Count Ela among 20 women and girls in the little town of Rroskovec whose lives seem to have taken a turn for the better. Here is why:
Ela is a mother of two. Her husband has a difficult diagnosis — blindness.The family lives in a one-bedroom old house. Ela’s husband, Engjell receives a disability pension of only USD 97. They hardly survive by selling agricultural products which they cultivate in their little garden. Ela and her family do not only have to cope with the stubborn poverty, but also frustrations with a world that still does not seem to completely embrace those without sight.Yet, they always have a smile on their face.
One day, Ela learned of an organization accepting applications to enroll on a training course to learn how to produce artisan soap out of olive oil. Ela applied and was accepted.
“I found myself among 20 other women and girls coming from surrounding villages. At the beginning, the process seemed so complicated. I though I would never learn how to do this. First came theory and then practice. Two specialists provided the theoretical part. Two chemists led the process guiding us on the production. The soap would contain olive oil, water and sodium in addition to optional natural aromas and essential oils. We learned of the importance of the right amount of ingredients so as not to make the soap too acidic. I attended the training for 6 months. Finally I learned how to do it. Now I think it is quite easy. The training center soon became like a new home I had never known before. I could not wait to go there every single day. There I had a chance to speak to other women who shared similar concerns about life, survival and non-existing economic opportunities for women like us. This opportunity seemed like a light at the end of the tunnel”.
Roskovec is a little town with an amazing landscape but facing severe socio-economic deprivation and a high unemployment rate, especially among women and girls. The region is rich in olive orchards and most of the residents own olive trees which they use for own consumption.
In the framework of the “Regional Local Democracy Programme in the Western Balkans, (ReLOaD) funded by European Union, UNDP in partnership with the EU, is working in 12 municipalities across the country to enhance partnership between municipalities and civil society organisations to offer better services for citizens and strengthen local democracy. The programme also aims to strengthen capacities of municipality administration and civil society organizations to manage projects in line with international standards.The Programme also works to strengthen participatory democracies and the EU integration process in Albania by empowering civil society to actively take part in decision making and by stimulating an enabling legal and financial environment for civil society. Roskovec is one of the selected municipalities.
The “Social Development Investment” (SDI), an NGO specialized in rural development and women empowerment through integration in economic activities, applied for the call launched for civil society organizations in the 12 municipalities. They were selected to implement the project “Organic Soap of Roskovec”.
Elie Mazloum, the Executive Director says: ”Getting inspired by successful stories and experiences from projects in the Middle East that produce soaps from olive oil, and considering that the soap is a basic consumption product needed by people on a daily basis, we applied to ReLOaD program with the idea to create a small value chain from the olive farmers, olive oil processors, and to train a group of unemployed women and girls to produce soap from olive oil waste, and create a marketing and sales group to sell the soap”.
The Municipality of Roskovec, the project partner, also a co-financier of the intervention, made available free premises which became “the project center”. This center served for the training, soap production, packaging and product inventory and meetings with the producer’s group. Being aware that branding is a vital component of the marketing of the product, the SDI worked with the municipality of Roskovec and a graphic design studio to develop a brand consisting of authentic elements. The brand bears the image of a girl carrying an olive oil jar-the symbol of the town itself. The packaging was developed in a very eco-friendly mode, plastic-free, using a mix of recycled paper thus giving an extra artisan touch to the soap. Out of the project funds, 2000 artisan soaps are produced, stamped and packaged in different shapes.
As part of the project, a manual for marketing and sales was produced, seven women from the group were trained in Marketing techniques. SDI has started testing the customer reaction to the product by exposing samples of the product in many sales points in Tirana and other cities. The feedback is encouraging.
The soap costs around 1.5 USD. A marketing and awareness campaign on its content, health benefits remains of vital importance.
“We have some good news”- says Elie. The product is already in some shops and the first contract will be signed in May with a company that produces and sells cosmetic natural products in Fier”.
Life changing experiences
“My family did not believe, I could really produce soap until they saw it. I think this has also strengthened my position in the family”-says Ela with her eyes in tears.
The story of Ela is not unique. All 20 women have their stories to tell, stories of copying with a difficult life, lacking opportunities for women, stories of struggles and stories of hope, like this one.
Today women opt to continue this journey together. This way they feel they can benefit more, because several of them are specialized in various work processes.
Women’s group aim to transform the project into a social business owned by the members of the value chain including farmers, soap producers, and the marketing team.
Roskovec Municipality, is committed to guarantee the sustainability of the production center after the completion of this project. A memorandum of cooperation is already signed between the women producers’ group, the Municipality and a local organization. The latter will be acting as a sales entity on behalf of the producers’ group.
And to continue….
A group of 20 women in Rroskovec, once hopeless, no longer feel this way. They have acquired a skill-they know how to produce soap. They have learned how to market it, how to package it and how to sell it. They feel empowered. Other women of the areas have heard abut this and want to join.
“After the birth of my children says Ela, I feel this has been the most beautiful happening in my life. I do not feel as hopeless as before. Now my dream is taking shape”.