In early 2017, the Lovin Soap Project (LSP) was contacted by the Washindi Victory Center in Nairobi, requesting assistance with a soap making training. Washindi Victory Center is a small community-based organization serving the people living in the Kibera slums through economic empowerment. Additionally, Washindi seeks to stem the inflow of people to Kibera from rural areas by developing economic opportunities in far away villages.
Preparations for the training were underway when Benjamin and Amanda Aaron, the founders of LSP, were faced with a happy problem: they learned they were going to have a baby. The trip had been tentatively scheduled for shortly after when their baby was due which they knew would be challenging, if not impossible. Rather than put off the project for an indefinite period, they sought out facilitators who could go on behalf of LSP. Not surprisingly, there was no shortage of people willing to teach. Ultimately, they selected Peggy Tipton and Caitlin Abshire to run the training. Both women own soap-making businesses in Atlanta. Peggy additionally had a background in international development and public health and had lived in East Africa for four years, including two in Kenya. Caitlin had experience running a large and complex bath and body business. Together the pair had nearly 30 years of soap-making experience.
Kenya is a country with significant resources and potential. The capital, Nairobi is the regional hub for commerce, trade and other services. There is a higher level of education than other countries in the region as well as a large middle/upper class and expat community. Additionally, Kenya has a substantial number of tourists who visit the country every year. Their economy grew an average of 5% per year between 2006-2016, reducing the proportion of people living below the poverty level from 46% to 36%. Nonetheless, the country also has substantial inequality; a small number of people control the majority of the country’s wealth.
Prior to arriving in Nairobi, LSP worked behind the scenes in preparation: researching the availability of raw ingredients and packaging as well as investigating potential domestic markets for selling within Kenya. The probability of a business that is successful depends in part on the ability to access local markets as well as demand for products, and thankfully Kenya has these qualities. One aspect of LSP’s partnership with local organizations is an initial capital investment with the understanding that this should be sufficient to launch a small bath and body business. This investment takes the form of necessary equipment (soap molds, scales, safety equipment) as well as raw ingredients (oils, sodium hydroxide, fragrances) and training (soap making, business skills, marketing, paperwork, etc). LSP is careful to select products that appeal to customers, contain ingredients which can be reliably and affordably sourced locally, and which have a healthy profit margin. This helps to ensure that the women will continue to be able to purchase ingredients and sell the resulting products. Furthermore, LSP makes a long-term commitment to working with an organization beyond the initial investment and training. They remain in contact with their partners to offer advice on product development, marketing, business expansion, etc. They will typically return to the country after several months to provide follow up training and support. Their ultimate goal is to assist trainees to be self-sufficient business women, scientists and artists.
Peggy and Caitlin arrived late in the evening of May 3rd and got straight to work the following day! The training consisted of two primary components: learning to make soap and other bath and body products and learning the business skills to necessary to market and sell what they had made. The workshop had nine trainees, a larger group than usual; however several were Washindi staff who wanted to fully understand the process so that they could assist the women from Kibera and train others as well.
The trainees represented a variety of ages, ethnicities, and backgrounds. The youngest participant was in her early 20s while the oldest was nearly 60. Some women had completed secondary school while others had little or no schooling. A few women had had some business experience; others were community health workers in Kibera. All were a bit shy initially but enthusiastic to learn.
Participants started out with the basics: an understanding of the soap making process, safety, proper use of scales and the importance of record keeping. Over the next few days they made many different batches of soap to master the skills of soap making but also to experiment with a variety of colors, scents and additives. They were so excited the day they cut their first soaps! There were a few mistakes in the beginning (forgotten oil, improper weighing) but these are just part of the learning process and serve to reinforce the correct steps to make soap.
After several days of practice batches, the women voted on the soaps that they liked the most and the resulting six varieties became their product line. Because soap must cure for a minimum of 4-5 weeks, the participants also learned to make products which would be ready to sell right away. These included an exfoliating salt scrub as well as a hair and body oil. Both of these products have sold well in other countries and they have a very good profit margin. The scrub and oil were each formulated in three scents: lemongrass, vanilla and a blend of lavender, mint and lemongrass. Various packaging methods were discussed. Ultimately, fabric bags for the soaps were chosen using locally available traditional cloth known as kitenge. The women liked that the bags were reusable and felt that this could be a strong selling point since they could serve as a wallet or case for holding a cell phone. The same fabric was used to decorate the jars and bottles holding the scrubs and oils. Although Benjamin and Amanda from LSP were not personally in Kenya, they too assisted by developing a business logo and product labels.
With the product line and packaging finalized, the training shifted to paperwork and marketing. While this might not seem as “glamorous” as the creative aspect of making products, it is nonetheless, critical since accurate records and money management can make or break a business. Over the years, Benjamin and Amanda have developed a simple yet effective series of worksheets and record keeping designed to ensure proper allocation of funds as well as maintain quality and accountability. Every participant learned to make batch records, record sales, and keep track of inventory. Most importantly, they learned that all earnings must be allocated not just for salaries but also for transportation, supplies, reinvesting into the business, etc.
Throughout the training period, Peggy and Caitlin, the Washindi staff and participants worked to identify potential locations for selling finished goods. One such venue is the K1 Flea Market, a weekly craft market at a local restaurant which is popular with young upper-income Kenyans, expats and some tourists. The trainees spent one Sunday afternoon touring the market and discussing their observations about clientele, product packaging, and prices. The trip to K1 helped the women to visualize themselves selling there. Other markets are being explored: an organic weekly market, sales at the International School of Kenya, a local hotel, as well as the popular Masai Market.
The enthusiasm and confidence of the women grew throughout the two weeks of the training. Many women had great ideas for promoting the business. For example, one woman took the scraps of fabric from the soap bags to a local tailor who embellished a shirt collar and cuffs with the fabric and embroidered the Washindi logo on the front! Talk about thinking outside the box! At the “graduation” celebration, a number of the women decided to take their products around to other patrons of the restaurant. Remarkably, they sold one (this was not their target market) and discovered another two potential wholesale accounts. They also set up pages on Facebook and Instagram and are using these to promote their business. Since we left on May 16th, Washindi has sold their products at three K1 markets. Sales have been good but are expected to grow as people become more aware of who they are and their products.
LSP is planning to return to Kenya in a few months to assist with developing new products and improving marketing, business skills and other technical areas.