The Soko Story

February 27, 2018

Soko is what happens when artisans, social entrepreneurship, and technology meet. Its story starts in Nairobi, Kenya, where founders Gwendolyn Floyd, Ella Peinovich and Catherine Mahugu met and started the brand. We spoke to Giovanna Alfieri, VP of Marketing, to dig deeper into that story.


She explains, “When Soko was starting out, it was founded by two American women and one Kenyan woman, and the tension they were hoping to resolve was, ‘How do we take heritage techniques and production and unite that with the global consumer?’ So, the impetus for the brand was kind of an ‘Etsy for Africa,’ where we would work with our very small network of artisans and help them upload their work onto the platform. But what we found was that they faced a limited market with their existing designs, so collectively, we decided that we needed to be a brand that designs streamlined, global products and integrates the artisans’ stories into that.” After getting to know more talented artisans of Kenya and recognizing the logistical challenges they faced, the founders took to solving those challenges through a combination of grassroots efforts and Silicon Valley technologies.

The idea was twofold—not only are most artisans geographically removed from opportunities to sell their products at regional markets, they also struggle to match their skills with current tastes. Many social enterprises that employ talented artisans ultimately suffer from slow production timelines due to constraints in logistics and communication with the artisans.

Giovanna tells us why ethical fast fashion matters, “Because we’re vertically integrated, we have a unique ability to truly respond to the consumer in a quick and meaningful way. Our production timelines are between 2 and 8 weeks, so we can see a trend like hoop earrings, ingest it, put a Soko spin on it, and collaborate with our artisans in less than two months. We’re able to be an ethical company, a responsive fast-fashion company, and truly understand who our customer is and what she’s shopping for. The combination of all those elements— our materials, artisans, and our responsivness to customers and trends —is really what makes Soko unique!”

Soko's solution focuses on supply chain innovation and uses mobile phones to create a “virtual factory,” which means artisans in multiple regions can work from their homes or small, informal workshops, enabling them access to the global economy while remaining in their home regions. Alfieri explains the widespread implications of enabling artisans to work where they live, “We have created distributed workshops throughout Nairobi, and we partner with about 2,200 artisans—which has been really great for community building. For our female artisans, a lot of these women are able to care for their children or other members of their community at home because they can work remotely.”

The virtual factory displays purchase orders in real-time, so artisans work on products that are in-demand and never waste precious resources or materials on products that won’t sell. And because of the scale and granular insights provided by the software, artisans earn meaningful, livable wages while Soko is able to deliver fashionable goods at competitive prices— furthering the brand’s success leading to more orders for artisans!

Alfieri speaks about design inspirations and material sourcing, “We take a lot of cues from the artisans’ designs and the landscape and aesthetic of Kenya, and lots of the influence is in the materials. We primarily use brass and horn, all recycled metals that get melted down for the purpose of producing our jewelry. And horn is a byproduct of the animal-based food industry, so it uniquely defines us as a brand—it’s all that the artisans have access to and all that we, as a brand, have to work with. So we try to blend our design sensibilities and aesthetics with the source materials and continental influences of Africa.”

Soko’s goal is to create affordable, ethically made jewelry while delivering mainstream-ready and fashion forward designs, and to further develop the global artisan economy, which, Alfieri notes, “is the second largest economic sector in the world, even though individual artisans have little access to the global economy.”

As much as there is to say about the functional beauty of the petite bow earrings in the Spring CAUSEBOX, the most remarkable thing is how simple and life-changing the production process behind them is. Soko believes that “for something to be beautiful, the system that created it must also be beautiful.” We agree with that.


Learn more about Soko:

https://shopsoko.com/

@shopsoko

John is the managing editor at CAUSEBOX and a traveling writer who lives on the road with his dog, Hank.