So Fresh and So Clean: Making Soap in Guatemala
By Cameron Roth, Manna Project International
As a Program Director with Manna Project International, we are not only entrusted to continue past teams’ projects, but also given the freedom to create new development programs in the communities where we work. I have been working on my own health project focused on hygiene and homemade soap, but it was only this past Thursday, after eight months of toiling, that my hard work came to fruition. Let me back up a little to explain.
MPI Guatemala’s health program focuses on in-school lectures and workshops given to students aged 8-16. Focusing on themes such as personal and dental hygiene, one of the things we emphasize most is the importance of washing one’s hands. However, it’s rather hard to comply if there is no soap in your school or home. For countless reasons — theft, lack of funds, apathy — the schools in Chaquijyá do not provide soap.
Seeing this, I knew I had to either change my lesson plan or find a way to get soap. Then my real idea sprouted — what if I could figure out how to make soap cheaply and from commonly used items, teach the process to several willing community members, and pitch this as an economic venture? Families could then have soap in their homes and I could easily provide it to the local schools. Sustainable. Mutually beneficial. Seemed like a good enough idea, but then again, how does one make soap?
I scoured the Internet for homemade soap recipes. To make basic soap, you mix animal fats or oils with an alkaline solution to start a chemical reaction called saponification. The soap acts as a surfactant with water, forming small pockets around grease and dirt particles so they are easily washed away. The recipe I settled on (which I’m happy to share via email request) involved mixing animal fat and caustic soda (available due to its use in the weaving community) with water to form a crude soap.
At the same time, I pitched my idea to Francisco and his wife Candelaria, the local midwife. They seemed to buy into my theory, albeit hesitantly, and were willing to help me get started. Off and on for the next seven or so months, I would pick up pounds of beef fat from Mario, the local Sololá butcher, and bring it to Francisco’s house in Chaquijyá.
There, we would melt the fat and experiment mixing different measurements of caustic soda, water, herbs, leaves and fruit juices to make the soap as refined (and pleasant smelling) as possible. After finally landing on a recipe that worked, we decided to present the idea again to a group of women in the community. I made copies of the recipe, separated two ounces of caustic soda into 20 different bags, and gave a demonstration on how to make the soap. They seemed interested, engaged and excited that the soap was so easy to make.
We are still only at stage one right now, as the women have just begun making soap in their own households, but the long-term effects have far-reaching potential. Hopefully, this project will kill two birds with one stone. First, and most importantly, it provides soap for families and schools to keep students healthy and instill good hygiene practices. This is immensely important in a country that boasts the fourth highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, the highest infant mortality rate in Central America, and a general lack of access to clean water. Having soap readily available is but one step in the right direction.
The second benefit of this project lies on the economic side. The production of homemade soap provides a new money-making venture to many women in Chaquijyá. They will be able to sell the soap, not only to local families, stores, and schools, but in local markets as well. The most recent census of Chaquijyá found 74% of residents living in poverty, and about 25% of those living in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.25/day. So, every centavo counts.
Even though I only have a short amount of time left in Guatemala, I know that the incoming volunteers will be enthusiastic to help Francisco and the women’s group continue this project. To me, this is what community development is all about: Don’t be the solution. Be the middle-man on the never-ending quest to empower.
Cameron Roth is a Program Director for Manna Project International in Guatemala. If you would like more information, please contact Cameron Roth at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @croth0314. MPI’s mission is to foster communities of young adults and encourage them to use their passions and education in service to communities in need. Keep up with MPI Guatemala’s progress on their blog, or read more about MPI on their website.