Story and photos by Ray Mwareya
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. And once you hear her story, it’s easy to see why she might be happy.
Despite being a trained chemical engineer, Rudo struggled for years to use her skills. “I have never got 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 part of Zimbabwe’s so-called “wasted golden generation” — 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.
In 2016, Rudo became so desperate that she decided to convert her spare room to 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 belief,” she laughs. “My first product was a horrible failure. The soap came out appearing like a messy porridge. But I persevered.”
In March 2016, a chance encounter with USAID changed everything.
“While strolling I discovered 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 $300 savings into her new business. “Loans, borrowings, even pocket money. Everything was thrown into the adventure.”
But the initial reaction of her community to her soap was dismal, she says. “Shop owners didn’t trust us. They preferred to stock soap from Dubai, South Africa or India. We shun locally manufactured products as Zimbabweans. 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. “From our course, I obeyed the advice to invest in proper marketing. I sent foot soldiers, our marketing team that showed 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 also stopped making detergents and concentrated 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.
“This is geared towards the hygiene needs of poor communities,” she says. “Our prices are more competitive than foreign soaps lumped into Zimbabwe’s economy.”
“Yesterday,” she says before pausing, “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, her 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.”
She’s also taken steps to modernize her operations, like renting a bowl mixer to help her team produce soap faster. She’d love to buy the mixers outright, but since they sell at $3,000 each in Zimbabwe, renting is the only option for the moment.
But her scientific background is apparent in her zeal when discussing her soaps’ formula: “No one has given me technical advice in making soap,” she says. “I experiment this or that ratio with oil or emulsifiers until everything settles. Great businesses are born of chaotic experiments.”