Roskovec is a small town in rural south-central Albania whose beauty belies the daily economic hardships that many families face.
Ela lives with her husband and two children in a one bedroom house. The family receives a small disability stipend of US$97 per month because Ela’s husband, Engjell, is blind. They supplement their income by selling produce that they cultivate in their small garden.
It is a precarious existence; and one shared by many in their community.
Recently Ela heard about a course where she could train to make artisanal soap out of olive oil. She applied and was among the 20 women accepted.
Guided by two chemists, the women began by studying the theory of soap making. At first Ela found it difficult.
The soap contains olive oil, water and sodium, as well as essential oils. And Ela worked for six months to figure out to combine them in the right quantities. “I thought I would never learn how to do this,” she says. “Finally, I did. Now I think it is quite easy.”
The training centre quickly became a new home for her.
“I could not wait to go there every single day. There I had a chance to speak to other women who shared similar concerns about life, survival, and non-existent economic opportunities for women like us. This opportunity seemed like a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.
Roskovec faces severe socio-economic hardships and has a high unemployment rate. But it also has plenty of olive trees — around 500,000 among a population of nearly 22,000 — and most families have them growing in their yards.
It’s this valuable resource that UNDP in the framework of the Regional Local Democracy Programme in the Western Balkans, (ReLOaD) is working to capitalize on.
Funded by the European Union, the programme is part of a larger initiative in 12 municipalities, which aims to enhance partnership between municipalities and civil society, to offer better services and to strengthen local democracy.
The NGO Social Development Investment (SDI), was selected to implement the project, ‘Organic Soap of Roskovec’.
“We were inspired by successful stories and experiences from projects in the Middle East that produce soaps from olive oil,” says Executive Director, Elie Mazloum.
Careful thought was given to branding and packaging. SDI worked with the municipality of Roskovec and a graphic design studio to develop an authentic brand. It bears the image of a girl carrying an olive oil jar, which is a symbol of the town. The eco-friendly packaging uses recycled paper, and the soap is produced, stamped, and packaged in different shapes.
A marketing and sales group was created to promote the soap, and SDI is testing customer reactions in the capital, Tirana and other cities. First orders have started coming in from around the country, much to the delight of the trainees.
“My family did not believe I could really produce soap until they saw it. I think this has also strengthened my position in the family,” Ela says with tears in her eyes.
Her story is not unique. All 20 women have coped with difficult lives, which have, up until now, been lacking in opportunities to develop a career or provide for their families.
Filled with new confidence, the women of Rroskovec now feel empowered. They want to transform the project into a business owned by all its members, including farmers, soap producers and the marketing team.
Meanwhile, word of their successful enterprise has spread. Other women in the area have heard about the initiative and want to join.
“After the birth of my children, I feel this has been the most beautiful happening in my life. I do not feel as hopeless as before. Now my dream is taking shape,” Ela says.
Photos by UNDP Albania. Photo editing by Rico Cruz, photography intern at UNDP New York.