The New Frontlines of Capitalism

The New Frontlines of Capitalism

Peace Corps volunteer, Nathalie Boittin, discovered that both producing and selling soap in Burkina Faso come with unique challenges.
 Photo Credit: Stock.xchng.com
In Burkina Faso, soap is being used to instill capitalist values. It is a product that has a universal use — and market. Photo Credit: Stock.xchng.com
I got the idea when I discovered that a woman in the village I live in had done some training to learn how to make soap some years ago. She had also taught other women, so that they actually had a soap-making group.

The problem was that, while they had received materials to make soap, they used their earnings from its sale for some other purpose. Thus, they had no funds with which to replace the oil and shea butter they had used, and their soap-making business soon ground to a halt.

In the hope of reviving their business, I started making inquiries about how much the various materials would cost. I spoke with members of a soap-making group in the nearby town of Djibo and was appalled to learn how much everything would cost.

The Expense of Cleanliness

They had no funds with which to replace the oil and shea butter they had used, and their soap-making business soon ground to a halt.
Nearly 20 euros for oil? The same for shea butter? Thousands more in lye, perfume and more training? That would mean having to find NGOs or other groups to help fund the project. I was reluctant to get myself into projects involving funds, since I didn't want to be seen as a walking checkbook in the eyes of the villagers. I get enough requests for money as it is.

Fortunately, previous Peace Corps volunteers in the country had been involved in soap-making schemes and I was able to drawn on their experiences. Rather than buying industrial quantities of oil and other materials, we could get just a few liters or kilos of each ingredient and make just a small quantity of soap, thus spending less than seven euros (about 10 USD) for all the materials.

Gathering Materials

Once that was sold, the women could use the profits to buy more materials and start over again.

As a result, there wouldn't be boxes of soap lying around gathering dust — and the women wouldn't make more than they could sell.

So I went out and got the materials, brought them back to village — and set a date for making the first batch, in my aunt Haba's courtyard.

It turns out that soap is incredibly easy to make. Take a few liters of oil and shea butter, mix it with lye (which converts fat to soap), let it sit for a few hours, and voilà! Soap!

The First Batch
It turns out that soap is incredibly easy to make.


It was helpful that one of the women had already learned how to make soap, so I didn't have to try to explain that you can only stir in one direction, or other vital technical details. They already knew all that.

And yet, I was a little horrified about the conditions in which soap was made. The kilo of lye was mixed with water — and then left to cool in a plastic basin as children played with a ball nearby.

Dangerous Games

At one point in their games, the ball bounced in our direction — just missing the basin. I flinched when I thought what could have happened if the ball had bounced right in, splashing the lye all over us.

We left the liquid soap to harden for a few hours, and all returned to our respective courtyards for dinner. Later that night, I returned to aunt Haba's courtyard.

She greeted me with an excited "It worked! It's solid!" I had been skeptical about whether the recipe would actually work, so I got excited, too, and Haba laughed at me when I mentioned my doubts.

A Spotless Result

We ran over to aunt Fantare's courtyard, and told her, "It worked! It worked!" And she answered "Ta haalu, bonndo!" Word for word that translates as "Don't speak, you wretch!" But is more in the spirit of "Oh my god, get out!" in American English. Apparently, I wasn't the only one who didn't think it would work.

The women then got to work forming the soap into balls. I was again horrified when they did this with their bare hands, even though they had a pair of gloves. I accidentally got some of the not-quite-solid soap on my hands and the lye really burned!

Marginal Gains

The women then got to work forming the soap into balls. I was again horrified when they did this with their bare hands, even though they had a pair of gloves.
Meanwhile, the women were digging their hands into the soap mixture, occasionally exclaiming in pain. Weeks later Fantare still had lesions on her hands.

In the end, they formed 49 balls of soap, which they sold for 0.15 euros each, or 0.17 for the slightly larger balls. By the next day, 27 of the soap balls had been sold. A week or so later, they had all been sold.

This was great, except that because of the low price the women set — and the cost of the materials — the net profit turned out to be 0.7 euros or about 90 cents. Even in Burkina this is a little low, especially when it needed to be divided up among the 14 women in the group.

Cutting Costs

I started to look into ways of bringing down the costs. I managed to find cheaper shea butter (3 liters for 2.3 euros instead of three — every penny counts), and found a group of women in Djibo who owned an oil press.

