Similar to communities around the world, the Speed School program’s Self-Help Group (SHG) members in Uganda are suffering severely from the COVID-19 pandemic. The impacts are not only economic but also social, occurring as delayed schooling, increased illness and death, and an increase in gender-based violence, among other symptoms.
Geneva Global Uganda (GG-Ug) swiftly turned to the Self-Help Groups to attempt to staunch the pandemic’s negative effects on the families and communities that participate in the Speed School program. These groups exist for every Speed School class, created to promote the economic and social empowerment of the students’ mothers so that they can support their children’s future schooling and the overall well-being of their families. Core to the strategy is engaging the mothers in income-generating activities (IGA). Unfortunately, the drastic economic downturn spurred by the pandemic undermined many of the common IGAs with which groups have found success.
Inspired by their Geneva Global colleagues in Ethiopia and joined by its grantee Ugandan civil society partners, GG-Ug quickly identified liquid soap-making as a promising, viable option. With hygiene a cornerstone of the public COVID-19 response, everyone needed readily available, affordable soap. So, in September 2021, GG-UG contracted the Double Women’s Club of Gulu, Uganda to conduct a first training in liquid soap-making for members from five SHGs from Gulu City in Northern Uganda. When schools re-opened briefly in March of 2021, among the requirements that schools listed was for the children to report with liquid soap, hand sanitizer, and face masks. This gave a clear indication that the market for liquid soap would expand dramatically very soon.
Following the training, two SHGs linked to Pageya primary school in Gulu City got very excited and quickly drew up an action plan. Their first step was to share what they had learned with remaining group members and to start surveying potential markets for their product in and around the community. They began testing the market by selling liquid soap they had produced with the trainers and other SHG members during the training.
The two Pageya SHGs then quickly arranged follow-on training for all its members. Having confirmed there was a market, they quickly mobilized the money needed to purchase the raw materials they would need for further training, with each member’s contributing 4,000 Ugandan Shillings UGX, or about $1.10. Now fully trained, they set about producing their own liquid soap to sell.
Greatly excited and proud of their achievement, they soon invited the trainers from The Double Women’s Club Uganda and GG-UG to observe and critique their production set-ups and hear about their success during one of their weekly group savings meetings. GG-UG’s Program Manager for Community Engagement, Caroline Adokorach, and the lead trainer were “amazed” by the two groups’ accomplishment in terms of both their production and their sales.
The groups reported having produced 40 liters of liquid soap each during their second round of training and 140 liters in total since launching the business. They were expecting to earn a profit of around 120,000 UGX (about $33).
All five SHGs have now developed several strategies to turn their new-found skills into even more profitable ventures. This has allowed them both to increase their production and to expand their market. The strategies include:
1. Produce both as individual members and as a group.
2. Distribute a liter of liquid soap to each group member to sell, returning the money from the sales to the group
3. Cultivate institutional clients as well as market-based retail clients. (Indeed, some groups report having already delivered samples of their liquid soap to a local secondary schools, a local grassroots charity, and some other organizations.)
4. Reach out to local markets and small trading centers to carry and sell their product.
5. Advertise for direct sales, having already designed signs describing their product and location.
The liquid soap-making initiative has shown one more time the dynamism, motivation, and readiness to organize that the Self-Help Group initiative unleashes among the mothers of Speed School students. Having mobilized around the deep commitment to giving their children a second chance at formal education and received initial training from GG-Ug and its partners, the mothers were primed to capitalize on this opportunity. Now, they are clearly ready to build upon their initial success, and GG-Ug is ready to move beyond this test phase to engage many more SHGs in the production of liquid soap.
Indeed, the groups continue to grow in both their ability and confidence, and some are even marketing their skills by training others in the community who wish also to produce liquid soap for sale. Their dream is now to grow their markets. GG-Ug is starting to help them do this by guiding them in receiving official product certification and in upgrading their packaging and branding. The story of this expansion is one GG-Ug will be pleased to share in the future.