Interview with: Catherine Mahugu, Co-Founder, SOKO. <
Location: 707 Muchai Drive, Off Ngong Road, Nairobi, Kenya
Photography By: Charles Kituyi
Soko is a Swahili term for market. For many of us it conjures images of a busy market place that sells all types of goods, with bustling rows of bickering buyers and sellers, great discounts on offer. But when Catherine Mahugu and two other women founded Shop Soko, their brand of handcrafted jewelry, the word took on a more sophisticated meaning. Here’s a description of Shop Soko from their profile:
Soko is an innovation in global fashion and technology: A brand that connects consumers to global makers and handcrafted jewelry from the developing world. With Soko, you can discover incredible quality and creative ingenuity made in communities that lay outside of the digital economy. Brought to the global stage using our technology, Soko delivers you exceptional style with stunning handcrafted jewelry created by artisans in emerging economies, using natural and upcycled materials.
Catherine and her partners have managed to elevate the Soko brand to a highly competitive level and a lot of this can be credited to her hard work and vision that has also seen her named World Bank’s top 11 inspirational women. She was recently featured in Forbes Africa Magazine – June issue 2015 as one of the top 30 under 30 (2015 ), She has also been featured by CNN, BBC,World Bank and other mainstream media. Her accolades don’t end there. I sat down with the Catherine to learn more about the business that now supports many artisans and has a great focus on something I am particularly passionate about; social enterprise.
Q. How did you get your idea or concept for the business?
A. My two colleagues and I noticed that the craft industry is the second largest second employer in Kenya and it wasn’t being supported well enough. Jewelry seemed like a viable concept and most of the Artisans wanted to stay in touch with consumers and didn't know how to do that. We then created the Soko platform for them and it grew from there.
Q. What was your mission from the onset?
A. We wanted to meet the demand that people had for original and unique Kenyan jewelry. Also important to note is that Soko is not necessarily women focused; men are good in making brass and women in beadwork so we are able to empower many artisans in that respect.
Q. What were some of the highs and lows when you were starting out? What did you learn?
A. One major issue was funding the business, more-so when taking it from the concept stage to the sustainable model stage. We asked family and friends and used our own finances for true business to thrive. Another major issue was power outages because many of the artisans we work with are in informal settlements. Although these were setbacks we learnt to navigate them and grow our business gradually.
Q. Has your age ever been a hindrance?
A. I was 23 and I was young and female and African and I took advantage of that. There weren’t many women in that space in the business I wanted to go into, so I saw it as an opportunity rather than a hindrance, and it paid off!
Q. What have been some of the highlights of Soko so far?
A. I’d have to say one of our greatest moments was receiving validation from various global communities. When the World Bank calls you to give a talk, you get a real sense of purpose and motivation for growing your business.
Q. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced and perhaps continue to face?
A. Entrepreneurship; people think it's glamorous and people don't see what's happening behind the scenes. The work load gets intense, you’re doing 3 to 5 people's work at times, but it's worth it to get where you need to be.
Q. Talk to me about social enterprise and why you think it’s important…
A. We see that we need to have an impact on society and the environment. If you have a business in Africa you address basic needs; clean water, health etc. We still need to have an impact: socially, we ensure digital inclusion, gender gap and that the artisans get money into community. Economically, we empower artisans. Environmentally we use recycled products. We believe products in Africa can compete on an international level.
Q. The sixth edition of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit took place in Nairobi, Kenya recently and you were a participant. What did you speak about?
A. I was a speaker talking about scaling your business, moving from start up to growing your business. The platform was empowering and it allowed me to network with many likeminded entrepreneurs.
Q. What do the next few years hold for Soko?
A. Taking over the fashion scene! We want everyone to know who we are and raise the quality of our products from our artisans for impact.
Your words for upcoming entrepreneurs:
Just take the plunge; failure is a success because you tried and learnt something out of it. In terms of sourcing funding, a lot of people think loans are from banks etc. But there are a lot of competitions that offer money for proof of concept. Look around for competitions for young people, particularly women online and apply. You never know!