DRC: How soap-making is bursting the bubble of conflict

The World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation empower communities with agricultural and trade skills

Katarzyna Jaskiewicz,Ben Anguandia
Saturday 19 June 2021 00:01 BST
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Germaine, centre, with her soap-making team
Germaine, centre, with her soap-making team (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

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“Today I feel at peace because my life is moving in the right direction. I am paying for my children’s school fees, I’m building a new house, and my soap business is a success,” says Germaine. The 47-year-old mother of eight lives in Kabalo, Tanganyika province, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country of 105 million people of whom more than 27 million do not know where their next meal will come from.

Germaine, who lost her husband in 2018, farms and makes soap for a living as part of a “resilience” initiative run by two UN agencies – the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP) – in Kabalo and Nyunzu territories in Tanganyika.

The soap mix is cut and left for a day to set
The soap mix is cut and left for a day to set (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

The organisations support 103,500 families, or around 517,500 people, in DRC’s Tanganyika, North and South Kivu, and North and South Ubangi provinces.

The resilience project targets 18,000 households with combined technical, economic and social interventions to revitalise local economies and livelihoods. This accounts for around 90,000 people, 40 percent of whom are women.

Key to the soap mix is lye, or sodium hydroxide, which is added to water, which it then heats up
Key to the soap mix is lye, or sodium hydroxide, which is added to water, which it then heats up (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

Training covers literacy, financial management, and – for women in particular – new income-generating activities.

The aim is to empower people with the skills that they need to prosper, in agriculture and business, working as a collective. 

The soap mix is applied to the mould which is lined with wax paper
The soap mix is applied to the mould which is lined with wax paper (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

“What I most enjoy is soap-making,” says Germaine. “To buy the ingredients to make 2kg of soap, I spend approximately 30,000 CDF ($15); I normally sell it in two days for 50,000 CDF ($25), which makes me a profit of $10 each time.” 

In 2020 alone, the project supported 800 women, graduates of its literacy training programme, to start activities such as soap-making, baking and catering. Training in business skills and accounting was also at hand, with a startup kit worth $100. Those who chose to focus on soap-making received seven 25kg bags of caustic soda, 3kg of dye, 3l of perfume, two tables, three densimeters (to measure the density of liquids), three boilers and three soap slicers. 

Readying the mould
Readying the mould (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

Germaine’s adult literacy and numeracy classes led to her becoming “the president of our savings group of five people”. She says: “My role is to do door-to-door visits to the members and collect money to buy soap ingredients. I also set dates for making the soap.” Today she runs a successful soap-making shop with four other women, and is able to provide food for her family and cover her children’s school fees. 

The oil mixture is heated
The oil mixture is heated (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

With her earnings, Germaine is also building a new house for her family – and planning to get a bigger plot of land, to increase her harvest of rice, peanuts and cassava. 

She adds: “I hope that my children will get a better education than me and live a better life. I am convinced I can get there through my work.” 

The oil mixture is filtered using cloth
The oil mixture is filtered using cloth (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

In addition to boosting food production and injecting more cash into the local market, the project has also helped promote peace and stability, as communities are now farming together and buying and selling from each other.

“We are working together, there is an abundance of food in our market and there’s money in Kabalo,” says Germaine.

Blended oils are added to the lye
Blended oils are added to the lye (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

The resulting boost in agriculture means the territory supplies neighbouring communities with food, as well as products such as soap. 

“Many of us are no longer waiting to get a salary at the end of each month, because we are making money throughout the month thanks to the skills we acquired,” says Germaine.

The soap bars are cut out
The soap bars are cut out (WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd)

“Food is no longer scarce but rather diverse; you can go to the market and get anything you want. We no longer wait to get soap from other neighbouring areas such as Kongolo because we can make it ourselves.” 

The resilience programme in DRC is backed by Germany, Sweden, Canada, Norway and Italy.  Learn more about WFP’s work in DRC here

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