Q&A: Social Enterprise Helps Vegetable Vendors In Nairobi Slum

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Written by Frank Mutulu

After graduating from the prestigious London School of Economics, Kenyan Suraj Gudka, 21, didn’t go for a white-collar job in accounting.

Instead he opted to work with slum communities, co-founding SokoText, a social enterprise that harnesses the power of short messaging services (text messages) to create demand for produce sold by micro entrepreneurs in urban Nairobi slums.

Some slum-dwelling vegetable vendors, known popularly in Kenya as mama mboga — “mother of vegetables” — order tomatoes, carrots, potatoes and other vegetables through text messages.

SokoText’s business model is to buy in bulk, cutting out the middlemen, reducing transportation costs and making produce available from far-away markets to small entrepreneurs at a centralized location within the slum.

The end result is that the mama mbogas get to sleep later, avoid the insecurities of leaving their homes as early as 4 a.m. and don’t have to pay fares to get to Marikiti and Gikomba market miles away. They get produce delivered at their doorsteps and at lower cost, Gudka claims, than they would have incurred if they went solo.

The recently launched SokoText has raised $3,400 in funding through crowd sourcing.

Gudka, CEO of SokoText, spoke with AFKInsider.

AFKInsider: Of all businesses that you could invest in why did you choose SokoText?

Gudka: I chose to start SokoText because I am passionate about working with slum communities to improve the standards of living. SokoText is a social enterprise. We solve a problem for a specific group of people (mama mbogas) in a sustainable way.

AFKInsider: How did your passion for working with slum communities begin?

Gudka: While at the London School of Economics, I was directed to the Hult Prize competition for social entrepreneurs by a friend. With three other students from the society of social entrepreneurs, we filed our entry to reduce food insecurity in urban informal settlements.

We were selected among the top 500 entries but didn’t win. We then decided to enter our concept into an online league of the Hult Prize, emerging (in the) top six.

Having realized that we had a great concept I came to Kenya mid last year to collect data, shadowing and interacting with mama mbogas and loved touching the lives of slum communities.

AFKInsider: Walk us through the journey from product concept to launch.

Gudka: At first, we were looking at the larger problem of food insecurity in slums and so our first idea was towards getting households to place orders and we would match them with farmers and cut out the middleman.

However, as soon as we did some research on the ground, we found out that the main inefficiency occurs at the point where vegetable vendors get their inventory. We decided to focus on this and built our minimum viable product with our customers.

We operated a pilot for one month and went back to the drawing board to work on all the customer feedback. We raised enough funds to get us started with the next phase. We now operate SokoText in Mathare slum (Nairobi) having officially launched on May 4. We now have 25 regular customers and we offer 11 products.

AFKInsider: How has the experience been so far?

Gudka: The experience so far has been incredible. I am very happy with what I am doing. The journey has its ups and downs but overall I am really enjoying it. I have learned so much about business and people in the past few months. I have also made many mistakes and learned from them.

AFKInsider: What are some of the biggest challenges you faced and how have you overcome them?

Gudka: The most important challenge we faced in the beginning was to get good quality supplies at reasonable prices. We needed to have consistency in our products and had to make sure we got exactly what the customers wanted. We have solved this challenge by testing samples with our customers and finding the right areas to source our produce from.

AFKInsider: At the end of the day, what about your job gives you the best satisfaction?

Gudka: Knowing that I am solving a problem for mama mbogas (vegetable vendors) and having a sustainable income gives me … satisfaction. Knowing that a mama mboga can now sleep for longer, spend more time with her family and earn more income makes me happy.

AFKInsider: How do you see the business evolving in years to come?

Gudka: We see ourselves as becoming the main distribution channel into slums offering a wide variety of products.

AFKInsider: Did you ever see yourself running a startup like Sokotext when you graduated from the London School of Economics?

Gudka: I always knew I was going to start a business, however I never thought I would be able to start one as soon as I graduated.

AFKInsider: You are now at the funding stage. How hard or easy is it to get financing for a startup?

Gudka: It has been incredibly hard to get funding. But since being incubated by NaiLab (a Nairobi-based business incubation center) we have found it much easier.

AFKInsider: Any words of wisdom to ambitious entrepreneurs?

Gudka: It is never too early to become an entrepreneur. The journey may have more bumps when you start at such a young age however at the end of it, you will learn so much and become good at what you do.

Always keep your customer in mind when building a product. Speak to your customer before building your product so you have direction. Work with the customer while building your product to make sure you don’t waste resources and work with your customer to improve and add features to your product so that you can retain your existing customers and add new ones.

Finally, make sure you do not damage the community you work in. Keep all your stakeholders in mind when working on your business.