Using SMS to Bring Healthy Food to Kenya [Q&A]

Meet Suraj Gudka, CEO of the social enterprise Sokotext.

Dec 31, 2014
Suraj Gudka, CEO of Sokotext

Suraj Gudka, CEO of Sokotext (Photo: Sokotext)

Sokotext is a ground-breaking social enterprise, which uses SMS technology to bring healthy foods to slums in Nairobi, Kenya. Looking to expand to Latin America sometime next year, Sokotext creates jobs, teaches skills, and delivers healthy foods to individuals in some of the poorest areas of the world.
This short interview with the CEO of Sokotext, Suraj Gudka, comes from Goodnet partner CauseArtist. Suraj graduated from the London School of Economics with a BSc in Accounting and Finance in July 2013. He was born and brought up in Kenya, and currently based in Nairobi.  

When and where did the idea of Sokotext begin? How long was it between the idea and the actual launch of Sokotext as a service?
The idea of SokoText began in London while my team was studying at the London School of Economics. It was in January 2013. However, we started working on it full-time in July 2013. We started research in July 2013 and launched our one-month alpha pilot in Nairobi in August 2013. After which we did some more product development and initial fund raising. We then started our beta pilot in May 2014 and we are still working on it.

What was your reasoning and strategy behind having the pilot program in Nairobi? 
Nairobi is the home of tech in East Africa and is where there are a lot of innovations in the social enterprise space. It is also home to some of the biggest slums in Africa.
On a personal note, I was born and brought up in Nairobi. I have an established network and I have had some previous experience working in slums.

The pilot was launched in 2014; what has been your overall impression on how that is going? What are some of the successes that you see happening? What are some of the lessons that the pilot has taught you?
We are currently working with 80 micro-groceries on a day-to-day basis. We are able to provide high quality fresh produce and save time and money for our customers as they no longer have to go to far away markets.
Our pilot has taught us that you will never know enough about your customers - so spend as much time as possible to learn about how they work and how their decision making process works.
While most literature says you have to listen to customers, you should not get feedback by just listening to customers. They will always want a better deal and so will give biased answers. The best way to get feedback is to do a lot of observation.
We learned that when implementing a tech solution in a value chain that does not currently use a tech solution it is very important to introduce everything in phases and not all at once. You will end up overwhelming your employees and customers.
Other lessons: Be ready to pivot when necessary and try and perform as many experiments as possible to validate assumptions.
And lastly, you don’t only need to learn about your customers, you need to learn about the needs of all your stakeholders: for example employees, suppliers and the community you work in.

Will business and financial literacy training in addition to discounted food be offered to the local small kiosk owners? Who do you partner with to provide these services, or does Sokotext provide these services as well?
These are things we want to add in the future. Currently we are focusing on getting our operations right and offering the core service of supplying the fresh produce. We are in conversations with some potential partners to pilot some financial and nutritional training.

How has the farming community and the local citizens reacted to the Sokotext idea? Was it difficult to get the farming community on board?
The farmers have been very open to working with us and we are trying hard to build long term relationships with them and trying to see how we can add more value to them.

How does the actual text communication work? Are numbers and codes provided from the outlet to the kiosk? Is that how they communicate? Can you place your orders through SMS, is this done on a weekly or monthly basis?
Customers text in the products and the amounts to our dedicated number. The number is connected to our system which automatically reads the text and aggregates all the products. Our customers place SMS orders everyday. Some of our customers are old and do not know how to SMS. They can place orders with our marketing agents who visit all our customers everyday to get feedback and get new customers.

Do you have plans for another pilot operation in a different area, or will Nairobi be the only area Sokotext will operate for now?
Part of our team is based in Latin America and over the next few months we are starting initial research in Bogota, Columbia. We should be starting a pilot there in Feb 2015 once we have done initial research and tested our assumptions.

How does Sokotext generate revenue?
Currently we get revenue from margin on sales. This is because we are still in our very early stages and we do not have a big enough network to take advantage of the other revenue streams. The other revenue streams will come into play by September 2015.

This interview originally appeared on CauseArtist and is republished here with permission.

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Causeartist is an online magazine that spotlights social entrepreneurs, organizations, and brands that make a positive impact.