Innovation and entrepreneurial spirit can be found in all corners of the globe – but opportunity and access to basic technology and reliable shipping methods varies widely depending on where you are. Hard-working artisans striving to make a living off their wares in places like Senegal or Paraguay start at a disadvantage because they usually only have access to a very local market. And in these emerging market economies, women usually have the short end of the stick.
Three social entrepreneurs decided to tackle this problem and help empower women entrepreneurs in a very tangible way: by giving them access to the global marketplace through mobile technology. Together, Gwendolyn Floyd, Ella Peinovich, and Catherine Mahugu launched Soko in beta this past April.
Soko, which means “marketplace” in Swahili, allows users to upload a picture of their wares with relevant details (size, color, etc.) to an e-commerce website using basic SMS technology – better known as a text-messaging service. Artisans set the price, and then Soko tacks on an additional charge (they have to make money somehow, but what’s cool is that they pass the cost on to the consumer, not the artisan).
Thousands of shoppers can peruse the site, looking at the wares as well as learning about the artisans themselves. Any items they buy are purchased directly from the artisan, no middleman required.
It sounds simple, but when you consider the roadblocks these markets, including Kenya where the startup is primarily based and where the mobile marketplace first opened its doors, offer to entrepreneurs – unreliable Wi-Fi, mail service, etc. – it gets a bit more complicated. Despite launching in April, the team of twelve have been working since 2011 to get the logistics and supply chain squared away and make sure they had enough artisans signed on.
What’s next for these social entrepreneurs? They want to expand throughout Africa and then to Latin America – and with the $800,000 they received from Rio Technology Partners, they have something to get them started. An admirable next step, but it seems they still have some work to do on the home front: the website is still marked as “Opening for Business Soon.”
With a vision like this, these ladies really have the potential to make a huge, positive impact not only on the women in these communities, but the communities as a whole as well.