Viengphila “La” Vaiyakone worked as Production Director for Abundant Water supervising and directing a Lao staff to make water filters from locally sourced materials consisting of pottery clay, charred rice husk and coffee grinds. During her tenure from June 2012 until December 2013, she was responsible for the manufacture and distribution of water filters to remote rural villages in Lao whose capacity to deliver clean water exceeded 7,000,000 liters of clean water annually… year after year after year.
During a meeting with one of the INGO donors, it was suddenly realized that even though the filters were capturing the deadly bacteria from water that was collected from polluted sources, it was being put into dirty cups and glasses before being consumed by the family members. The problem was not that the families were not attempting to clean the vessels but that they didn’t have access to healthy affordable soap in their villages. La began researching soapmaking methods and developed recipes and techniques that could be used in the most remote villages in Lao without electricity. She simplified both the list of ingredients and also the equipment needed to conform to what could be gathered locally in all of the different areas of Lao. The oils used in her research were obtained by extraction using “local village knowledge” from pig fat, freshly harvested coconuts and the fish scraps available from the markets or even the family’s own catch. She also experimented with various mold materials including wood, bamboo and recycled water bottles and juice boxes. She left Abundant Water in January 2014 and founded Soap4Life to provide a solution to the re-contamination of clean water within 18” of the consumers’ mouths’.
La began distributing her handmade soap made from natural and organic ingredients as funds were available. After becoming certified in Basic Hygiene and Sanitation by C.A.W.S.T., she met with several INGOs and contracted with them to present hygiene and soapmaking workshops in their targeted villages in Xieng Khouang Province, Nonghet District. She used the money she earned to purchase more soapmaking materials and supplies to continue making and distributing free soap to more and more villages and charitable organizations. During the first 24 months, Soap4Life made and distributed more than 20,000 bars of soap.
After realizing that there were more villages in need of soap than she could afford to make, she began training the women from these villages to make and sell their own soap products consisting of bar soap, powdered washing soap and liquid soap. By taking her knowledge to the villages and specifically by selecting the best women candidates, she helped the village women create their own sustainable businesses. These businesses have created income for the soapmakers family resulting in better nutritional meals, more money to pay for their children’s educational needs and began the women on their path to empowerment. As the women continue to make and sell soap, the money earned will provide a financial security for them as their only other source of income is seasonally produced agricultural products… mainly rice.
With the help of her personal funds and donations from “grass roots donors”, La created and furnished a training facility in Vientiane to accommodate her training classes. She now trains as many as 16 women in each class providing soapmaking recipes, safety, production technique, basic training in business and sales and proper handwashing. Upon completion of the training, the graduates return to their home villages equipped with all of the necessary supplies and equipment to begin their own family soapmaking business which Soap4Life purchases with donations from its supporters. This concept has proven to be very successful. When the candidates are selected by La during her village visits, they commit to paying their own transportation both to and from the training. This investment on the candidate’s part helps insure that they will continue to make and sell their products rather than creating a “welfare system” that does not produce the same results. It also raises the women to a higher social level among their village peers because they have invested in their own vocational training and can now proudly display their certificate of completion in their home or shop. As they develop their voice in the market place, they also develop the ability to speak at village committee meetings and become a part of the village planning to improve the standard of living for all of the families… or more simply put… the women have begun the journey on the path to empowerment.