Improving the Productivity and Profitability of Artisanal Soap Making in Liberia

Assignment # J692A

This assignment combined two scopes of work into one assignment. I started with working sessions at five Monrovian soap making sites staffed by individuals trained under the previous assignment. I then went North to Nimba County and taught soap chemistry at Nimba County Community College. We ended with a practical demonstration with students and local villagers who attending the training.

Background:

During the recent Civil War soap making companies fled Liberia and the people were left without this basic commodity which is the cornerstone of health and hygiene. In the interim, NGO volunteers introduced a kind of Emergency Soap; quick, easy and useful. This has become known in Liberia as Iron Soap due to it physical characteristics. There are dozens of ways to make soap and hundreds of formulas in use today and in the past. There is not one single way to make soap, but it is easy to make small changes in formulation, process and simple tooling that improve the basic product. Fortunately I am able to build on the work of previous NGO consultants like Peter Donkor who consulted in West Africa in the mid 1980’s teaching an African version of the Cold Process Box Soap Method.

I have met the Peace Corp volunteers who invented the Iron Soap method. Although, as I have stated “there is no single right way of making soap,” there are some basic rules to be followed. One of them is that caustic solution is always added to oils rather than adding oils to the caustic. The reason for this is that soap is made up of crystals, like table salt. If the crystals grow slowly, they form even in size and distribution. This results in a higher foaming product, longer lasting, and mild. The original NGO volunteers were not soap makers; they were people who care about others. Worried that children and soap makers would have caustic burns from splashing caustic solution, they put the caustic into a plastic wash tub first, and then stirred the oils into it. When oils and caustic meet in such a sudden manner, large, hard white soap crystals of uneven size are instantly created. As a side note when I chastised them for this one of the three former volunteers turned to me and said, “OK, You fix it!” It is interesting to find myself doing just that.

Iron Soap is only made in Liberia and while it is a decent enough emergency stop gap, it is not suitable for use in the long term due to its incipient harshness which is rough on skin and wears out clothing. Simply reversing the order in which the ingredients are mixed and slowing down the reaction with a little extra water (25% solution) improves the final product. The extra water means adding a few days to the drying time, but this too helps the crystal growth and allows more of the caustic to find the oils, which is what makes milder soap with a more complete reaction. Adding aromatic botanicals to the caustic solution allows them to scent the bars without using imported perfume, scented bleach or embalming fluid for scent.

Box Soap or “African cold process soap” is far superior to Iron Soap in terms of mildness, foam building and aesthetics. The Monrovian Box Soap market is currently dominated by two players. God’s Grace Soap Factory was by far the leader during my previous visit and hosted last year’s training. Since then questions regarding the integrity of the owner has plagued the company. Workers quit as they were not being paid, and apparently, someone burned down Togbah (the owner’s) home. Fortunately no one was hurt. Togbah has steadfastly worked AGAINST the formation of the Liberian Soap makers Union, telling people not to come to meetings. His former partner Jay Morris Zubah (a man of integrity and some education) eventually left the company and his (considerable by local standards) investment in it to join up with two other soap makers who completed last year’s training. PLAY Soap company is ready to roll and should be selling their first batches within the next few weeks. These are nice, intelligent hard working people who integrated the previous training well. I was shown a clean, orderly shop, ready to go into production.

Mawa Love is currently the major player in the artisanal Box Soap market. They currently have three locations on the edge of the larger marketplaces. Their model is to partner with good, hardworking people, set up and stock the shop, and then split the money after expenses with them. This non-exploitive model reflects well on the integrity of the owners and is infinitely expandable. Last year I taught them how to make color swirled soaps (marbled) and apparently this is the only thing I taught them that “stuck”. Color swirled soaps are very popular and spreading rapidly through the industry. My attempts to expand on ergonomic, work flow, and cleanliness issues was met with great resistance in one shop, mild resistance in another, and was welcomed whole heartedly in a third, clearly reflecting the openness and attitude of the local managers. Alieu, the founder is not a neat and ordered man by nature and this reflects on the composition of the workplace. It is discouraging to see that much of last years training has been ignored or forgotten, but I do expect that the reinforcement they received this time around will yield some positive results. Telling them not to work in the dirt may be difficult to assimilate culturally, but showing how better air flow will shorten their drying times seemed to perk them up.

