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Before they created a soap-making collective, women in two areas of rural Kenya subsisted on about $2 per day. Profits from the liquid soap they sell at local markets in repurposed water and soda bottles have gone back into this cottage industry, allowing them to purchase additional soap-making materials and expand their business.
Mark Steele spoke to the Rotary Club of Evanston last week about the Maji Masafi, the clean water initiative he oversees in Kenya. He calls it in English “Soap for Water,” because the end result will be more clean water for the area.
At present, many of the women in rural Kenya walk as much as 10 miles before daybreak to bring water back to their villages. With money from this project – boosted by microloans and collective work – they hope to build a sand dam to obtain fresh water for their villages.
In the first two sites – “Soap for Water I & II” – 275 women in 11 villages were trained how to make, market and sell liquid soap.
The training process is streamlined and straightforward: After obtaining permission from the chiefs, who are male, to speak to the women, Mr. Steele and at least one native Kenyan woman offer a morning lecture on health and hygiene and teach them how to create an organization. “At the end of the first day, they are making soap, which foams up and settles overnight” he said.
“The next morning we talk about marketing. Each group decides how they’re going to sell their own product. Even though the women are illiterate, they are very disciplined about his,” Mr. Steele said.
“Each group that I met with said what an eye-opening experience this has been. They had no idea that collectively they could make their lives better,” Mr. Steele said. He added that he believes the project is successful because the women themselves chose to make and market the soap and because it helps address some underlying problems.
“If you want sustainability you must address the underlying problems,” Mr. Steele said. “What I have learned about water, finance and education is that water equals health; microfinance equals economic stability and micro business development equals education activation. … Start from ground zero and work your way up by building capacity to create and manage natural and economic resources.”