Solving a Pressing Global Problem
Editor’s note: a team of social entrepreneurs – graduate students from the London School of Economics – are one of six finalist teams competing for a million dollars in seed funding… to solve a pressing global problem.
The 2013 Hult Prize is a call to action to address food insecurity of 20 million urban slum dwellers. On Monday night in New York city, the winner – of the $1M dollar prize – will be announced at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative.
Chronic food insecurity and malnutrition
Tomatoes, onions, avocados, oranges. The shelves are packed with a dazzling array of colours at one of the many vegetable kiosks in Mathare, a slum smack in the middle of Nairobi. And yet, many people living in these informal settlements face chronic food insecurity and malnutrition. People here don’t starve. But their food choices are dictated by prices. “My pocket speaks”, is a statement we have heard many times in Mathare. “What you have is what you eat.”
“My pocket speaks” – the problem of affordability
Food security in urban areas is a problem of affordability. Slum dwellers’ volatile incomes and unstable food prices contribute to unvaried diets of low nutritional value that consist mainly of cheap staples. People in Mathare, for example, eat ugali, a simple maize porridge, every day. Most people can only afford to add the cheapest vegetables around – green kale called sukuma wiki. “Sometimes you eat sukuma not because you want it, but because you don’t have money to buy something else. If money was not a problem, I would buy chicken and other vegetables to go along with rice or ugali”, explains Liz, who has lived in Mathare all her life. Her father sends her to buy the sukuma for the family every day. “But whenever it is cheaper than usual, I just add an avocado or a mango for myself”, Liz adds, smiling. “I just don’t tell my dad”.
SokoText wants more people to have the choice that Liz only gets when prices happen to be cheaper. SokoText is a simple solution to make fresh produce more affordable for people living in urban slums.
Slum retailers are gatekeepers – and key to food security
SokoText’s innovative approach puts vegetable sellers and kiosk owners at the centre of food security in urban slums. Using the simple medium of SMS, SokoText aggregates the demand for fresh produce of these slum retailers and enables bulk purchasing at wholesale prices. Because kiosk owners lack sufficient capital to buy in bulk, they are forced to make costly and time-consuming trips to markets in the center of Nairobi every day, they can now purchase their stock much cheaper. By sourcing much earlier in the supply chain, SokoText brings down the price of fresh produce by 30% for the kiosk owners and delivers it directly to wholesale outlets at the doorstep of the slums.
By harnessing mobile phones as a simple and ubiquitous technology, SokoText helps kiosk owners to enhance their business. As a result, a larger variety of fresh produce is available at a cheaper price. It’s not rocket science. But it changes lives every day. And it will enable people in urban slums, like Liz, not only to secretly buy a fruit for herself, but to bring home fruits for the whole family more often.
Profile of social entrepreneurs
The team behind SokoText loves fruits – and they love technology-driven innovations that make a difference. Hailing from Columbia, Canada, Kenya, the UK, and Germany, they are united in the shared belief that business model innovation is key to creating a more just and sustainable world. (L to R) Carolina Medina specialises in food security and builds on experiences in market research, with the Ministry of Social Protection and the FAO in Colombia. Jonah Brotman is a serial social entrepreneur with experience in growing sustainable businesses in both Canada and Kenya. Suraj Gudka is an accountant who has used his finance background in multiple ventures to bring about positive change in his homecountry, Kenya. Sofia Zabolotskih has a background in marketing, microfinance, social enterprise and the technology start-up sector. Verena Liedgens has worked in social enterprise and corporate philanthropy, always walking the thin line between economic sustainability and social impact. SokoText started as an idea at the London School of Economics, but aims to make in impact across slums in sub-saharan Africa, beginning in Nairobi.
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Mari Anixter is Managing Editor for Innovation Excellence. She is a communications professional living in the Boston area.