Kabermaido, Uganda: Women Empowered to Conduct a Soap Making Trial Run

Kabermaido, Uganda: Women Empowered to Conduct a Soap Making Trial Run

Ugandan women holding results of soap-making trial run

This series chronicles your impact on the children of the Hopechest Carepoint in Kaberamaido, Uganda.

Thank you for doing your part in buying a soap bar between January 2013 and January 2014. A portion of the proceeds from your purchase enabled us to provide vitamins, conduct preliminary soapmaking research, donate soap, and conduct a handwashing workshop during Clare’s trip in late January 2014. In this series, Clare talks about her experience teaching women how to make soap bars. This is the first time the women are taught how to make soap. The soap-making trial run helped us better evaluate whether women would be able to build a business making soap.

It was a beautiful African day when Clare had her first meeting with a group of women from Kaberamaido, Uganda. The group of women sat together and talked for 45 minutes about the what challenges they faced bringing the trade of soap into the village. Later in the week, Clare tried her first trial run of making soap from wood ashes herself. It didn’t turn out very too well, but she decided to give it a second chance and taught the women how to make soap. Still, no go. For us, this was still valuable information. It enabled us to better understand where to focus our soapmaking research efforts on. Our vision is to not only provide antiseptic resources to the people there but to empower women to work and live sustainably.

How many women attended this meeting?

About 15 women attended this initial meeting. It was really more of a meeting for us to find common ground and get to know each other. Not only did we talk about soapmaking and the possibility of having a soapmaking business in the village, but we also talked about cultural differences in Uganda and America.

What were some of the the cultural differences you found?

Clare taking a picture with Ana Grace

 Our core values as women are the same in both countries. As women, we all want to provide for our families. But in Uganda, the cultural identity for women was to actually farm to feed their family. In fact, I was asked, “Do you dig?” which is another way of asking, “Do you farm?” When I replied no, the women were so confused. They had no idea what a supermarket was. I had to explain what a supermarket was and how we’re able to obtain our food here.

Seeing how different your life is from theirs, did the women have any other questions for you?

The women really wanted to understand what it was like to live in America. They asked if there were any poor people. I told them, “Of course there are poor people in America.” As surprising as this answer was, they were even more incredulous to hear that many of the poor in America live in urban areas. In Kaberamaido, the only people who make it into the cities are those with money.

leeching wood ash to make lye waterUgandan woman holding Fortune Butto vegetable oilleeching wood ash to make lye water using mineral waterusing water to leech lye from wood ashKabermaido people touching finished soap

When did you start talking about soap?

Our initial meet and greet was on a Sunday, and we agreed to meet later that Wednesday for a more official “Soap Conference.” In the meantime, I conducted some field research and my own trial run of soap making. As mentioned above, this didn’t turn out very well.

Clare teaching Ugandan woman how to make lye

What specifically did you learn from this trial run?

It’s incredibly difficult to make soap using colonial methods. Using this method, there’s no consistency, so the end product is always different. Making soap in their village would mean that they needed much more advanced resources.

Tell me more about this colonial process.

When we make soap in the states, we purchase sodium hydroxide, which is the key ingredient that reacts with oil to create soap. It is conveniently shipped in the form of tiny pellets or beads within plastic bottles. In Kaberamaido, Uganda, you can’t find sodium hydroxide, which is why we had to resort to old-fashioned soap making. In this process, you use water to leech chemicals from wood ash. In other words, you soak wood ash to extract potassium chloride (the main ingredient in liquid soap) or potash. Potash is generally used as a fertilizer in the US, but when reacted with oils, it can also create soap. The challenge is understanding the concentration of potassium chloride within the soap. You can test it by seeing whether an egg sinks or floats (if it sinks, then the solution is not strong enough). This is obviously a very crude way to estimate, unlike our precise predetermined calculations at home. Making soap out of water and wood ash wasn’t going to be a sustainable method for the women to replicate.

equipment used to conduct the soap making trial run

What oils did you use in this trial run?

We went to the local store and purchased a 3-liter gallon of palm oil for 16,000 shillings (6USD). Palm oil is really the only oil that was available, and it’s the type that the villagers use for cooking.

what wood ash looks like before leeching it in water to make lyeingredients and equipment we used for second trial run
straining soapmaking take 2results of what the soap looked like in the trial runUgandan women trying the finished product

So what exactly went “wrong”?

