Armed with soap, Guinean women take the fight against Ebola into their own hands

Dec 16, 2014

Seven UNDP-supported cooperatives led by women are processing soap for distribution in public locations across Guinea. Photo UNDP/Guinea

A thunder of motorbikes, pedestrians and taxis is pushing into Dibida Market, in the centre of Kankan City, in the North of Guinea.

A group of women traders is setting up shop, arranging a mobile display of soap. Sunday in this Muslim town is the first day of the working week. People arrive from all the surrounding districts, buyers and sellers crushed in between stalls.

Inside the market the women shout slogan after slogan: “Ebola soap! One thousand francs for soap against Ebola! Protect yourself against Ebola!”

When they are asked whether they are afraid of catching Ebola, the only moment of silence in the day appears. Finally, Boh Fanta states for all: “It is our work, so we can't have fear”.

The women are among the 100 women who head seven UNDP-supported cooperatives processing soap for distribution in public locations across Guinea.

The women don't just sell, they inform, sparking conversations with elderly peanut paste sellers, young motorbike men, middle aged shop owners and women selling a few pieces of vegetables on the ground. They reach out to them on the importance of washing their hands to protect themselves against Ebola.

The soap itself, made of shea butter, is produced by a separate group of women who live in the surrounding villages. The process involves picking the hard seed and processing it into a doughy mulch, which can take a lot of time.

The soap is produced by diesel engines provided by UNDP, which de-husk and shell the seeds, saving hours of manual labour so the women can produce more, but also focus on other occupations such as sending their children to school or setting up their own businesses. They produce up to 1,000 soap items every week.

 “This reduces the time needed to process the seed from seven days’ hard physical labour to a process that is done in two, by a machine,” said Séraphine Wakana, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Guinea.

“More than that, it pushes forward the economic authority of women through the committee of women formed in each village to maintain it. And it is this position that they used to help others struggle against Ebola.”

Once produced and packaged, the soap is distributed in the markets in Kankan city, Doko, Kiniario and Norabassa by the cooperatives. After their high standards secured a contract with the United Nations to provide soap for its fight against the virus, they decided to halve the price of their soap.

The proceeds are used to invest back into the communities. “I have pride, because: ten people can use this one small piece of dry soap for washing their hands during two days,” said Madame Nantené Condé, President of the Sénnkéfara Cooperative in Kankan.

Around the corner, a teenage boy grabs a piece. Mumadi works with taxis in a crowded street, one of the most dangerous areas for catching the disease. In his work, he will probably be in contact with people from every village in the surrounding district and beyond.

Why buy it? In response Mumadi mimes washing his hands and says the word that is in the same in French, Malinké and Fula: “Ebola”.

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