Windhoek — Women living with HIV/AIDS have established a soap-making project in Katutura, where they produce a whole range of soap products, including mahangu soap to support themselves and their families.
After the group of five women met with a Finnish woman in Katutura they decided to open up to her. They shared their experiences with her and the challenges they face living with the virus, including the fact that they were unemployed and faced discrimination as a result of their HIV status.
As fate would have it they had come across someone who knew about making soap and even better, one who knew how to make money out of it. She took the five under her wing and trained them to create soap products using traditional ingredients.
The women experimented for a while with various traditional products to determine what would be the most suitable for creating soap products that would appeal to beauty and health conscious individuals. At the end, mahangu turned out to be the best available ingredient with which to create just the right kind of beauty product.
They discovered through trial and error that the coarse and grainy mahangu-based soap makes the skin feel much smoother.
The only drawback they discovered was that the soap became became soggy very quickly when left in the water for more than an hour. So it is advisable for consumers to keep it in a dry place after using it. Traditionally, mahangu (pearl millet) is made into a porridge called 'oshifima' a popular staple in the northern regions or it is fermented to make a refreshing and nutritious traditional drink called 'oshikundu'.
The project was established in Windhoek in 2009, according to the chairperson of the project Emilia Handimbo and today produces 100 percent handmade soaps that are very popular with European and other tourists. Several local lodges also buy the unusual soap product for their clients.
Locally produced olive oil bought from a supplier in Swakopmund is one of the key ingredients used to make the soap. The olive oil is mixed with caustic soda sourced from a supplier in the Southern Industrial Area of Windhoek and mixed with water and Meme Mahangu flour meal, according to fixed proportions based on a formula.
Handimbo explained that after that the mixture is stirred before the liquid mixture is poured into molds for at least a day to enable it to set into bathing soap tablets. "After a day we will remove the blocks and put them in the storeroom for a whole month for it to dry well, before designing it for packaging," said Handimbo.
She further added that the soap is packaged decoratively, with blue plastic water containers that many people usually throw away. The women sell only two types of soap made of mahangu and the other from pure olive oil.
Lucia Elifas the secretary of the project says right now they do not have too many local customers, but they have established a regular client base to whom they deliver soap on a monthly basis. "In addition, we have occasional extra orders as wedding and birthday gifts and other events," said Elifas.
However, Elifas added that their regular and much bigger clients at the moment are Wilderness Safaris, Gondwana and the Crafts Centre. Loide Vaalukeni, the vice chairperson, added that at the beginning the purpose of the project was to train the women to gain skills, generate income and employ other women who live with the virus and face constant discrimination and stigmatisation because of that.
But today, Vaalukeni says the project focuses on community empowerment through different HIV related events, such as support to groups of women living with the virus and to spread the message of living positively by loving themselves and their bodies.
Although the women sell their soap products inexpensivly by charging N$10 for a small bar of soap, N$15 for a medium size bar and N$25 for a large bar, most of the proceeds are ploughed back into their community-based projects to improve the health and education of HIV positive women and their children.
Vaalukeni says they want to secure their own premises with access to water and electricity and which will be easily accessible to tourists and other customers. Currently the group rents space for N$500 per month at the Penduka Project at the Goreangab Dam in the Samora Machel Constituency. Mahangu is proving to be a versatile product, only last year a range of cookies made of mahangu flour was launched.