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Business and Finance

Sending out an SMS to the world

Debbi Evans
Soko is a pioneering social enterprise that aims to empower African craftswomen by connecting them to a global market

Soko (formerly SASA) is a pioneering SMS-based project, which in its simplest form connects offline artisans to online consumers despite lack of access to the internet, a computer or a bank account. It is the brainchild of Gwen Floyd, Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu.

“Our aim has always been to link artisans in emerging economies to a viable marketplace,” Gwen tells me. “I studied the history of trade, as I have always been interested in global supply chains, and one day the idea came to me that perhaps we could use the mobile phone to achieve this link.

“Then I met Ella, who had been using survey technology for another project. She had already begun thinking about how it could be adapted to facilitate international direct or peer-to-peer trade. And what came out of that was SASA, which was a great opportunity for us to bring our expertise together.” The idea may be simple, but the concept is brand new. “Which is why we began exclusively with jewellery,” Gwen explains. “No one has done what we’ve done before. So we’re asking consumers not to take a leap of faith but to be active participants in something really novel and game-changing. And when it comes to jewellery, there’s already a huge amount of demand.”

A sale with a tale

In fact, she says, 90% of craft goods sold online are jewellery – not in terms of what’s available, but what’s purchased – making it the second most commonly purchased product category online. “Although there are already tons of crafts and jewellery available in the international marketplace, what makes us different is that every product is linked to the vendor who made it.

“There’s a very low barrier for entry. Generally vendors just opt in and a mentorship begins. The artisan completes a vendor registration process by simply texting ‘SASA’ to our phone number, and this begins a survey that collects the required information: name, location, photo, the type of product that they will sell and, if they like, a personal creative statement,” Gwen says.

“Some of the women may have never actually interacted with a phone besides receiving phone calls, but that isn’t an issue. And support is available from their mentor the whole time. In fact, they are usually sitting with them throughout this initial process,” says Gwen.

Learning the tricks of the trade

These mentors, or agents, are part of the recruitment model that SASA has implemented, which, cleverly, doesn’t depend on the founders being there for training. “We want to be a tool, and we’re successful if our tool is scalable at a local level. The people are the ones growing the community.”

Artisans who have sold a few items successfully are able to become agents, who themselves can go on to recruit and mentor fellow artisans. Every time a recruited artisan makes a sale, the agent makes a small fee. Incentivising the agents encourages them to actively support their protégées and to try to grow and improve the group, thus working in a similar way to micro-franchisees.

Once there are enough vendors in a region, a mobile kiosk is set up to provide a logistical touchpoint. Kenya has no formal banking infrastructure, so the entire system uses mobile money and an existing network of kiosks around the country – “the service stations of Africa”, according to Gwen. Kiosk agents are paid a small fee for validating products against an image and description sent by MMS to the kiosk agent’s phone – an active quality-assurance process that increases the reliability and therefore reputation of the vendors and the system as a whole.

Customer benefits

As the first company to create a model of massively distributed fair trade, SASA is able to offer consumers distinct benefits. Gwen says: “If you’re wholesale aggregating like fair trade organisations or wholesale exporters, then you have to pay massive export and import fees, brokers’ licences – the list goes on. The fact that we’re cutting out the middle man saves consumers huge amounts of money.”

Feedback so far has been extremely positive. In January SASA emerged among the top five of more than 40 start-ups pitched at the inaugural Demo Africa conference held in Nairobi and was chosen to tour Silicon Valley to gain exposure to investors.

But for Gwen, the importance of the project lies with the artisans themselves. “Our objective is to empower artisans”, she says. “We want to help them help themselves to become entrepreneurs and give them their place in the global marketplace.”

Digital divisions

  • 70% of the world’s population are living on the other side of the digital divide.
  • Women make up 70% of the world’s one billion poorest people.
  • More than 85% of women in Sub-Saharan Africa are self-employed in the informal economy.
  • Emerging economies have a leading position in the craft sector, accounting for 60% of global creative goods exports.
  • Due to costly and inaccessible export supply chains, international consumers pay up to 20 times the cost of production.
  • Over 75% of the population of Africa owns a mobile phone.
  • In countries like Kenya, there are 2,000 mobile phone users for every internet user.


of the world's population are living on the other side of the digital divide



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