimination they face in the workforce and earn incomes, they make more equitable decisions about sons and daughters’ diet, education and health, they favor sustainable environmental practices, and domestic violence rates go down.”
At the moment Soko is working with Kenyan artisans. Is there any plans to expand to other countries? Can we expect to see artisans from other countries showcasing their products?
Yes! We are currently piloting Soko in order countries and looking to expand next year – keep watching!
Can you tell us more about the current collection? what was the inspiration when selecting pieces for the collection?
The Kenya Collection, which is now online, is our first curated accessories collection and features necklaces, bracelets and earrings designed and handcrafted by skilled Kenyan artisans, from Nairobi, Kibera, and surrounding areas.
One thing we’re very proud of is how our collections, which feature statement necklaces, architectural brass pieces and skilled beadwork, are carefully selected to reflect both authentic African styles and global metropolitan aesthetics.
How does Soko select its artisans? Can anyone that wants to get their jewelry seen get involved?
Soko features talented artisans with strong entrepreneurial drive. Our artisans were all initially sourced via our mobile technology, by uploading their details and images of their jewelry. Our main office is in Nairobi, and our community managers are actively involved with the artisans, visiting them to ensure their products and production meet with our standards – these include no use of plastic or pre-made materials, and we very much encourage the use of upcycled materials. From our initial artisan base, our “Mentors”, further artisans were recruited using a peer recruitment model. With this model, experienced Soko vendors who want to grow their businesses by supporting others to do so as well can become Mentors. These Mentors are incentivized to recruit high potential artisans within their trust network to join Soko. They then introduce them to the platform and support them until they are qualified and comfortable to manage their Soko store independently. With experience, those vendors can later become Mentors themselves and Soko’s artisan network continues to grow.
How important is Ethical manufacturing to Soko and how do you infuse it into your business practices while still keeping your pieces fashion forward?
It is definitely very important to us. Environmental impact is also a huge one for us. Our artisans are extremely resourceful and the positive ramifications should not be underestimated. The jewelry pieces are made from materials including horn and bone recovered from the butchers (mostly cows, and certainly only animals used for food – the meat costs far more than these bone and horn pieces ever could), and our metal pieces are often melted down from past lives. All of the beads are glass, also often upcycled – we’re anti-plastic. We also operate our business using fair trade practices. Our largest office is in Nairobi, where the majority of our artisans are also based, and we have developed a very close relationship – partnership – with them. We work to ensure fair wages and safe business practices.
To learn more about Soko, please visit them at the following links: