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'Made in Palestine' - helping a small women's group export soap to the world

Posted by Alun McDonald Media and Communications Coordinator for OPTI

21st Jan 2014

Six years ago, a small women's co-operative from the West Bank started growing vegetables to sell at the local market. Now, with a little help from Oxfam, they are exporting soap around the world. 

Khital Suleiman enters the room in a whirlwind of energy. Arriving breathless on a mobile phone, she's just been negotiating a new deal to export soap made by Palestinian women to Canada. As the director and founder member of the Beita Women's Cooperative, she's steered the group's growth from a small local shop to an ambitious global exporter.

The journey began six years ago, when a group of women from the West Bank town of Beita started growing vegetables for the local market. Last year they linked up with Oxfam's "From Grove to Market" project, which equipped them with a machine to make soap from olive oil, gave them training in marketing and financial management, and introduced them to potential buyers.  

Oxfam helped start them off, but Khital and the rest of the group have run with the idea. "We decided to add fragrance to the soap, which was new to the area and very popular with customers. Traditionally, the soap here is just plain," she says. Today lavender, honey and lemon-scented soap bars are stacked high in the cooperative's new office. "It's a traditional product, with new twists."

After some networking, a local businessman offered to export samples of their soap to Germany, Canada and Dubai. Khital seized the opportunity and signed a contract to deliver 6,000 bars of soap. She quickly realized the first challenge - the group's basic soap cutting equipment could produce a maximum of 200 bars a day, and there seemed no way to meet the exporter's deadline.

Khital searched the internet for ideas and found a new design of cutter that could triple their output - but they couldn't afford to buy it. Instead the women made their own homemade version from wood and the keys of the oud, a traditional Palestinian instrument. The keys can be tightened when they need to cut tougher material. With the innovative new cutter, they produce 3,000 bars in just five days.

Several satisfied customers later, the cooperative is now negotiating a contract for 70,000 bars - their biggest order yet. "We're getting so much interest from all over the world," says Khital.

More than just profit - empowering women

For Khital, a mother of five who was married at 15 and dropped out of school, the women-only cooperative represents more than just profits.

"It's unusual for women to have their own businesses, doing it on our own without the help of men. Before, women even had to get permission from their husbands to travel. My husband was sceptical at first - his friends thought we'd soon get tired of it. Then he came to the workshops with us, and saw the money we brought in to the family. Now we have more independence and respect, more confidence. We make decisions in our homes, and our children know that the role of a mother is more than just cooking and cleaning." Khital has invested some of her profits from the cooperative in going back to college to finish her high school certificate and diploma.

Today the cooperative has over 30 members and the profits are divided equally between them - with a portion kept back for future investments and to support local projects such as schools and health centres that benefit the women's wider community.

The rapid growth is an incredible achievement in such a short space of time. Yet, like all good businesswomen, Khital is far from satisfied. She rattles off ideas for the future: "I want to invest in electric cutters that will further increase productivity. We've started a facebook page to help us reach new markets, and a Libyan investor wants us to produce liquid soap." She pauses for the first time this morning. "In five years I want us to own the first major soap factory run entirely by Palestinian women."

Blog post written by Alun McDonald

Media and Communications Coordinator for OPTI

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