Farmer-to-Farmer volunteer program teaches marketable skills to women in southeast Asia.
As Farmer-to-Farmer volunteers, Marie Laurent, a colleague, and I spent more than two weeks in Myanmar providing training on soap making to about 58 members of the Shwe Inn Thu Women’s Self Help Group. This self-help group is an organization based out of the cities of Nyaung Shwe and Pauk Par Tung located within the Shan State. Our activities on soap making included demonstrations and safety training, use of agro-products in the soaps, multiple hands-on trainings, enterprise budgeting and marketing for disadvantaged women. Both volunteers and trainees identified and utilized locally available agro-products (vegetables, produce, etc.) as value-added ingredients in the soap production.
Cold-process soap making is a fairly common artisan skill practiced around the world. Ingredients included food-grade oils, sodium hydroxide (as an emulsifier) and the artisan’s choice of ingredients from fragrances, exfoliates, skin enhancers, fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Laurent provided the first demonstration on soap making and, over the next few days, the group did three hands-on practicums utilizing such additives as Thanaka powder, aloe vera gel, mint, cucumber, tomato, rose petals, dragon fruit, moringa leaf, avocado, and on and on. The group became very enthusiastic as they realized there were all kinds of potential additives and how easy soap making can be.
We spent our second week providing training on soap making and skin-care products to about 24 members of the Shwe Inn Thu Women’s Self Help Group in the village of Pauk Par Taung and included four surrounding villages on the southern end of Inlay Lake. The second week’s training activities were a replication of the previous week’s training and hands-on practicum for disadvantaged women.
Training in the village of Pauk Par Taung was very unique as the entire village lives and works in structures (houses, businesses and restaurants) built above the water of Inlay Lake. It is more than just a sleepy fishing village as many of the people raise vegetables on floating gardens and farm plots, and export the vegetables to nearby cities. Textile production (silk and cotton) is also prevalent in Pauk Par Taung. And year-round tourism is very beneficial for this area, making for an ideal situation for production and sale of hand-crafted soaps and other skin care products.
This group was exceptionally enthusiastic when it came to identifying and utilizing locally available agro-products (seaweed, coconut, lotus silk, tomato, cucumber, water hyacinth and other aquatic flowers, herbs, etc.) as value-added ingredients in the soap production. They quickly caught on to identifying potential marketing situations applicable to their area.
Day seven, the final day, of training, we returned to Nyaung Shwe where both groups merged to learn about packaging and displays to enhance product marketability. Each of the 28 people was given the opportunity to wrap and showcase their soaps and their creativity showed.
I learned a whole lot about using botanicals in soap making. This was my third volunteer trip to Myanmar and each one has been a great learning and cultural experience. What made this one special is the fact that Laurent is originally from Haiti and we had never met before.
Robert Spencer is an Urban Regional Extension Specialist with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.