If the women in my group could collect enough nuts from balanite trees, they could bring the nuts to Djibo and have them pressed into oil at a very low cost. That would bring down the price of the oil — and raise their profits a little bit.

A Fair Opportunity
If the women in my group could collect enough nuts from balanite trees, they could bring the nuts to Djibo and have them pressed into oil at a very low cost.


At the same time, I made sure that the group's secretary wrote down everyone who had been involved in the soap-making process, how much money had been spent on raw materials, how much they expected to earn — and so on.

It looked like we were off to a good start.

Then suddenly everything was complicated by the advent of a Women's Fair in Djibo. Normally, I would have thought that a fair was a good thing, but the problem was that my soap-making group wanted to bring their soaps to the fair to sell.



So naturally they wanted to make more soap fast — and they wanted it to look good.

The Second Soap Affair

Rather than form the balls by hand, they decided to use the mold they had acquired some years ago. But in order to fill the mold, they had to make more soap than they had in the first batch and they didn't have time to make the oil themselves in order to bring down the cost.

So they used every euro they had earned from the first batch — and then some — to acquire more oil, shea butter and lye, and made the soaps.

Somewhat hilarious, in my opinion, was the fact that they also used an ancient set of wooden stamps to mark the square soaps as their own.

Cultural Differences

Not that this is funny in itself, but it so happens that for some strange reason the wooden stamps bear the acronym PEE.

Somewhat hilarious, in my opinion, was the fact that they also used an ancient set of wooden stamps to mark the square soaps as their own.
What this stands for I can't fathom — and, of course, no one else in the village is amused by this.

But when I first looked at the finished product and saw 50 bars of soap with ‘PEE' stamped on them, I confess I did feel a very juvenile giggle coming on.

In any case, all this was well and good and we set a price that would enable them to cover their expenses. I biked the soaps over to Djibo and then told the women repeatedly that they would need to go to Djibo the day before the fair in order to secure their stall.

Stall Difficulties

On the evening before the fair, I went to my aunt's house and asked whether they had gotten their stall. After nearly 10 months in the Burkina Faso, you would think I would have been able to predict this. Of course the answer was "No, none of us went, but tomorrow we're all going to the fair — and we can just get our stall then."

I tried to tell them that this is not how fairs work generally, knowing that it was too late anyway. The next morning, I left to go to the fair. I met Marguerite, the woman in charge of organizing it. She told me that the soap-making group could still get a stall, but they would have to wait until after the opening ceremony.

Right to Sell Soap

The country's Minister for Promoting Women's Development was coming — and she would be making speeches.

Meanwhile one of the women's husbands, Dembal, to whom I had the misfortune of giving my cell phone number, started calling me repeatedly about the women's stall, even as the minister was standing up to deliver her speech.

I kept telling him that I couldn't interrupt the opening ceremony just because the women had failed to go to Djibo the day before as I told them, and he kept telling me, "You can, go talk to Marguerite."

Disappointing Results
The unfortunate result was that in the end the women didn't get their stall, and none of the soap was sold at the fair


He wouldn't believe that I couldn't just stand up, grab the mike from the minister's hands as she explained the importance of women's roles in developing the economy and demand a stall.

The unfortunate result was that in the end the women didn't get their stall, and none of the soap was sold at the fair. Marguerite was too busy following the minister to allocate a stall and apparently no one else could do it for her.





A Soap Surplus

In the end, the women got bored and went back to Borguindé, leaving me more frustrated than I can express.

The other problem was that because of the different shape of the soap, it had to be sold for a higher price — 0.27 euros a bar. Because of this, people in Borguindé were a lot less enthusiastic about buying it and even after the price was lowered to 0.23 euros, they still sold very slowly.

After a couple of weeks, more than half the bars remain unsold. However, people are buying them, albeit slowly. And once they are all gone, we can get back to the original and more profitable form of soap-making, hopefully with oil the women will have pressed themselves.

Enterprising Women

In any case, I intend to stay away from fairs from now on — and to start strongly advocating the use of gloves.

If anyone is interested in purchasing a bar of soap, which despite its name will clean your clothes very effectively, just send me your name and address with .30 USD for the soap and 10 USD for postage, and I'll mail it to you right away.

Limited time offer only, no purchase necessary. Void where prohibited.




Contributed by Nathalie Boittin, a Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Reprinted with permission from The Globalist.

To read another Global Envision article about the benefits of working with low-income women entrepreneurs, see Why Focus on Poor Women and How Best to Serve Them.



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