Social entrepreneur connects African women to global e-commerce

Ella Peinovich is a MIT graduate and one of the three founders of Kenyan-based SasaAfrica, a women owned and operated social enterprise, which offers an innovative e-commerce platform for female artisans, vendors and entrepreneurs in Africa to create sustainable micro-enterprises using mobile phones.

Ella Peinovich is one of the founders of SasaAfrica

This year Peinovich has been selected as one of five finalists for BiD Network’s Women in Business Challenge that focuses on women entrepreneurs in emerging markets. How we made it in Africa talks with Peinovich about social entrepreneurship and the role of Africa’s greatest untapped resource: women.

How did the idea for SasaAfrica come about?

I had been working within the informal settlements around Kenya over the past three years and saw the amazing cultural capital of the goods produced by the artisan community there and the disproportionately low economic value placed on their work. I was determined to create the tools and services that could enable these women to expand their access to consumers in a lasting and sustainable manner.

Can you give us an example of how SasaAfrica works?

SasaAfrica is an e-commerce platform for the developing world that promotes more equitable and distributed international trade by connecting offline artisans in the developing world to online global consumers. Vendors, with no need for the internet, create personal online storefronts and populate them with product information and images with the use of SasaAfrica’s accessible SMS-based mobile phone registry. Global consumers can then buy directly from the vendors on the SasaAfrica e-commerce website, revolutionising the supply chain into a person-to-person exchange.

SasaAfrica acts as a facilitator for the transaction, converting international credit card purchases into mobile money payments. Our innovative tracking tools ensure efficient and secure delivery of the goods. In this way, SasaAfrica connects enterprising women of the developing world to global e-commerce, even if they do not have access to the Internet, a computer, or a bank account, allowing the most remote female entrepreneurs to be incorporated into global trade.

How does SasaAfrica make a profit?

SasaAfrica makes a profit in two ways: 1) a small listing fee; charged to the artisans and taken out at the time of sale. The listing fee covers the cost of product registration and payment transfers associated with each product sold. And 2) a percentage of each sale; charged to the web consumer. We have found an amazing market opportunity, where by cutting out the middlemen we are able to save over 75% in logistical costs compared to traditional export supply chains. In this way, vendors can charge more, consumers pay less, and Sasa profits by creating this entirely new marketplace.

Generally, who are your target customers?

Eighty-four percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa work in the informal economy, which excludes them from financial rights and representation. Most of these women end up in self-employment, earning subsistence incomes with little or no growth opportunity. Many turn to craft production which provides an entry-point into the economy for under-resourced groups. For the tens of millions of women in the craft sector, a simple tool that would multiply their income with little to no upfront investment would be immediately welcomed.

SasaAfrica seeks to recruit these millions of women as customers of our SMS business tools, granting them access to the international marketplace and increasing their earnings on average by a factor of 20. Moreover, our tools empower women to grow their businesses as formal entrepreneurs, gaining access to financial rights and representation through the use of the platform. Registering as a SasaAfrica vendor begins the process of formal registration, which, as the vendor earns traceable income on the SasaAfrica platform, can be leveraged to access loans, open a bank account, and even register as an independent entity.

Drawing from your experience, what advice would you give to other foreigners who are interested in setting up businesses in Africa?

Be prepared to be amazed! Our team has worked all around the world and we find Africa the most exciting business context we have yet engaged. Kenya is incredibly dynamic to work in as we are surrounded by world changing ideas and disruptive innovations daily. I would advise any entrepreneurs planning to work in Africa to come ready to learn. Africa has so much to teach the international business community and has spawned some of the most exciting innovations of the last decade. Additionally, I cannot tout enough the importance and opportunity of social entrepreneurship to create entirely new markets and profitable models by aligning their business to a wide-spread social need, contributing to Africa’s long-term social and economic development.

What would you say are the main traits required to be a successful entrepreneur in Africa?

Tenacity: To hear “this is impossible” almost daily and to continue to prove that all is indeed possible. There is always a way.

Creativity: Every day provides new and unexpected challenges. The best entrepreneurs are able to take those challenges and turn them into opportunities.

Compassion: Being sensitive to the needs of others is an opportunity to do well by doing good.

As a women empowerment activist, what advice would you give to other budding women entrepreneurs on the African continent?

At SasaAfrica, we believe that women are Africa’s greatest untapped resource. It is truly time for African women to embrace their natural resilience, creativity, and intelligence to become economic leaders. The social capital that women innately build can be leveraged to build Africa’s next generation of business models and opportunity that will benefit all Africans.