A small bar of soap with big impact
It’s a simple but ground-breaking idea: an essential product made affordable and including protection against a deadly disease.
Through an all-natural soap that includes insect repellent, a group of Edinburgh students are helping to empower women with entrepreneurial skill while combatting mosquito-transmitted diseases.
Student-run social enterprise
The students behind Palma Soap, a social enterprise based at the University of Edinburgh, are united by the desire to positively influence the lives of others.
“I instantly became interested in Palma Soap as it spans over several areas that are important to address such as social sustainability and healthcare,” explained Linn, a second-year international relations and international law student.
A grant funded through alumni donations to the Edinburgh Fund enabled three members of Palma Soap to initiate their project in the Kasungu District in Malawi at the start of 2018. The funding helped to cover the students’ travel costs, as well as the soap ingredients, moulds, packaging and marketing.
Tackling malaria in partnership
Palma Soap partnered with K2 TASO, a Malawian non-governmental organisation that works in the Kasungu District to provide HIV treatment and prevention services, as well as programmes for malaria control. In Malawi, malaria accounts for 30% of all outpatient visits and 52% of all children aged under five are admitted due to malaria and anaemia (The Health management information system annual bulletin, 2009).
K2 TASO identified 13 women beneficiaries from the local community to work with Palma Soap. Each of the women had experienced the devastation of HIV or malaria in some way and were keen to be involved in a project that would tackle the disease.
The students taught the women, who were previously unemployed, to make, package and sell the insect-repellent soap through workshops. Decisions were made mutually, with the Malawian women contributing to the business model through suggesting target product volumes and locations to sell the soap.
The mosquito-repellent soap is composed of all natural ingredients including olive, sunflower and neem oils. It is the neem oil that repels mosquitoes and other insects for up to eight hours.
Each bar of soap is sold at an affordable price of 250 MWK in the local communities. This converts approximately to 25p, of which 3p (12%) is profit that the beneficiaries keep. There is only one other soap on the market at a similar price, but it does not contain insect repellent.
Building skills for the future
In addition to the Malawian women gaining new transferrable skills such as entrepreneurship, sales and marketing, the project has been a rewarding learning journey for the Edinburgh students too.
Second-year psychology and sociology student and project leader Meghan has been involved with Palma Soap since first year:
“Being able to tackle so many issues with such an ingenious and innovative solution is what first drew me into the group. I’ve learnt so much from this project, it’s been such a good experience.”
She explained that she and fellow project members have benefitted from knowledge passed down by older students from the parent student-run social enterprise, Enactus Edinburgh. They also gained skills in navigating challenges posed by running an international project – an example being a power blackout cutting off communications with the partner organisation. Such experiences expand the students’ CVs and prepare them in more ways for their future careers than studying alone.
The students are exploring ways to reduce the price of the soap further, to increase the numbers of bars produced per month and to increase the number of beneficiaries supported by the project. Eventually though, the students aim for the project to become independent and run as a cooperative between the beneficiaries and K2 TASO.