The Soap Makers Supporting the COVID-19 Response

by Noah Wekesa

By Arthur Mwai

Alchemy is arguably the controversial forerunner of modern Chemistry, for hundreds of years across North Africa, Asia and medieval Europe – a set of tinkerers were obsessed with converting base metals like lead into gold. Curiosity and the need to solve the problem of manufacturing a scarce resource resulted in unexpected benefits to both modern chemistry and medicine.

A class of female CHVs and Self Help Group members follow the intricate steps of soap alchemy

The Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly showed up on the global stage. At first, we heard of rumours from far away countries. Then the threat grew with deaths in Asia and Europe. Finally, the first case in Kenya was confirmed in March. But we were fortunate because the global community had already identified preventive mechanisms against the spread of COVID-19.

The simple act of proper handwashing using running water and soap proved to be a formidable weapon against the virus.

Soap

Soap is a commodity that must be purchased, unlike water which can be freely harvested from rain and fetched from wells. Increasing financial turbulence due to curfews and closure of many economic activities presented most low-income families with the dilemma of whether to buy soap for the required frequent hand washing, or food. Amref Health Africa understood that for us to put up a formidable fight against the virus, proper handwashing, and other preventive mechanisms like wearing face masks in public had to be practised by everyone.

Youth group members keenly watch as a member stirs a chemical solution during a practical soap making lesson

Amref and its partner, The Coca Cola Foundation, also understood the fact that affordability of soap would also have a positive domino effect in terms of better health outcomes when communities frequently and properly wash their hands.

By training key groups in targeted informal settlements, high-quality multi-purpose soap would be locally available at an affordable price. Proper handwashing would, in turn, be strengthened by our trained change makers as an after-sales service through proper handwashing demonstrations. Multi-purpose soap will in turn result in improved hygiene for the recipient households.

Community Reactions

“Whoa! This is money! Look at the quality! It is much better than the liquid soap products we usually buy from vendors. If I sell this to a customer, that’s it. They will keep coming back for this quality,” Sanchez Mramba remarks in amazement, as was i  on the first day of the soap making activity.

Pure alchemy is turning 18 litres of tap water into a 20-litre jerry can of highly-marketable soap after careful formulation under the watchful eye of the government chemist, a gentleman with a knack for perfection and a booming voice that kept his class fully awake throughout the lessons.

“This soap can easily pass the Kenya Bureau of Standards test,” Mwalimu Maitha, the government chemist shares, “This is my phone number for consultations,” he continues as he writes on the blackboard, “Just in case you get stuck while formulating your soap solution, feel free to call this number,” he says as flakes of white chalk fly away in a gentle breeze, marking the end of the training session.

Empowered and unstoppable – female change-makers with soap making starter packs

 “I have been a Community Health Volunteer since 2004 when malaria was a serious problem for our community, but we eventually won that fight. For this coronavirus disease, things are a little different, but we shall win this too. The training on soap making was very comprehensive, especially on proper formulation using the right chemicals. If we label and package this well, it can make for a very good business.” — Riziki Ramadhan, Community Health Volunteer, Barani Community unit in Malindi sub-county.

 “I have been making soap, but I did not have this kind of knowledge. I know of people who even add commercial soap products to make their soap foam. But now I know the right chemical to use for that…that is why I was asking so many questions in class,” Rhoda Nyabwogi laughs. She is an experienced CHV who learnt how to make lower quality soap for sale from a friend.

“Now I will even have to train my friend on the proper way to do this when I make my first 20 litres using these chemicals you have given us, I will ask her to come we make it together,” she adds with a look full of hope of a brighter future.

The SILK group: Beatrice Thoya (second left) and three of her group members

“Furaha SILK Group is all about table banking for women. We enable members to save money, access affordable loans with easier terms, and also engage in income-generating activities. I am very happy to have attended this training, and I am glad that there are three other members. For us, soap making will help diversify our income because this is also a very profitable business. Thank you for the knowledge and this initial gift of soap making ingredients. It will help us quickly start making our soap for sale.” –Beatrice Thoya, Chairlady, Furaha SILK Group.

Creating Lasting Health Change

Teaching community change-makers on proper handwashing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 presents a huge impact in cushioning our fragile health systems from an upsurge of infections, saving livelihoods that would have been disrupted and even saving human lives.

But when we also teach them how to start such a social enterprise that would put much-needed money into their families’ pockets and also ensure availability of affordable high-quality soap, we establish a formidable seed of self-sustaining lasting health change even beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Amref Health Africa and The Coca Cola Foundation intends to train 15 women groups and 15 youth groups, each comprising 15 members each at a cost of K sh 100,000 per group. Our focus is on informal settlements of Muoroto in Mombasa and Kisumu Ndogo in Kilifi County for a period of one month. Soap making is just the start of a 4-month targeted set of interventions, there is so much more to be done.

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