Sunday, December 7, 2008

Calling All Soapmakers!

As a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Mali, I am doing my part to improve water sanitation on the village level. Due to the utter lack of infrastructure, the vast majority of Malians have nothing to wash with other than well water often contaminated with giardia, amoebas and other parasites transmitted via the fecal-oral cycle. This is among the reasons– and without a doubt the most easily preventable one – why juvenile diarrhea is endemic and 25 percent of all children in Mali die before age five. It is also the reason why I would like to enlist American pharmaceutical companies such as Unilever, Colgate-Palmolive, Jergens, Proctor & Gamble or Estée Lauder to help fund the construction of hand-washing stations at Mali’s public schools.

Here in Mali the most widely-practiced sanitary practice is that people wipe with their left hand and eat with the right. After going to the latrine and before eating people will rinse their hands with tin can full of water, but when one has fecal germs on their left hand and they just get it wet and mush it around with their right hand, and then they pass the can of now-filthy water to the next person to “wash” their hands, it kind of defeats the whole purpose. Add the fact that Malians eat with their right hands from a communal food bowl, and it is not very difficult to understand why giardia, amoebas, cholera and dysentery are so widely transmitted.

The most feasible, cost-effective means for Malians to mitigate disease transmission and improve health conditions is something quite simple: washing one’s hands with soap. It doesn’t sound very profound, but the Malian Ministry of Health has invested a good deal of its resources organizing adult education programs and broadcasting public service announcements to persuade her citizens to undertake this basic hygiene practice. It should be any easy task. Soap is cheap and readily available; most Malian women are in some way, shape or form involved in the collection of shea nuts or the cooking of shea nut butter which is used to make soap.

Malians use soap made from their shea nuts to wash clothes and dishes, but oddly enough very few people use it to wash their hands. Animist beliefs shared by many Muslims and Christians extol the benefits of washing one’s hands with only water to protect against malevolent spirits, and many people believe that using soap would render them vulnerable to sorcerers’ evil spells

Though a number of Malians are trying to do away with these superstitions and espouse modern sanitary measures. Karitie Sanogo teaches his first-grade students how to conduct basic hygiene practices like washing their hands. To Westerners this might sound like condescension, but when most adults believe in the black magical qualities of soap the fact is that the only way majority of Malian children will ever be taught to protect themselves from fecal-oral diseases is through the public school system. Sanogo explains that he tries in earnest to teach his first-grade students the virtues of soap, but it is difficult to instill modern hygiene in impressionable minds when they cannot even practice their lessons into their daily routine at school.

There are brand new latrines at the elementary school, but there is no place for the students and teachers to wash their hands when they are done. So the headmaster would like to construct a hand-washing station. A hand-washing station would consist of two plastic barrels with spigots raised to a reachable height for children by a concrete structure. Most importantly, each station would be made with a soap dish so that every time a child walks from the latrines back to class they would have an obvious and unavoidable opportunity to wash their hands with soap.

The most difficult aspect of projects like this is not their construction per se, but rather their financing. If I wanted to build just one or two of these hand-washing stations, I could acquire funds from U.S. A.I.D. or the U.S. Embassy. Though what I have in mind is on a somewhat larger scale. There is a program known as the Peace Corps Partnership which allows Volunteers to work on projects financed in whole or in part by private individuals, NGOs or corporations. In this sense capitalism is not just a means unto itself but can be used as a means to humanitarian ends.

I would like to petition one of the aforementioned corporations to establish a fund for Peace Corps Volunteers to construct hand-washing stations throughout Mali, or even Africa at large. Much of this shea butter cooked from Malian harvests is consumed locally, and in recent years Western companies have begun to purchase Malian shea nut butter to manufacture gourmet soap, moisturizing cream, shampoo and conditioner. I would like to argue that those companies which earn hundreds of millions of dollars of profits selling shea butter products have an ethical obligation to invest a negligible fraction of those profits into promoting the hygiene of those populations at the bottom of their supply chain.

Even from the rational self-interest of a profit-maximizing firm investment in hand-washing stations is beneficial in that they are meant to create a whole new generation of consumers of soap. The fact that tens of millions of people in Mali and elsewhere actively refrain from washing their hands with soap should be seen as a lost consumer base which can be captured with a bit of public education and investment in simple sanitation infrastructure. Even if the company does not sell its products in Malian markets, the good publicity which such a humanitarian campaign would engender could certainly help to establish a favorable reputation among socially-conscious consumers.

This is a win-win proposal which would benefit both soap producers and the people of Mali. So please, if you happen to work for a company that makes shea butter soap, shampoo or moisturizer, or if you know anyone who does, please drop me a line. There are a number of Peace Corps Volunteers in Mali who would like to put together a joint venture.

1 comment:

George said...

It sounds like a truly wonderful idea. Sanitation, simple hand washing (and water treatment) have added years, possibly decades to life expectancies.

I'd suggest coordinating at least some of it yourself, as firsthand requests and queries usually work better. I'm very willing to help out though, with emailing and calling etc. and other work. Give me an email on george {dot} darroch {at} anu {dot} edu {dot} au if you want a hand. I'm a grad student in Australia, and I'll be able to give it reasonable attention, particularly later this year.

(sorry about the painful email format - spammers don't need help!)