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Rudo Mazhande, a trailblazer in Zimbabwe’s soap-making industry

Despite being a trained chemical engineer, Rudo Mazhande struggled for years to use her skills. Now her soap-making business is creating jobs and serving the needs of her community and beyond.

Rudo Mazhande, 32, stands smiling in a warehouse among several hundred huge bars of green soap. A crisp, clean scent wafts through the air. This is Rudo’s factory, where she now employs seven people. Once you hear her story, it is easy to see why she is happy.

Despite being a trained chemical engineer, Rudo struggled for years to use her skills. “I have never had a job in my field,” she says. “Because of limited choices, I ended up becoming a high-school teacher. I quit in less than a year. I felt my skills were lost there.”

Rudo is one of Zimbabwe’s so-called “wasted golden generation”. These are highly educated young women and men who find it difficult to get jobs in an economy where the unemployment rate is 90 percent, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions.

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In 2016, Rudo became so desperate that she decided to convert her spare room and begin making detergents, polish and soap. For a young woman living in Highfields, one of the poorest townships in Harare, it was a brave move.

“That a jobless woman could manufacture soap in a township bedroom – it was a trial-and-error act of faith,” she laughs. “My first product was a horrible failure. The soap came out like a messy porridge. But I persevered.”

In March 2016, a chance encounter with USAID changed everything.

“One day, while I was out for a stroll, I spotted a poster stuck on a tree,” she says. “It invited young entrepreneurs to attend free finance management skills training.”

USAID Zimbabwe was funding the course through its partnership with Junior Achievement Zimbabwe, a forum for youth business growth aggregators.

“It was the spark I needed,” says Rudo. The training gave Rudo the confidence to invest her savings – US$300 – in her new business. “Loans, borrowings, even pocket money – I threw everything I could get into the adventure.”

Slow start

Her community’s initial reaction to her soap was dismal, Rudo says. “Shop owners did not trust us. They preferred to stock soap from Dubai, South Africa or India. We Zimbabweans shun locally manufactured products. You have to explain to people why you are making soap from your family home and why your product has a poor township address. It is sad.”

“That is when the USAID training made a difference,” she says. “On the course, we were given the advice to invest in proper marketing. I sent out foot soldiers – our marketing team – to show samples of our soap to hotels, restaurants and schools.”

The response has been overwhelming and, in June 2016, Rudo was able to move her business to a proper industrial workshop. She has since stopped making detergents and concentrated on soap due to the amount of competition. Instead, her main product is a 750-gram laundry soap bar that sells for 50 cents, as well as a smaller bar for 40 cents.

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“This is geared towards the hygiene needs of poor communities,” Rudo says. “Our prices are more competitive than foreign soaps lumped into Zimbabwe’s economy.”

“Yesterday, I sold two tons of soap.” She whistles with joy: “It was massive — two tons gone in a day! The demand and market for soap is mightier than what we can produce.”

With her new factory, Rudo’s finances have improved, too. “My income has shot up,” she says. “I now have seven employees, all hailing from Highfields township. It is my way of giving back.”

Rudo has also taken steps to modernise her operation, like renting a bowl mixer to help her team produce soap faster. She would love to buy the mixers outright, but since they sell at US$3 000 each in Zimbabwe, renting is the only option for the moment.

Rudo’s scientific background becomes apparent in the enthusiasm with which she discusses her soap formula: “No one has given me technical advice on making soap,” she says. “I experiment, trying this or that ratio with oil or emulsifiers, until everything settles. Great businesses are born of chaotic experiments.”

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