Why soap is a recipe for health and controlling Covid-19

Concern has helped to protect the 18-year-old community well in Agaye, ensuring a clean water source for the 3,500 inhabitants. Photo: Darren Vaughan
Concern has helped to protect the 18-year-old community well in Agaye, ensuring a clean water source for the 3,500 inhabitants. Photo: Darren Vaughan

Grandmother-of-six Diaba Idrissa passes around an enamel basin full of smooth and fragrant bars of soap that she and her six friends have made. They are immeasurably proud of their handiwork. But, for this group of women living in a remote, sun-baked village in south west Niger, this soap is more than just a luxury. It is helping to transform their community.

Handwashing with soap and water is advice that we have heard repeatedly over the past few months, as we learn to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hygiene experts say that washing our hands with soap can help prevent the spread of many illnesses, including coronavirus - and is key to controlling the pandemic.

But the message is not a new one – it’s been part of the regular hygiene promotion work that Concern has been doing for decades in places like Niger, through our integrated water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programmes.

Diaba shows off some of the 600 bars of soap she and other women have made in the past three months. Photo: Darren Vaughan
Diaba shows off some of the 600 bars of soap she and other women have made in the past three months. Photo: Darren Vaughan

In Agaye village in Tahoua, Diaba and her friends busily produce about 50 bars of soap each week – carefully combining ingredients and pouring the mixture into embossed moulds. Their recipe includes the natural oil of the local spindly-leaf neem tree - highly regarded across West Africa for its properties to repel insects and treat skin diseases.

The soap-making initiative is one that was encouraged by Concern – to provide a sustainable income for the women, and to help drive down sickness levels and improve the health of the 3,500 inhabitants of Agaye.

Women from the village of Agaye who have made 600 bars of soap in the past three months to help improve hygiene in the community.  Photo: Darren Vaughan
Women from the village of Agaye who have made 600 bars of soap in the past three months to help improve hygiene in the community. Photo: Darren Vaughan

Reducing the spread

Hand washing with soap is life saving. Studies show that washing hands with soap and water before eating or feeding and after going to the toilet can reduce stomach-related illnesses by half and respiratory illnesses, such as the common cold and flu, by a third. Hand washing can also protect us from life-threatening diseases like cholera and pneumonia, and, we now know, is crucial in the fight against the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

Yet, for many vulnerable communities around the world, the basics of a bar of soap and water are not within easy reach. A joint report published this month by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and UNICEF estimates that as many as three billion people do not have soap and water at home, 900 million children have no access to these essentials at school, and 40 per cent of healthcare facilities are not equipped to practice hand washing properly.

Benefits of handwashing with soap and water infographic.
Benefits of handwashing with soap and water infographic.

Part of a wider health initiative

However, when soap and water are readily available, hand hygiene can prove to be highly effective, as it has been in Diaba’s village, where the practice is part of a much wider health-improvement programme supported by Concern.

Today, the 18-year-old community well has a new concrete floor and is enclosed by a wall and gate, preventing goats that roam freely through the village, from contaminating the precious water source. Diaba, who is a member of the local water management committee, is in charge of rigorously maintaining the enclosure – handing out fines to anyone who sets foot inside the boundary without removing their sandals or shoes.

The committee also promotes plastic teapot tippy taps - simple devices operated by a foot lever allowing you to wash your hands hygienically; household latrines to improve sanitation; and a weekly village tidy-up.

Zakary Yaou is head of the village water management committee in Agaye. He encourages villagers to wash their hands using soap and a tippy tap. Photographer: Darren Vaughan
Zakary is head of the village water management committee in Agaye. He encourages villagers to wash their hands using soap and a tippy tap. Photo: Darren Vaughan
Diaba shows off some of the 600 bars of soap she and other women have made in the past three months. Photo: Darren Vaughan
Diaba shows off some of the 600 bars of soap she and other women have made in the past three months. Photo: Darren Vaughan

‘Now it’s extremely rare that children die’

The combined changes in infrastructure and behaviour have made a noticeable difference in Agaye. “Before, some children died from waterborne diseases, and we had many cases of diarrhoea and vomiting,” Diaba said. “But now, it’s extremely rare. It’s a very good project and means progress for our village.”

It is a significant achievement in such a difficult environment where just 13 percent of Niger’s rural population has access to adequate sanitation. When it comes to clean water, only half of all rural communities have clean water.

A recipe to control Covid-19

Despite the challenges, the people of Agaye demonstrate that, with support, communities can be transformed and enabled to improve their environment, stay healthy and stop illnesses spreading.

Now more than ever, the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the need to prioritise the promotion of good hygiene for the most vulnerable and increase efforts around the world to control the spread of illnesses by providing the same hand washing essentials that have benefited Diaba and her community - life-saving soap and water.

How Concern is responding to Covid-19

  • In Liberia, we are continuing to rehabilitate wells

  • In Iraq, we are distributing soap, detergent and hygiene kits to almost 85,000 displaced people in camps, and providing clean water and sanitation support

  • In Sierra Leone, we have installed 1,000 hand washing stations with soap and clean water in 50 locations

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