Studio Stories No.2: Gwendolyn Floyd of SOKO
Posted on June 17 2014
What is the mission of Soko?
Soko was created by three female entrepreneurs to help “fashion a better world” through equitable direct trade of beautiful goods between artisans in Africa and web consumers worldwide. Gwendolyn Floyd, Catherine Mahugu, and Ella Griffith co-founded Soko after recognizing a global need, as well as global opportunity, to disrupt the systemic patterns of poverty found across Africa’s creative economy.
Behind agriculture, the artisan craft industry is the second largest employer in the developing world. This industry creates jobs, fosters economic communities, sustains traditions and heritage and is an important component of healthy and sustainable development. This sector is labor intensive and involves a significant number of poor people especially women and those less able to enter gainful employment. A large percentage of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa is self-employed in the informal economy, where they turn to the production of crafts and handmade goods - a skill that roots them deeply in culture and community and which helps them supplement their meager incomes. However, their crafts are limited to the local economy with inconsistent demand.
Working in bottom of the pyramid communities around the world, they were inspired to develop a solution to this disconnect between the incredible cultural value of the goods artisans make and the disproportionality small amount of money they can earn from these goods. The global craft sector hold incalculable value that has not been able to be realized due to banking, logistics, and technology limitations.
A glimpse of the new SOKO collection
Right: Gwendolyn is wearing Bhoomki Casbah pants, Coclico Melania sandals and SOKO jewelry.
Soko means marketplace in Swahili, the national language of Kenya. At Soko, our mission is to create an online marketplace so that small-scale producers in the developing world can participate in global trade. Soko’s has developed the first e-commerce marketplace that enables talented artisans to post and sell their products online, even if they do not have access to a computer or a bank account.Right: Gwendolyn is wearing Bhoomki Casbah pants, Coclico Melania sandals and SOKO jewelry.
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. The Soko solution transforms the ubiquitous mobile phone into a tool that expands access to economic opportunity for artisans in under-served communities, disrupting the traditional export supply chain, cutting out the middleman, and revolutionizing the way money and goods are exchanged between developing world artisans and global consumers.
One of SOKOs most popular designs; the Brass Fringe necklace
Tell us about your design background?
After studying policy, history, and international development at Brown University, I transferred to design school in Europe where I studied product, interaction and systems design. Shortly thereafter I started my first business, Ransmeier &Floyd, an industrial design company that designed everything from furniture to jewelry to home goods and appliances. It was an incredibly inspiring time in my life and where I learned to both love and be fascinated by materials, supply chains, and the human systems that coordinate the production and delivery of our entire material world.
I began working more and more with a focus on these human systems and how design and technology could disrupt some of the most environmentally and socially unjust production and supply chain models our world depends on. Pervasive technology and accessible business models have revolutionized the global business landscape and redefined who can be an entrepreneur. My work has been so inspired by these tenants of using existing technology, infrastructure, and social systems (instead of introducing culturally irrelevant innovation) to create lean solutions to confront some of the most fundamental challenges the global poor face.
Maasai Half Moon Pendant
I learned that for the way my brain works, design thinking was the best tool for me to have the impact I was committed to achieving. I learned that the strategic, problem solving aspects of design are incredibly relevant to international development. When designing a better piece of furniture, technology, or public transit a designers intention is not to reinvent the wheel, but to approach the problem from an innovative angle that works with existing constraints (materials, resources, etc) to improve experience, usability, and engagement. When designing accessible technology solutions, these skills have been my greatest toolbox. I approach problems not with the goal to reinvent the wheel, but to coordinate existing social, technological, and physical infrastructures in an innovative way to create constituent led and driven solutions to global challenges.
What inspired you to create Soko?
For years working in tech and international development I had witnessed the mobile phone becoming a huge driver of development due to its pervasive and accessible nature. The mobile phone is the most ubiquitous technology in the world, with Over 90% of the population in places like owning a mobile phone and being mobile literate.
I had been a designer before moving into tech and international development and was always interacting with the artisan communities and material cultures in regions where I was working on accessible technology solutions. Again and again, I saw an exclusionary and exploitative supply chain make it impossible for incredibly talented artisans and breathtaking products to reach global consumers directly. Regardless of international consumer demand, these offline producers could not access online consumer demand because they are part of the 70% of worlds population that live and work on other side of digital divide.
I was working in Kenya and was serendipitously sharing a house with and met my co-founders Ella Griffith, who also had a background in design, as an architect, and Catherine Mahugu, a Kenyan technologist. They are amazing women and had both worked extensively in technology innovation and community development. We realized a convergence that was happening between pervasive mobile ownership and literacy, mobile money penetration (branchless, creditless banking for the poor), and a global appetite for products with backstory that supported an emerging cool of ethical behavior that could provide an opportunity to completely change the face of global commerce.
What makes Soko an ethical fashion brand?
All of Soko’s artisans use materials that are ethically-sourced and recycled from existing waste streams. Our artisans’ work with these materials is an example of upcycling – converting a waste product into an object of beauty. We primarily work with brass and aluminum that is found in the slums of Kibera, a community Nairobi, through “trash for cash program” that salvages discarded metals. Most of the aluminum is salvaged from old car engines, and brass comes from old belt buckles, to door handles, to window fixtures, all that have been left as scrap. Our artisans melt down these found materials and upcycle them into beautiful and innovative jewelry designs.
Many of Soko’s products feature reclaimed bone and horn. Cow, goat, and camel bone are food byproducts all sourced from local butcheries, where they would otherwise be headed to overflowing dumps. Once in the hands of a skilled craftsman or woman, the bones are cleaned, cut, sanded, and polished into the glowing forms that make some of our most popular products.
