We taught three brilliant Tibetan women, Danma, Tashi Khar & Tsho Khar Skyid, the craft of soapmaking in a little village called Daichen, which is located in a Tibetan Autonomous county in province of Gansu.
The soapmaking project will start with these three women with the hopes of it funding other community development projects and growing to employ more and more young local women who desperately need the income. Danma is the leader of the project and has experience with community development. She had an interest in soapmaking and knew that it would be valuable to the community. So she called upon Lovin’ Soap Project to get help in starting the project. Danma is the only one in the group that speaks English, so she also served as the translator. In fact, she was the only one anywhere that spoke English!
Our journey started with two days in Lanzhou, China to source materials and meet with our host who we met for the first time in person at the bus station downtown. She had been in Lanzhou collecting various raw ingredients for the soapmaking workshop. Before this first in-person connection, we had many skype conversations and back-and-forths about ingredients. To see it all come together up to this point set the tone for our entire trip (which was to be a very successful one).
It was time to journey to the Tibetan Autonomous county town of Tianzhu. We boarded a bus, weighed down with coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower, lye, essential oils, oatmeal, honey and much more. We carried various pieces of equipment and then of course, we had our suitcases of clothing. I don’t really know how we managed it all.
We arrived in Tianzhu. Foreigners are extremely rare here, and because our host is Tibetan, we had to register with the Chinese police and get permission to travel to Daichen village. This took a few days so the first days of soapmaking were done in our hotel room. The two soapmakers from Daichen village journeyed to the hotel and the soapmaking began!
We started with a recipe of coconut oil, olive oil, sunflower oil and yak fat! Raising yaks is their community’s way of life, so both yak fat and yak milk are plentiful and quite sustainable for them to make soap with. The sunflower oil is grown and produced locally as well. Once they got down the basics, we taught them how to make soap using yak milk and then added color and design. These soapmakers took to learning designs extremely fast! They were soon perfecting in-the-pot swirls, funnel swirls and side-by-side swirls using dividers that were sent along with the molds from Richard at Bebe Collection (www.bebecollection.com). They kept asking for new designs and we soon ran out of swirls to teach them. Here are a few of their beautiful soaps.
We then got permission from the local police to travel to the village as long as our host, Danma, swore to keep us safe and looked after. While there, the police even came to inspect what we were doing.
After a two-hour-long bumpy bus ride to Daichen Village, we arrived at what would be our home for the next several days. We were to stay with Danma’s family, as they would host the soapmaking workshop and us. The village is in a valley surrounded by beautiful snow covered mountains, grazing yaks, sheep and a frozen river, which also served as our bathroom. We were led to our room, cozily heated by a yak-dung-fueled metal firebox.
The next morning, the soapmaking resumed.
A couple of times we ran out of yak milk, so we just called to Ama (“mother’) to please milk a yak. I never got brave enough to milk one myself.
And once we ran out of yak fat, so again we called to Ama for more. She went into the family’s meat storage room, which had dried yak meat, sausage and other parts hanging from the ceiling, and got more fat, which we rendered in the kitchen (also fueled by yak dung).
We left behind two brilliant soapmakers who were so good at the process of soapmaking that we would spend hours with them with no one to interpret and just observe their adapted process and methods, which quickly developed over the course of a week.
On a few occasions Danma, our host and translator would take off from the village back to the county town of Tianzhu to fill out all of the proper forms and assessments for obtaining a company name and official business. Though she was thwarted on more than one occasion, she didn’t give up and eventually got the name of their new business certified. This showed us how much tenacity herself and the soapmaking team had about creating a successful enterprise from these workshops. They still have more to do in regards to establishing a business in China, but they seem to be well on their way.
Benjamin led a branding workshop in which they sat and developed their brand story, including information about the white yaks in the area, Maija Mountain and local herbs, and then he led them in creating a mission statement that we’ll share in another post. He also led a workshop on pricing and figuring out costs, sourcing cheaper ingredients, scaling up production and selling the soap to different markets.
After the workshops were over, at the last meal with everyone together, we gave certificates to the soapmakers to acknowledge their completion of the training. I feel very confident that these women will be successful and can’t wait to hear and share about their progress and how it affects their lives. Even when the police came to inspect things, they stated that this was rare. Women don’t own businesses here. So with your help, the Lovin’ Soap Project is empowering women through economic development in a place where women don’t get these types of opportunities.
Thank you for your support and for helping these women accomplish something that is so far from the norm where they live, owning their own business.