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.

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

About the author

Cecelia Bittner is a journalist, gardener, and graduate of NYU's Studio 20 program. She produced Fast Company's "Mobilizing" series, which aims to build a network of millennial women who are using mobile to innovate in their fields.