Of Small Scale Bar Soap Manufacturing

So, the bar soap equipment seller, cum raw materials supplier, cum trainer (okay, let’s just call him a Bar Soap Boy - BSB) was telling me to go around hotels collecting used cooking oil and make bar soap with it.

This way, my profits would double.

“Many don’t even know where to dispose of the oil. Watakupatia bure.”

When I asked him about the quality of soap made with such oil, he said, “Unafikiri naweza kudanganya! Si niko tu hapa. Utaniambia.”

A statement with no comeback and is weirdly effective in deflecting concerns and building trust.

This was the third day of his never-ending pitch through WhatsApp. It had started when I enquired about bar soap-making equipment.

On day one, he had provided me with what seemed like a roadmap to millions.

“How many counties are there in Kenya?” he asked.

“47,” I said.

“Let’s just work with 30. If you sell 100 bars every day in 30 counties, how many bars are those?”

“100 per county?”

“You want to tell me you can go around say Kirinyaga or Kakamega and not sell 100 bars?”

“I think I can.”

“Everybody uses soap.”

“Well.”

“Did you use soap today?”

“I did.”

“So what are you telling me? Hakuna mtu hatumii sabuni.”

“Sure.”

“So, 100 bars in 30 counties is?”

“3,000 bars.”

“Let’s just work with a minimum Kshs.30 profit per bar, although it can be higher.”

“Okay.”

“So how much will you make from 3,000 bars?”

“Kshs.90,000.”

“That’s a day. What about a month?”

“Kshs.2,700,000.”

“Let’s subtract a million as distribution expenses. So how much is left?”

“Kshs.1,700,000.”

“Aren’t you a millionaire?”

Who is it that said, “Do not let facts get in the way of a good story?” At this moment, it was better to think of the millions than ask some necessary hard questions.

The next day, he sent me a link to an article by David Ndii titled “Want to be super rich? Try selling soap.” Ndii was reviewing a Rich list.

And the mention of soap was in the context: “But by far the most significant insight is how the new fortunes have been made. Without exception, they are made by selling fairly ordinary things to consumers, cooking oil, soap, financial services, cement, and even shopkeepers are in there.”

“Kama Ndii, amekubali, utakataa aje?” he texted.

Yet the reality is that bar soap making at small to medium scale is a rough wilderness.

The challenge is to make quality soap at competitive prices.

Quality means the bar can clean, smell nice, be friendly to use, last long, lather, not be sticky, and be generally a good soap.

The small manufacturer struggles to make such soap, largely due to raw material limitations, skills, and equipment. Palm oil is best for bar soaps, but the small manufacturer doesn’t have the capacity to import it. And sourcing it locally is not always smooth. Some of the importers require a minimum purchase of 20,000 liters.

And there are many tales around palm oil:

Of adulterated palm oil, which makes soap smell terrible. Of illegal oil in Mombasa “ile ya kukamuliwa kutoka kwa malori” that is cheap but you will always get arrested before you get it to your destination, and you

Of suppliers who order palm oil, almost all will fill 3/4 of the containers with tallow and only a quarter with palm oil, and claim the tallow is frozen palm oil. “The best quality freezes at room temperature.”

The tales, and others of poor equipment and skills, are countless and as tragic as they are funny.

Almost all the large soap manufacturers are involved in cooking oil refining and packaging. They get the palm oil in bulk from Asia. The palm oil and by-products of refining are used to make bar soap. And they have the capital for better professionals, equipment, heck even research and quality control labs.

So for years they made better quality soap. And most of their brands were priced relatively high. And they had a really rich time. But things gradually changed.

Soap making was democratized; information, equipment, and raw materials were available to anyone with interest. So emerged the parallel soap-making industry, if it may be called that: low-priced soaps made at home or in a “factory.” And there was a need.

The economically hit consumer was unsettled. Reluctantly paying a premium, or using the lower quality soap from the parallel industry but hoping for a better alternative. For a moment there, the parallels gained market. Never mind their quality.

So the large manufacturers, perhaps afraid of losing to the cheaper alternatives, started making low-priced quality soaps. Far, far better than the parallels. The game changed. The pressure was on for the small manufacturers.

It’s now much more difficult for small and medium soap makers to survive, let alone thrive. Many lack advantages, not price, not quality, not distribution. And in those cases where they could price lower, the consumer is more than willing to pay a slight premium for quality after previous bad experiences with smaller manufacturers.

But from the outside, it looks rosy. And big soap brands make it look so easy with their classical question “nani hatumiangi sabuni?”

So should you keep off? Not necessarily, but think of what you are getting into and be better prepared.

We scored “bar soap making targeting the low-income” with a score of 100, indicating “Limited potential. Proceed with caution.”

View the bar soap scoring and related insights here.

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