Soko is proud to be able to empower artisans to sell trend relevant product made from ethically sourced and upcycled materials to international consumers at affordable prices!! Our unique supply chain couples us so tightly to production, and artisans so tightly to the design feedback and development process that we have been able to innovate the field of “fast ethical fashion” for the first time ever.
Soko’s designs are inspired by the cultural, urban, and rural creative contexts our artisans are coming from, the rich material ecosystem of Kenya, and popular international trends. Being able to fuse these in a social responsible, artisan entrepreneur driven model is something that Soko is very proud of.
For example, our Tepe Mixed Media necklacefuses the traditional materials of upcycled bone, horn, and brass with a fashionable shape, the chevron, to result in a design that is original yet extremely on-trend.
One of our signature pieces, the Brass Fringe, was inspired by a Kikuyu tribal necklace that was made from robe and bamboo sticks. Gabriel, the artisan designer of the piece, reinterpreted this style in hammered brass, creating a piece that is beautifully ethnic but also edgy and modern.
How does a Soko product travel from conception to consumer?
At Soko, we’ve developed mobile technology solutions that enable artisans who lack computers and bank accounts to directly access global online consumers. Using a mobile phone, an artisan takes a picture of a piece of jewelry she has created and then submits a description, product details, and price via text message or though our mobile app. This information is then uploaded to the Soko website, which can be accessed by online consumers around the world. When an item is purchased, either by an individual or by a boutique, the artisan is notified of the order via their mobile phone. After fulfilling the order, the artisan leaves a package at a local kiosk, where it is picked up by Soko couriers. These couriers bring the product to our Nairobi HQ for final processing, from where they are shipped directly to the consumer. Once an order is successful shipped, the artisan receives a payment directly to their mobile phone.
Tell us about your team.
We pride ourselves on being a company run by and for women. My two co-founders, Ella Peinovich and Kate Mahugu, both work from our headquarters in Nairobi supported by our amazing staff that manages technology development, social impact, community management, capacity building, logistics, and more, as well as short-term fellows and interns who join the team for specific projects. The Kenya office works directly with our artisans on a daily basis, offering design and production feedback, holding capacity-building trainings, monitoring impact, and onboarding new partners. Along with our small Marketing and Sales team in NYC and myself in the Bay Area, we have a very close knit and efficient operation despite being spread across 11 hours of time zones!
How is Soko concretely making an impact in artisans’ lives?
The widespread reallocation of wealth into a profitable artisan SME sector would radically transform local economies by creating jobs, increasing GDP to directly impact social development, health, and economic indicators. Soko has already worked with close to 700 artisans and by years end, will be impacting the lives of 1000’s of artisans. Using the Soko platform, artisans have already contributed tens of thousands of dollars to local economies. In five years time, we estimate that millions of dollars will be flowing into the artisan sector through our technology and facilitation. Using Soko, our artisans average income has already increased on average by a factor of six, and this number is only growing. With this traceable income, Soko artisans have successfully acquired and repaid business loans. By partnering with Kiva, artisans can access the tools, training and resources for growing their businesses. To invest in and empower an entrepreneur is not just to give them money but to provide service delivery so they can empower themselves.
Seventy percent of our artisan constituents are women. Accessible tools for female entrepreneurs to support, grow, and formalize the MSME’s of Sub-‐Saharan Africa (SSA) is necessary to disrupt the pattern of poverty amongst women in SSA, allowing them to grow their businesses and enter the formal economy. This leads to increased disposable income which translates to better health, education and security for producers, their families and the community. “The economic participation and presence of women in the formal workforce is important not only for lowering the disproportionate levels of poverty among women, but also as an important step toward raising household income and encouraging economic development in countries as a whole."i When women have money, “they make more equitable decisions about sons and daughters' diet, education and health, they favor sustainable environmental practices, and domestic violence rates go down, thereby contributing indirectly to their nation's income growth.”ii
“As a single mother, I had difficulty providing for my children and we would often have only one meal a day. Now, we comfortably have 3 meals a day and people now respect me more. Through Soko, I now feel I am an important person in the community.” –Mary, Soko Artisan
“Soko has saved my life... Before, I barely had enough to eat. Now with Soko I have started my own business, even hired my first employees, and can provide for my family without fear.” –Veronicah, Soko artisan.
This immediate, self-driven impact that Soko’s platform enables is unprecedented in the communities with whom we work. Veronicah is an example of the type of transformative impact Soko’s tools can have on an artisan’s life. As a young, uneducated, single mother living in the slums and working in an exploitative underpaid job, she was able to, in a matter of months, start her own business and even hire staff (including men and elders), empowering her to lift herself out of poverty.
Within the first two months of using the Soko platform she was able to earn what she had earned in the entire previous calendar year, increasing her income by a factor of six. When she began, she was earning $136 a month, translating into 1 meal a day on average for her family. As her income rose, she was able to meet her family’s basic needs but things like school fees or health still fell to the wayside. As soon as she tipped over into over $300/month, she suddenly had disposable income which she invested in health, education and food, contributing to generational growth. Once she felt like she had enough money to safely take care of her family, she began to reinvest in her business. This reinvestment led to and exponential growth in sales, enabling her to save and invest in herself, changing her life dramatically. Through this journey she was able to create employment in Kibera, the slum where she lives, move her elderly mother out of the slum of Kibera into an apartment in Nairobi, and even enroll in a business certificate program herself. These are extraordinary milestones for a young woman with no formal education, living and working in an extremely marginalized situation, to have accomplished independently.