Tell us about Shop Soko.
Shop Soko is an ethical African fashion brand that works with marginalised artisans in Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia connecting them to a vibrant and competitive international fashion market using technology. These artisans use eco-friendly raw materials such as recycled brass and reclaimed cow horn and bone to make jewellery.
Shop Soko was built after we identified an opportunity to fulfil the demand for high standard and durable jewellery in the international market. We decided to work with marginalised artisans in East Africa to fulfil this need. It was an effective way to be profitable while impacting lives.
How do you use technology to connect the artisans to international markets?
Shop Soko uses an innovative mobile-to-web Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) solution which we refer to as a “virtual factory”, that connects independent artisans directly to Shop Soko and our global customers. This means that a small-scale artisan can have his/her products sold by international department stores, independent boutiques, and online retailers. This helps the artisans to participate in the global marketplace by giving them access to purchase orders, they receive payments via mobile money.
Our main market is in the United States of America (USA) but our products are also available in 400 boutiques spread across Europe, Japan and Australia.
How does Shop Soko impact the lives of the artisans that you work with?
Shop Soko’s impact can be looked at in two ways- professional development and personal life improvement. Professionally, we develop their artistry skills from the local standard to the competitive international standard, help them improve their production capacity and formalise their businesses. Consequently, increasing and sustaining their income which affects their personal lives. The artisans can comfortably meet their basic needs and educate their children.
What has been the single biggest challenge in growing your business, how have you overcome it?
We had major challenges trying to bridge the economic, geographical and technological divide between the artisans and the customers. However, we have overcome this by leveraging on technology and existing infrastructure by building our ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system which I spoke about earlier.
Business mentorship is vital for a venture to be successful, could you share your thoughts?
I agree, in fact, Soko has business mentors many of whom also serve on our board. These are people with expertise on specialised areas such as sales, marketing, finance, and others. They share their insights with us which have been useful to Soko. Shop Soko plans to expand to the entire African continent, for this reason we have mentors who are entrepreneurs running continental businesses who understand Africa’s business dynamics and their counsel will help accelerate our plans. Besides having a business mentor, every entrepreneur should have a personal mentor for their professional development.
How has Shop Soko managed to raise capital over the years?
Shop Soko began operations with money from grants and awards, once we proved the company’s business concept and model, that is when Soko started receiving capital in different forms. It is also fundamental for an entrepreneur to understand when and why they need the capital that they are trying to raise.
For a business to be successful, entrepreneurs need to understand that they should not rely on capital only but should invest their time resources, they should build as much value for the business with the little they have, at every stage of the business. They should boot strap!
Shop Soko has worked with investors, what advice would you give entrepreneurs looking to work with investors?
It is important for an entrepreneur to vet potential investors just as investors vet their businesses, they should also consider investors who are passionate about their business and the impact their ventures have on their communities. Most importantly, these investors must also buy into the business’ vision. Whenever I have conversations with potential investors, I take time to understand their investment goals and asses if they align with Shop Soko’s.
The relationship with the investor should not only be a business transaction but also personal. The investor should invest their time in the business helping you achieve the impact goals, support in business development as well as work with you as a mentor in your personal and professional life. You must build and maintain a good rapport.
Shop Soko is thriving, what excites you about the venture?
I am excited about where Shop Soko is as a business, the company has managed to prove its ability to generate demand for its products and get these products to the consumers as it changes the lives of the artisans who produce them.
Shop Soko has proven that as a vertically integrated brand, it’s not only selling the product but also producing it. The building of this unique manufacturing infrastructure is important to us in developing people systems as well as training of the artisans and at the same time incorporating our unique technology offering.
We hope to diversify the international consumer as well as the African artisan platform. We want Shop Soko’s unique infrastructure to serve other brands since there is a high number of emerging boutique designers in Africa and abroad who want to utilize small scale hand-made skill sets that we already have access to. We just need to find the right partners to provide the momentum behind Shop Soko’s disruptive scale.
Shop Soko went through GrowthAfrica’s Acceleration Programme, how did it help the business?
My two partners and I agree that joining the programme was the best decision we ever made, it was a good foundation for the business. The programme provided a platform for the three of us to define Shop Soko’s vision and mission. The acceleration helped us understand our individual goals which we aligned, we also learnt how to use our unique perspectives to drive Shop Soko.
As the founders of Shop Soko, we come from business unrelated backgrounds;Catherine Muhugu has a technology background, I have an architecture background in system and product design, and Gwendolyn Floyd has a consulting background in product design. The acceleration programme provided a safe space for us to learn. The fact that there were other entrepreneurs experiencing similar challenges as Shop Soko made the programme enjoyable as we were all finding ways of overcoming them. We also developed good and lasting relationships with other entrepreneurs which we still leverage to date. We developed a great network with these entrepreneurs who we still talk to up to date.
What is your advice to other entrepreneurs?
Learn to let go! You should learn to trust other people to help you grow your business. For example, when we started Shop Soko, I was the accountant, graphic designer, sales person and I was still fund raising. Now, the business has grown, and has processes and systems, I have had to delegate all these roles and the team is great and helping us grow the business. I have also learnt to continue developing the capacities of the team and to elevate them.
As an entrepreneur, you must evolve in different roles as the business grows and continuously grow your professional capacity and acquire new skills.