Growing a Socially-Conscious Brand With Tech at Soko

In this post, we sit down with Joanne Calabrese, CEO of SOKO, to discuss how the brand uses technology to elevate artisans in Kenya while redefining the image of ethical fashion thanks to high quality, handmade and sustainable products in the contemporary category.

We sat down for a virtual interview with Joanne Calabrese, CEO of SOKO, one of our incredible brand clients. SOKO is a decentralized manufacturing platform with a mobile-first supply chain and payment technology connecting artisans with a network of over 400 primarily wholesale clients around the globe. This socially-conscious, female-led brand elevates artisans in Kenya while redefining the image of ethical fashion thanks to high quality, handmade and sustainable products in the contemporary category. 

Read on to learn how they got started, how their scalable product solution benefits communities and how they’re leveraging technology to its greatest potential.

What is your origin story?

SOKO was founded by three women- two Americans and one Kenyan. We built SOKO to give Kenyan artisans access to a global marketplace (artisan work is the second largest employer in Nairobi and in Kenya at large). The idea was to make a platform like Etsy, but we realized the best way to go about it was to create our own proprietary platform and make it easy for Kenyan jewelry designers to take orders, sell and process them easily through our unique solution. 

What’s fascinating is that most Kenyans are very sophisticated and have used digital currency before its widespread adoption in the US – they are almost an entirely cashless society. We created a mobile application where artisans can do everything through our app, even asset financing and borrowing money.

What does decentralization manufacturing mean?

We don’t have a central factory. Instead, we’ve empowered local artisans’ factories where they receive orders and can quickly fulfill them directly through the app. Our entire technology team is Kenyan and everything from manufacturing to fulfillment is all accomplished through local resources. 

Our approach has made the decentralized manufacturing model possible. When an order comes in, it goes straight to the artisan who has the skillset and resources to supply the product. For example, if the product is focused on wood craftsmanship, it will go to an artisan that specializes in handcrafting wood-based products.  

What does technology mean to your team?

Kenya is touted as “Savannah Valley” a play on “Silicon Valley”. In some ways, Kenya is more advanced than the US where leveraging digital tools is concerned, being truly mobile-first is one example. We saw an opportunity to partner with these amazing artisans – 2,300 use our platform, to give them access to a global market through mobile technology. 

SOKO envisions a global effort, one-day supporting artisans in Morocco and other African countries. We truly see MAAS (Manufacturing as a Service) as the future and Gen Z and Millennials will surely be leading the charge in the next few years. 

What led your team to use a solution like ours? 

We’re primarily wholesale and we’re growing our e-commerce business. We’ve prioritized growth and technology needs to be involved with every aspect of our business. We love that NuORDER allows us to create and build easy and shareable digital linesheets. We also wanted a solution that would allow us to easily take online orders. After shopping around different B2B wholesale solutions, NuORDER was clearly the right fit. 

We’re super excited about virtual showrooms and especially now that [in-person] trade shows have been canceled, your solution will be the place for us to attract new retailers and grow our existing partnerships. 

What is your last piece of advice for anyone trying to be an ethically and socially responsible brand?

We wholeheartedly believe in empowering local communities through technology. Technology has become the bridge between marketplaces that wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths. Taking care of local communities and understanding the social impact that business has on them is how SOKO tries to do its part.  

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