When I worked in Monrovia last year Iron Soap predominated and the far superior box soap was gaining recognition. BOTH sold for the about same price at that time, with colored soap carrying a slight premium. When palm kernel oils spiked earlier this year most Iron Soap makes in Monrovia dropped out (they did not believe the market would pay extra for their product which is of course not the case). Once you are used to being clean it is uncomfortable to go back, and a few extra local dollars for the product will not change that. Box soap rules in Monrovia now, which was always my goal there. Outside of Monrovia Box Soap is much less common but there is much interest in improved production. Nearly everyone I meet states that they would like to get into the soap business. Given local margins I doubt we will see Liberian soap millionaires any time soon but it is good that there is much enthusiasm for moving up the financial ladder. Soap making is a way to take little and make more, which is often a stepping stone for upward financial mobility. “Money follows money and them that gots gets”. Soap making is a way to earn the seed money to continue the economic process and I am happy to play some small part in it.

My personal experience of working with the Monrovian soapmakers ranged from joyous optimism to frustration and annoyance, depending entirely on who I was working with. Clearly Mawa Love and Play Soap have the greatest potential for future growth and the creation of gainful employment.

Sannaquillie

My training style has evolved considerably through the years, and I was able to teach in a single day the soap chemistry concepts that took five days only a year before. This is a reflection not only of the lessons that I learned, but also of the openness and eagerness of the people here to learn. As a rule I do not teach beginners, focusing rather on providing advanced training to experience soap makers. After Sannaquillie I have modified that position. I do not have the time or inclination to cajole existing soap makers from their personal biases. The tradition in Africa is to learn a skill and to repeat it exactly. My training is to understand WHY things happen. Once we know that the fun begins. We learn methods to scent, color, shape, add medicinal botanicals and much more. Soap makers are, as a rule, clever hands on people. Learning just one basic chemical reaction allows us to achieve a greater understanding of how the world is put together and how to look at the world through changed eyes, observing the natural world and its characteristics and putting them together to make what we need.

For example, when I asked the students what plants insects would not eat they replied “pepper and neem tree”. “Ahh”, I said. “Then we can boil water and add neem leaves and fruit, pepper and 5% to 10% soap and let it sit overnight. We can strain the tea and apply it to the crops. The pepper will drive the insects away, the neem will kill the eggs, and the soap will kill the adult insects; all without hurting us or the plants.”

It was good to see the light of understanding in their eyes.

We discussed several methods of extracting scent: adding herbs to caustic water, making infused oils, and boiling herbs in oil when using the traditional “burning” method of red palm oil refining. The demonstration essential oil machine was transported to the site, but we did not attempt to run it, being content with having it in front of them and explaining how it worked.

We experimented with two methods of simple palm oil refining using caustic and heat. These experiments were not successful as village methods of palm oil refining require the oils to age for a few weeks to begin to oxidize the color carotenoids.

Nimba College is clean and new but utterly without basic resources of any kind. There are sinks but no water. No internet, no apparent books. The lab was empty. I was able to make donations of some basic chemistry tools relevant to soap making, much to the joy of our host there. The Saturday class consisted of six students and four Iron Soap makers, with the balance being beginners anxious to learn the trade. They learned why oils are turned into soap in the presence of caustic, how soap crystals grow (why box soap is superior) and how to make two types of caustic from local materials. I would like to make sodium hydroxide from lime and salt and water at a later date at perhaps another location.

On the day before my departure Andrew and I met with LEAD, a Liberian entrepreneur microloan agency. They asked for training for a producer group close by to the Winrock office which was experiencing a wide range of issues regarding their box soap. I went to their factory and trouble shot their many issues. I did not have the time to follow up but hope enough of the training stuck to alleviate the bulk of their issues.

Special thanks to Melvin Jones my wise and careful driver, Senkro Sumo for his skills in translating to Market English and for remembering his Chemistry lessons, Mr. Jay Morris Zubah for never flagging in his pursuit of natural soap for Liberia and most especially to Mr. Andrew Kovarik Chief of Party Winrock Liberia who works literally twelve hours a day to further economic advancement and local empowerment for the people of Liberia.

Useful References:

Scientific Soap Making by Professor Kevin Dunn

Training Manual for a Village Soap Making Company www.vermontsoap.com

Small Scale Soapmaking, A handbook by Peter Donkor www.scribd.com

 

 

Leave a Reply