By Larry Plesent
If you do something long enough you’re bound to get good at it. Such is the case with soap making, and after 20 years in the business, I am now able to volunteer occasionally, teaching scientific soap making techniques and related technologies in developing countries.
In Liberia, they make a kind of quick market soap called Iron Soap or Rock Soap for laundry, dishes, bathing and sometimes for hair. Rock Soap filled the niche left by the decimation of war, but it is a barely usable product, highly caustic. It quickly wears out your clothes and has been known to cause rashes (caustic burns lasting for days). People were missing work because of this soap. Carefully packing my superhero cape and malaria meds, the fearless Soapman set out across the broad Atlantic Ocean to be a good ambassador for us all, do a little good for people we do not know, and to have an adventure.Monrovia, Liberia is on the ocean and as the weather in Vermont freakishly hovered in the mid 80’s in mid-March, I was in tropical coastal weather, low 90’s and high humidity. At one point I was the only guest in the hotel and the staff and huge extended family kind of adopted me. I ate a lot of fish, chicken, rice and vegetables – lost weight and got tan. I met a lot of good people including 47 hardworking soap makers who took the training.
You had to already be in the business to qualify for this training. It’s hard enough as is: “An acid is like a man – potent and full of energy which he wants to give away (oils). A base is like a woman – equally as passionate but wants to pull, pull him in (caustic solution). They come together and form something new and strong – a family, with characteristics of both parents, yet different and unique (soap).
Soap, like bread is made from only a few ingredients: in this case oils (different oils different soap), caustic (different caustic makes different soap), and water (ditto). We used palm kernel oil which made the bars set up really fast and hard, minimizing the curing time for the soap.
Soap is a crystal (acid + base = a salt/crystal). The longer time you take letting the soap set up the better crystal formations you will have, and the better the resulting soap product will be. The Iron Soap set up so fast we recorded temperatures of 119ºF inside the hand rolled balls! With two days of bookwork under our belts the class was ready for the challenge. On their own they changed the caustic solution and the order in which the ingredients were added. These two changes made a huge difference in the resulting product. There were big smiles as some of the young men tested the soap on their laundry. It was a huge success and worked very well without skin irritation.
Next, we experimented with improving the box soap – a higher grade locally made product That is cast into plastic lined drawers, cut into bricks and cured for one to two weeks before being cut into bars and stamped. We experimented with new formulas and used scent we made with our essential oil still. (Previously, anything that had aroma was used to scent the soap including bleach, mothballs and embalming fluid).
Towards the end of the training my interpreter Senkro said to me: “They were initially hoping you would bring them a new formula, or perhaps a chemical that would make the soap whiter. (we joked about the white soap thing because they also dyed their soap). But instead, you taught them what they were doing; what was really going on inside. But more importantly you taught them to look around and use what they have, instead of buying expensive imported items. To take the scent from the leaves and flowers and even to make their own caustic. And now that they understand, they can make their own experiments and learn to make anything. They are all very happy.”
I was sent to Liberia from a SHOPS grant, Small Holder Oil Palm producers through the Farmer to Farmer program – a good way to volunteer your expertise (including renewable energy and farming expertise) for about two weeks overseas per assignment. I worked through Winrock International www.winrockint.org which holds a registry of volunteer experts, and the money flows through USAID and your tax dollars at work, and much appreciated around the world.