The Merchant: Soko's Gwendolyn Floyd Helps African Artisans Leverage Basic Mobile Tech

With Soko, African designers can sell their wares across the world, using only simple feature phones. One of the startup's cofounders discusses the challenges facing this ambitious operation.

Gwendolyn Floyd

Many of today's mobile entrepreneurs are thinking about adapting to the newest technology and building the next hottest app, but some great innovators, like Facebook and Soko, are going back to the basics and thinking about how to leverage "old" technology. Soko is a San Francisco-based e-commerce startup (relaunching this week after a redesign) that allows African artisans to sell their work around the world without a computer, a bank account, full Internet access--or even reliable electricity. All they need is a basic feature phone.

An artist in Nairobi can use Soko's platform to create a vendor profile using only her feature phone. She can use basic SMS text entry forms to upload personalized images of herself and her work, as well as product details. This information is then turned into metadata that is automatically uploaded to the Soko website, creating a virtual storefront with the entire world as her potential clientele.

Here's what you can learn from Gwendolyn Floyd, one of the women behind this ambitious project:

Soko’s business model uses the latest tech on the consumer-facing side with the most basic tech on the supply side. For example, a necklace made by an African woman who lives without power or regular Internet access can be sold to a woman in Seattle who can view the necklace on her iPad, share its details with her social networks, and buy it using her credit card. What is the one thing you wish existed that would help you bridge that gap?

Soko has coordinated existing infrastructures in innovative ways to revolutionize international trade. Our scalability, however, is tied to pervasive mobile penetration and literacy and accessible banking solutions such as mobile money. Anywhere you go in the world, the former is increasingly present. However, mobile money is just starting to explode across emerging economies. This is wonderful and a boon to our social enterprise, but we do wish we could already service all of the communities of creatives and artisans that reach out to us and would like to get onboard that do not have access (yet) to accessible banking solutions.

What has been the biggest challenge you've faced by using basic mobile phones, rather than smartphones, as the fundamental connection between local African businesses and a global market?

The biggest challenge is that Soko is committed to developing a long-term entrepreneurial growth trajectory for artisans and SMS has inherent limitations. Soko actually provides access to our platform via feature phones as well as smartphones. Soko’s social recruitment and mentorship model ensures that even with a simple feature phone using SMS, artisans will be able to create and manage personal online storefronts. We have designed our platform to be a radically accessible e-commerce and trade portal. However, we have found that once Soko artisans earn some profit from sales they are enthusiastic to invest in (or borrow from Kiva, our micro finance partner) a smartphone that supports entrepreneurial capacity building. We see Soko’s SMS driven e-commerce tools as a gateway technology toward the adoption of Soko’s smartphone enterprise tools.

One major mobile trend is that brands, like Facebook, are looking at feature phones and how to connect with third-world populations, whose digital influence and presence will only continue to grow. Are there other mobile shifts Soko foresees and is planning for in the future?

Yes! The rapid growth and expansion of accessible mobile banking services across the developing world, as well as a market for and adoption of Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) mobile enterprise tools, or SMS-driven and low-cost tech solutions that support business practices.

You can follow Soko at: @Shop_Soko

[Images: Soko Instagram]

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3 Comments

  • Melissa Alleyne

    I'm curious as to what this will do the gender gap in Africa and how it will affect home life either in a good or bad way

  • Ella

    Melissa, interesting indeed. Thank you for bringing this up.

    Soko has been tracking the social and economic progress since each artisan joined our platform in order to drive our social impact. In many instances women are the bread winners in their families. We have found overwhelming support for the fact that when women have access to and control over their own finances they invest it into their children's education and health, and back into their businesses. In fact we have learned in a report by the World Bank that in Kenya, reducing gender discrimination could result in as much as 4.3% GDP growth. Compared to when many men control the finances and spend on short-term amusement. You can see some profiles of women in the BOP in this report by the GSMA MWomen program: http://www.gsma.com/mobileford...
    However, admittedly, there is a down-side to all progress, just because a woman earns more than a man does not automatically change the power dynamic at home, and women have reported threats and theft from their spouses. However, you should not stop progress in the face of threats and we at Soko ultimately believe that the women we work with are as entrepreneurial as they are ingenious, and will do what is best for themselves and their family. For example, we have heard of women who now use a mobile money account to save money, while they show a secondary account to their spouses. What we can do is create opportunities for these women to empower themselves as well as encourage policy and social change, starting with the men in our community. Soko also supports who we call 'pro-women men', these men employ women in their workshops or provide training and support for other women's and youth groups in their communities. They are changing the dynamics in the workplace as well as in their own homes and we applaud them.  

  • Collin Burton

    If you want to try out buying something from a third world country using nearly the same technology, you should go visit www.theanou.com They are already open, so you won't have to wait three days to see what the site looks like Soko is doing. The idea sounds almost identical, except that Anou is based in Moroco and Soko is starting in Africa. The other big difference is that Anou has been open for a couple of years now.

    Full disclosure, I don't work for Anou, but a friend from high school is the founder of the company.