Modernizing the Zanzibar Soap Market: Lulua and Hamisi’s Story

Modernizing the Zanzibar Soap Market: Lulua and Hamisi’s Story

Publication info

Michael Pierson

ZANZIBAR, TANZANIA – At the northern tip of Pemba, Zanzibar, the air is sweet with clove fragrance from farmers preparing their September spice harvests. Cloves rain from trees as farmers shake them loose from high branches, carpeting the ground with red buds. At dawn, families separate cloves from leaves and twigs in front of their homes to lay them out to dry in time to catch the afternoon sun. Men are often seen leading cows down the roadways, tugging carts of clove-filled gunny sacks to local collection centers. The spice harvest is something of a community event, visible in different stages across the island.

These production practices provide the raw materials for Zanzibar’s spice value chains and add charm to the local, artisanal quality of products like scented oils, Oudh perfumes and soaps in the market. But spice products have yet to bring the rewards producers hope to see; like their raw materials, most end products are handmade at home and in small quantities, without sophisticated mixing, cutting and packaging tools. Adding to these challenges, wider markets remain beyond most producers’ reaches.

Not so in Konde Village, where soap makers from CARE’s village savings and loan associations (VSLAs) have formed a production group to apply the skills, training and resources they have received to use these local spices in their successful and rapidly growing soap enterprise. “Come see our machines!” Hamisi Omar Tumu says with great excitement as he guides a tour of the VSLA’s soap manufacturing facility. In each room, one can see each stage of soap production, from piles of pre-processed soap to boxes brimming with packaged bars ready for the market.

Hamisi has been a VSLA member for more than six years and is now a community-based trainer (CBT), spreading the skills he received to build the capacities of 12 VSLA groups in the area. After touring the facility, Hamisi introduced Lulua, a VSLA member and marketing officer for the soap business.

“I chose to join a VSLA because there were no economic opportunities, especially for women in our village,” Lulua said. Women during this time received no education, lacked self-confidence, and were viewed by the community as being capable of nothing more than household caretaking. “Women were not allowed to go to school or receive training – only boys could participate in these activities,” she said. “Now all that has changed.”

Lulua and 25 other women in their VLSA, Umoja Wema (translation: Great Unity), received training on soap production during CARE’s Making Markets Work for Women program. Her group shared their learning with VSLA members in neighboring villages, so that they, too, could more efficiently and safely produce soap.

‘I Can Stand Up for Myself Now’

Lulua formed a soap-making group with other local producers, which invested VSLA savings to expand their business and buy machines. She was selected to be the group’s marketing officer and traveled to Dar es Salaam to meet with the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Marketing’s Small Industry Development Organization (SIDO). There, Lulua acquired additional training on contemporary production and began building the group’s market connections. Opportunities flooded in after her trip, and the producers further enhanced their business model and production practices.

“As our business grew, we gained greater security,” Lulua said. “We were able to send our children to school, pay hospital fees and build our homes.”

Empowered through these economic ventures, women in Konde have gained greater self-confidence to start new businesses and to demand their rights at home and in the community.

“I can stand up for myself now,” Lulua said proudly. “And I have respect at home and in my community.”

Today, Lulua’s business produces more than 700 bars a day of clove, sandalwood and eucalyptus soap. She has expanded the consumer base, shipping to buyers across Pemba, Unguja and even markets in Burundi and Nairobi. “We are only getting stronger,” she said confidently. She plans to invest more VSLA money to buy machines that can produce travel-size soaps for hotels.

Industrious producers like Lulua and Hamisi are using the skills they received to transform Zanzibar’s natural wealth and local labor to provide opportunities for women, empower communities and connect them with developing national and international markets. These distinctly local soaps have been modernized for wider consumer appeal in value chains envisioned and built by these endeavoring producers.

“We will only go forward from here,” Lulua said with a determined smile. “Our eyes have been opened.”


Before and after: Pre-processed soap is piled beside packaged and market-ready