Raising money and hygiene standards

Women in one of the poorest areas of Mali’s capital, Bamako, have found a way to tackle hygiene issues and earn money at the same time – by making soap.

The sprawling slum area of Nafadji- on the capital’s outskirts- is largely agricultural but has been increasingly taken over by urban growth, exacerbating its social and economic problems, according to local NGOs. School attendance is low and unemployment high. The closest health centre is 3km away.

“Hygiene standards in the Nafadji area of town were very very low, due to lack of infrastructure and because of ignorance,” Djibril Coulibaly, hygiene coordinator of Malian non-profit JIGI, told IRIN. “We carried out research that showed contaminated water and a lack of water were causing disease, but also that behaviours surrounding hand washing had an impact.”

JIGI (hope in the local language Bambara) has been collaborating with the international charity, WaterAid, for the last eight years to build public faucets and install household latrines in Nafadji.

Out of reach

But when JIGI began its hygiene education programme focused on hand washing at critical times – such as before preparing or eating food - educators hit barriers.

“People told us that they could not afford industrial soap, it was too expensive at 300 CFA [57 US cents].” Coulibaly added. “So we decided to work with a women’s group to look at the problem, as women are the key players when it comes to water use.”

Women are the main users of water in Africa, for washing, cooking, cleaning and also in subsistence agriculture, according to the Dutch-based non-profit, Gender and Water Alliance (GWA).

JIGI and WaterAid supported the Nfadji Women’s Association (AFSAN), a group of some 20 neighbourhood women, to set up a soap-making business in 2003. The women mix shea butter, starch, caustic soda, washing powder and perfume into soap balls sold at less than 25 cents each.

“We gathered the women to learn how to make soap,” AFSAN member Adama Djiguiba told IRIN. “Now everyone can afford it and uses it to wash their hands. But it has also become an income-generating project.”

The number of soap pieces made per week has risen from 150 to 225, and demand is increasing, which has prompted plans to expand the business, said Coulibaly.

Traditional beliefs

Soap makers told IRIN long-held traditional beliefs discouraged individual hand washing.

“In my area if you wash your hands there is a belief that you will become poor,” said AFSAN member Fatoumata Haidara. “Even intellectual people would not wash their hands.”

Member Djiguiba added: “Many people also believe they have to wash their hands together to maintain family bonds. Also, there is considerable respect for old people - the old person washes their hands and then, when the young person washes in the same water, they will become wise. Sometimes people will even give sick children water washed in by old people to cure them.”

Many of these beliefs have now been dissipated, according to JIGI’s Coulibaly. “We run weekly awareness meetings and we take the message into the community school here that washing your hands with soap can reduce illness. Also, JIGI’s staff live among the people. They see us washing and that we are fine.”


For the women, the soap offers more than just income and hygiene. “It is a good thing to promote empowerment of women,” AFSAN’s Haidara said. “Women are considered just as child-bearing people. They do not have control of their resources and are among the poorest. [But] Nafadji is now an example of women’s development.”