This Ethical Jewelry Brand Developed Mobile Technologies to Empower Artisans in Kenya.
A New Ethical Marketplace
Soko is a new type of social enterprise with a mission to unite style with purpose. Founded in 2011, the company aims to solve a unique problem of connecting impoverished artisans in Kenya through innovations in business and tech, evolving the fast fashion industry along the way.
Soko means “marketplace” in Swahili, the language of Soko’s birthplace – Nairobi, Kenya. An appropriate name for what the brand has been able to accomplish.
Soko has created a new marketplace that unites conscious consumers around the world with Kenya’s heritage trade and marginalized economy, achieving an important outcome for the industry – responsibly made and fashionable jewelry that provides much needed, reliable livelihoods for the makers.
The idea for Soko came when two American founders Gwendolyn Floyd, Ella Peinovich and their Kenyan partner Catherine Mahugu, sought to connect local traditional artisans in Kenya to global markets. Facing constraints such as remote geographic locations and matching heritage techniques and designs to current trends, the founders landed on – or rather inventively created – a business model that worked for all.
Fashion Meets Tech
Instead of compromising wages and designs to meet the pressing timelines and marginal profit cuts of the existing industry, Soko founders created a mobile-based network to coordinate directly between artists and clients. The system is efficient – only products that have been actually ordered are made – and cheaper – costing a fraction of traditional production models, which allows artisans to set competitive prices while receiving a fair wage of up to 25-35% of the item’s cost.
Leveraging Peinovich’s MIT degree and many trips to Kenya, the founders learned what the missing link was and then built it, essentially a “virtual factory” that enables these artisans to do business and reap the rewards. The system is user-friendly and allows artisans to run a full-fledged shop where they can manage inventory, make shipping arrangements, and even get paid. Soko also employs field workers who use the platform to conduct quality control.
However, Soko’s model would not have worked if its jewelry designs did not appeal to a global consumer. The company’s virtual platform allows them the flexibility to watch current fashion trends and then design and place orders with a 2-3 week turnaround production time, creating a direct link between consumer needs and artisan products.
The skill, art, and heritage of the artists are not lost in this process. Many of Soko’s designs, while modern, also take a unique spin on a traditional concept, for example their best-selling Nyundo stacking rings which take the name of a coastal province in Kenya.
Unlike many traditional artisan communities which may only work with one material, Soko has a diverse product line that incorporates brass, 24K gold-plating, a unique type of non-tarnish silver made from recycled brass, and other natural materials such as wood and reclaimed horn.
The result is beautifully crafted, on-trend designs that consumers can feel beautiful in knowing their pieces were handmade, and supported underserved artisans. As Soko notes “for something to be beautiful, the thing that created it must also be beautiful.”
“for something to be beautiful, the thing that created it must also be beautiful.”
A Business Model that Empowers Women
As a B-Corp with a social mission, Soko’s vision goes beyond supporting jewelry artisans. The company aims to empower local artisan communities in many other creative sectors. Most recently, Soko teamed up with the makers at Kazuri, a World Fair Trade Organization member that employs disadvantaged single mothers who specialize in ceramics. Together, they launched a jewelry collection that creatively incorporates the colorful ceramics into sleek modern styles.
Through its virtual platform, Soko has empowered over 2,200 artisans throughout Nairobi to work from home, giving them the flexibility to care for their children or other members of their community. Aside from flexible work conditions and access to ethical wages, Soko’s business model helps artisans take pride in their own craftsmanship and global demand for their product, which is even more exciting as the brand has gained greater recognition.
Perhaps one of the most defining moments in Soko’s journey (and most exciting for the artisans) was in 2018 when Michelle Obama chose to wear Soko earrings for a cover shoot for Essence Magazine, a decision that symbolizes what the brand stands for – female power and solidarity.
As Featured In
Soko’s artisan jewelry and ethical business practices were highlighted in Business Insider.
Where to Find
Soko can be found at Retail Partners such as Anthropologie, Madewell and SHOPBOP. Click here to find a store near you.