Leeching wood ash takes a really long time and you also need rain water. But because it was dry season, we had to resort to well water. Well water contains minerals, which reacts with the potash, hence resulting in gritty material. In the US, we use distilled water to avoid this. Plus, wood ash is quite dirty, and we couldn’t strain the impurities from it.

Ugandan kids holding homemade soap in the palm of their handsClare showing her clean hands after hand washing

Was it the soap that you made with the women still useable?

The result was a brown paste-like gunk that looked like tar. It still worked and functioned like soap. Because we used 100% palm oil, the soap didn’t lather. Baresoaps bars are made with a combination of different oils, each giving different properties to the soap. For instance, our inclusion of coconut and castor oil both give our bars a silky lather. But using 100% palm oil creates a hard bar with minimal lather. However, in the most functional sense, the bar still does its job of pulling dirt from the skin. Unfortunately, in practicality, we wouldn’t be able to market this product as is in Kaberamaido, Uganda.

everyone washing their hands after soap making trial run

Soap Making in Uganda: Trial Run

What were the womens’ reaction to this trial run?

It was funny and intriguing at the same time. Let’s put it this way, the paste wasn’t what they envisioned it to be (they’ve seen bar soap), but they were surprised that the paste still worked as a cleaning agent.

Seeing as how the trial run wasn’t successful, what happened afterwards?

Well, after the women saw the paste, we discussed different options of soapmaking. We could either attempt to perfect the colonial method of soapmaking. It is possible. We’ve seen it done online.  Another option is to figure out how to obtain sodium hydroxide to make soap the cold process way (or with packaged sodium hydroxide).  The women were more interested in making soap using sodium hydroxide. Seeing their interest in making cold-pressed soap bars, our hope is that we would be able to find ways we can make this happen.

using cardboard to hold hot pot
The chemical reaction between the wood ash and water results in very high temperatures. Here's a practical (and simple) way to keep your hands from burning!


What does this mean in terms of next steps?

We need figure out whether soap making is even a possibility in Kaberamaido, Uganda from a cost perspective. The goal is to sell soap in Kaberamaido, Uganda for 2,500 shillings (1USD), but costs for the cold process method may be too high for this to be a practical option. From Baresoaps’ perspective, we can provide loans to the women and help subsidize the costs, but this wouldn’t be a long-term, sustainable solution. The immediate next step is to figure out where we can source the sodium hydroxide and how feasible it would be to obtain the raw materials for soapmaking on a consistent basis. We’re still not giving up on the colonial method, as this would definitely put local resources to good use.

What are some challenges that you anticipate?

Beyond the cost issue, safety is a primary concern for us. When we make soap, we always wear goggles, aprons, and long rubber gloves. Sodium hydroxide is a caustic substance that can burn the skin upon exposure. Our concern is whether the women would adhere to similar safety standards and have a safe place to store the supplies.

What was the most touching part of the experience?

The women actually pulled together some money to buy us a hand-beaded bag. We plan on framing this in our future office!

Your continued purchased allows us figure out how we can help women in Kabermaido, Uganda to live sustainably. Our hope is that the women can eventually make their own soap to sell and use.

We’d love to hear your ideas on how we can make this happen. Based on the resources that they have and low operational costs we want this to be do-able. Feel free to share your ideas and thoughts on this. Take a look at more images below!

Ugandan kids showing tar soap in the palm their handsshowing their clean hands


  • kenneth mushaija

    you have put a burning inspiration into me, i like the activity you do mammies, i actually wish i could visit u and you share me your experience. thanks a lot.

  • John McMahon

    I’m very interested in traveling to Uganda and was looking for a church that is involved in social programs there. I attend The Potter’s House of Dallas. I’m an environmental scientist, safety engineer and educator.

    I would appreciate any feedback.

  • Tom Otai

    Please thanks my dear Claire and the group of women for the great vision you have and struggling to achieve,is the opportunity for further training open for other people/districts? if yes please never leave me or my wife out since it has been a long term plan/vision for us also in our family,I now request you to keep me updated in my email or this contact number,0781678293 so lets move on, I am an ordnand from Soroti Diocese and now studying at Uganda Christian University-Mukono

  • Anita K Ninsiima

    Hey i have loved the whole concept of this project and was kindly asking if you could give me procedure of how to make that kind of soap.I need it in explained details. Thank you.

  • Pascal

    Thanks for the work you people are doing to empower women in my home district of Kaberamaido it s my prayer that this program will cover all the sub counties in the district.

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