The Telecom Funder Backing an Effort to Connect African Artists to the Global Market

The mobile phone is one of the most powerful tools for fighting global poverty ever invented. Poor societies have leapfrogged over the infrastructure hurdles of laying physical phone lines, and as the costs of phones have fallen, nearly 5 billion people use them—vastly increasing their economic and educational opportunities. 

Many funders grasp the potential of this revolution, and have launched a range of initiatives that use mobile technology to advance human progress. One corporate funder that's especially worth watching is the telecommunications giant Vodafone. The overarching premise guiding nearly all of its corporate giving is: “Mobile for Good.”

The company, which operates a global network of more than 20 foundations, supports organizations that are developing, piloting, and launching mobile tech solutions to improve the lives of underserved and marginalized populations around the world. One of the ways Vodafone does this is through its Wireless Innovation Project (WIP).

Related: Vodafone Americas Foundation: Grants for Global Development

WIP, which is part of the foundation’s Sparking Innovation Program, is an open competition that awards $600,000 in total grants to the top three innovators who develop promising solutions to some of the world’s most pressing global development challenges. One such innovator is Gwendolyn Floyd, co-creator of Soko.

Soko connects jewelry artisans in Kenya with customers and retailers around the world through the “first mobile-driven value chain.” So that means even if these artisan-entrepreneurs don’t have access to the Internet or even a bank account, they still have the opportunity to connect to the global marketplace through Soko.

Last year, the company received a $200,000 WIP award from the Vodafone Americas Foundation and the impact the company is having on its participating artisans is palpable in more ways than one.

According to Soko, the “artisan craft industry is the second-largest employer in the developing world.” The company also notes that it’s an area rife with exploitation and subjugation. And considering that the developing world’s artisan population is comprised largely of women, you can see how this is a nexus of two of the most pressing global development challenges—poverty and gender equality.

By the metrics, Vodafone’s $200,000 gamble on Soko is paying off on both fronts.

In terms of poverty alleviation, each of Soko’s participants retains around 25 to 35 percent of revenue. So far, that has translated into a fourfold average increase of household income. According to Gwendolyn Floyd, most participating artisans experience this income growth within two months of joining Soko.

In terms of gender equality, some 74 percent of the company’s participants are female-operated enterprises. That average fourfold increase in income and the mobile tools and training offered by Soko go a long way toward improving the participating women’s livelihoods and those of their families and communities, too.

While Vodafone hasn’t been on our radar for that long, its global grantmaking presence is growing, particularly toward women’s empowerment and gender equality. Given the size and scope of this multinational, we can reasonably expect some interesting and innovative philanthropic commitments in the near future.

Related: This Giant Telecom Company Looks to Empower Women Through Technology