Africa finally gets a fashion champion: Soko!

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There are Milan, Paris or London. But the fashion industry should probably take a look at Nairobi thanks to Soko. Soko is “the online destination for shoppers to discover stunning handcrafted accessories from all over the world and purchase them directly from their designers. Using Soko on a simple mobile phone, designers and artisans in the developing world can upload and sell their jewelry pieces online, with no need for a computer or a bank account“. A genius idea led by a gang of smart women. We had a chance to interview their VP, Diana Biggs. A little bit of fashion, of sustainability and technology: what a mix!

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Soko and SasaAfrica are interconnected projects: can you briefly explain us what it’s about?

The company was originally launched as a mobile platform for artisans under the name SasaAfrica in October 2012. The company rebranded to Soko in April 2013 and the new platform, with curated collections by artisans discovered through the marketplace, was launched in October 2013. So, Soko is the next generation of SasaAfrica.

There seems to be a major interest for social entrepreneurship: what are then the various KPIs for the teams involved?

Definitely – Soko is a social enterprise which was really founded around the goal to help improve the lives of artisans in developing markets by enabling their access to the global online marketplace and to provide them with this opportunity to grow as entrepreneurs. To measure this, we have a Director of Social Impact, Diana Sang, working in our office in Nairobi, and tracking the impact of Soko on the lives of artisans, as well as on outside factors such as the environmental impact of our business. It’s something we take very serious and an aspect that both excites and drives us!

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Fashion can change the world…do you agree?

I definitely agree. Fashion plays a major role in our culture, both in the contemporary society as well as cultural heritage. Fashion is your face to the world, your image, how the outside world perceives you – it can speak to your values, it is an identifier of cultural groups, norms, trends, tribes. It is art, it is expression, and it is becoming increasingly global with the rise of the blogger, with this generation’s obsession with photography and self-expression.

Not only that but here’s a staggering fact: The retail manufacturing industry – yes, fashion, – is the second most polluting industry on Earth, second only to oil. Not only are we promoting the work of artisans, we do not accept any jewelry made with plastic and the majority of our pieces are made using upcycled or recycled material. So, above and beyond the cultural and artistic aspect, that of forming a movement, fashion can also change the world by becoming a cleaner industry – and this is something we strongly promote at Soko.

There seems to be a lack of media interest for African fashion: do you agree and how can Soko help in promoting the local designers?

We’ve been hearing a lot of talk lately about “Africa rising.” Now is the time. The Western world has had a much longer relationship with Asia – we’re used to our clothes coming from China, to the textiles of India, to patterns and fabrics popularized for example when the Beatles took a trip to India back in the 1960s.Sub Saharan Africa clearly deserves to be on the global stage for more than poverty, war, or corruption. Fashion is an important part of this and at Soko, we work to promote the local designers by discovering them and bringing them to the attention of the global consumer. We celebrate the artisans existing designs and techniques and are excited to share this with the world. Now is the time for Africa.

You’ve recently declared that women are Africa’s greatest untapped resource: what are the barriers then? Men? Culture?

And we are certainly not the first to say that. There is plenty of research that shows that countries where men and woman are more equal are more competitive and prosperous. There is certainly a gap remaining in Africa for women in terms of access to education, economic participation, political participation and health. African women face many barriers, as women in many other parts of the world do, in terms of land rights, access to capital, discriminatory policies, traditions, and other practices.

Supporting women as entrepreneurs is fundamental for economic development – women tend to invest around 90% of their earnings back into their families, which means overall rising in education, health, and development.

What are the next steps for Soko and SasaAfrica

Next step for Soko… We’re very excited for Christmas and to be bringing out offering to a global audience, now shipping across Europe, UK, Australia and North America. And we’re working on our next collection, which is highlight the designs and craftsmanship of a new set of artisans, so stayed tuned!

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