How do these artisans with limited Internet sell so much online?

Soko’s artisans can connect to a global market with just a mobile phone. (Courtesy photo)

For years, women throughout Kenya have earned income by making jewelry. But the global market is complex. Middlemen often control access, and that has limited these artisans’ earning potential.

In 2011, Kenyan entrepreneur Catherine Mahugu thought technology could help, so she set out to prove it.

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, Mahugu teamed up with U.S. entrepreneurs Ella Peinovich and Gwendolyn Floyd to start Soko, an e-commerce platform where artisans can sell their jewelry to consumers around the world using basic mobile phones.

“It’s a brand that helps fashion a better world,” Mahugu said of Soko, revealing a bit of marketing savvy in her description.

Many Maasai women sell traditional beaded collars and bibs through Soko. (Courtesy photo)

Mahugu said Soko’s platform breaks from traditional business models by offering women at the start of the supply chain access to the global market. These jewelry makers do not need a computer, Internet access or even a bank account. A mobile phone provides them the connection.

Artisans register with the company in order to upload product photos to Soko’s e-commerce platform. When a consumer purchases an item, Soko sends a courier to pick it up and have it shipped.

Mahugu’s approach has proven popular. In 2014, more than 1,000 artisans were registered. They sold 42,000 items to consumers in 30 countries. What’s more, their average household income grew by 400 percent.

Women run nearly 75 percent of the enterprises registered with Soko. (Courtesy photo)

While the numbers explain the company’s popularity with artisans, Mahugu said she has faced real challenges in ramping up the company. Here are the challenges she talked of and solutions the team at Soko is employing to beat them:

Failing infrastructure. “We have an in-house logistics network just to compensate for the lack of [transportation] infrastructure here [in Kenya] and the incomplete addresses,” Mahugu said.

Unreliable services. Power interruptions and Internet outages make coordination difficult, especially because many artisans live in rural areas with less power and connectivity. To compensate, Soko has developed resilient operational tools for an online model. “We’ve been able to apply [these tools] through an offline social network,” Mahugu said. These tools mean that Soko can function even when the power goes out.

Slow technology adoption. “The e-commerce culture in Africa has yet to blossom like it has in the developed countries,” Mahugu said. Soko accepts mobile money “just to tackle the issue of distrust of online payments.” The company also settles disputes through social media. These methods provide a positive customer experience.

Soko’s staff makes funny faces for the camera. Mahugu is in the front row, fourth from the left. (Courtesy photo)

Soko hopes to expand its platform to artisans in other African countries. Mahugu said there are key indicators as to whether a country is a viable market for the e-commerce platform. They include the availability of mobile money, the adoption rate of new technology, the reliability of shipping services, the quality of existing infrastructure and government policies toward entrepreneurs.

“Internet connectivity is just revolutionizing how businesses in Africa operate,” Mahugu said. To be successful, entrepreneurs must “go with the tide of change and innovation, not against it.”

This July, Kenya will host the sixth annual Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES), a gathering of entrepreneurs, business leaders, mentors and government officials. To learn more about the summit, and the U.S. government’s commitment to global entrepreneurship, visit the GES 2015 website.