Refugee soap-makers lead cooperative in Burundi

21 February 2022

refugee soap-makers in burundi
After completing an intense training, twenty-three Congolese refugees and three Burundians opened a soap-making cooperative in Kinama refugee camp.

“That is the big challenge in the refugee camp: we want to work, but we do not have jobs.”

Aseli Isembe arrived in Burundi in 2012 after fleeing violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Once he completed his studies, he struggled to find a job. Then, he saw an advertisement for a soap-making course promoted by JRS and Entreculturas and decided to apply.

“What motivated me was to know how to make soaps and sell soaps, to see whether I can have money and engage myself in life,” he explains. The intense training included theoretical and practical lessons, an internship opportunity, and managerial training.

Upon completion of the programme, Aseli, together with twenty-two other Congolese refugees and three Burundians, became part of a soap-making cooperative. The former students capitalised on the initial resources they had received and grew in confidence: “I feel very proud of being a soap-maker because soap is necessary.”

The cooperative not only created job opportunities, but also helped preventing the spread of COVID-19 by producing and distributing soap in the area. In the first year of production, they made over 30.000 bars of soap. “Our vision is to expand our factory and have a big market to make more profit, we even want some funding, support, in order to have a good future life and be big entrepreneurs,” tells Aseli.

Fedha Pendege also trained in soap-making and is now a member of the cooperative. A Congolese refugee herself, she had struggled to provide for her husband and two daughters: “[Before I did] nothing because there was nothing to do, all the time I was home, jobless, just waiting for aid distribution.”

Fedha, too, welcomed the opportunity to learn a skill that would help her find a job: “If I work, it will help in my life, it will help all of us.”

For Fedha, working as a collective is key: “We work together because the work of a single [person] is just impossible, we work in a big number for the work to go on and go fast.”

To make the soap, she explains, “we start by taking a barrel and put caustic acid in it.”

“We measure a quantity of water and we put it in [the barrel]. We start mixing them until they heat up.”

refugee soap-makers in burundi

Once the right temperature is reached, palm oil and flour are added. The mixture is left to cook for 45 minutes and then taken out to cool. After a couple of days, the soap pieces are ready to be cut and sold.

In the future, Fedha plans to train other women, “so they may progress as I do” and eventually open her own shop. She has no doubts: “[soap-making] will take me far, help me in life.”

All over the world, displaced people have a lot to offer to host communities, yet they rarely get the opportunity to flourish. Through vocational training and livelihood programmes jobs can be created and refugee and host communities can learn to work and prosper together.


The soap-making projects in Burundi were made possible by our partnership with Entreculturas.