Black soap production: Thriving business in the midst of squalor

Inside Ife Odan black soap industry.

Production of the traditional black soap; Ose dudu, is a thriving major industry in Ife Odan community in Osun State but in spite of the brisk business and massive daily production, the people still live amidst squalor and abject poverty as retailers and middlemen make huge profits while producers manage to make ends meet . YEJIDE GBENGA-OGUNDARE, who witnessed the various stages of production of black soap in the community reports. 


A lone fuel station that had long ceased operation and is now home to goats and other stray animals stood sentry at the entrance of the town, intimating people that they are entering a settlement, after a rather long stretch of road bordered on both sides by farmland and bushes.

The journey on motorcycle took 40 minutes as it was discovered that getting a commercial cab or bus from Iwo town is a mission that will take hours or the better part of the day, as few commercial vehicles ply the old route to Ogbomoso town now.

After passing through some villages; Obamoro, Odooran, Ikonifin, Afiku and Jagun Ode, on a fast moving bike on the very free road, just coming in contact with not up to 10 vehicles, none of which is commercial transport and about 20 bikes conveying farmers to their plantation, one stumbles suddenly on the town.

Welcome to Ife Odan village in Ejigbo Local Government area of Osun State; the historic home of traditional black soap. This community, which is divided in the middle by the Ogbomoso road, is not known for any other craft aside the production of the local black soap in huge quantity, though it has nothing physical to show for its exploit in soap making in terms of infrastructure or basic amenities.

Soap production is a hereditary craft in Ife Odan and it is a craft that dates back to time immemorial as the oldest people in the community according to the history of the land also met the craft in existence and had maintained the age- long craft through the decades.

A soap maker about to remove already formed soap from the fire, left and Iya Oyo stirring soap to mould it together.
A soap maker about to remove already formed soap from the fire, left and Iya Oyo stirring soap to mould it together.

The whole community is a collection of dilapidated shacks, collapsing mud structures and outdated brick buildings with wooden windows and corrugated roofing sheets while virtually every household has a number of blackened drums and huge fire places in front, signifying the production of local soap.

The entire town is pervaded by an aura of lack and living below average; the only lively spots are the various soap making sites that can be found in almost every household in the community, here, there are myriad of activities going on simultaneously and people of varying ages, both male and female were seen sweating beside hot drums and stirring soap on fire.

The origin of the black soap, popularly called ose dudu or abuwe, was traced to the Yoruba people of South West Nigeria but the soap has received widespread use in other West African countries especially Ghana, where it was introduced by Yoruba women who went to trade in pepper and now, Ghana also produces the ose dudu which they call Alata Samina; alata meaning pepper seller and samina meaning soap, in honour of the Yoruba pepper sellers that took the soap to the gold coast.

The ose dudu varies in colour, from deep jet black to light brown depending on the ingredients used in making the soap. This however does not affect the quality or reduce its acclaimed anti bacterial and anti fungal powers. What causes the difference according to Mrs. Sabaina Adepoju, is the kind of palm kernel oil which is called yanko that is used. If the yanko is allowed to fry till its black, then the soap will be black.

“There isn’t much difference in the soap; it still performs the same functions. The only difference is that when we want it to be black, we leave the yanko on fire until it burns completely and turns black before we start adding the other things. But the brown one is neater; people use both irrespective of the colour and get the same results.

“The yanko for black soap cannot be extracted by machine; it must be done locally to make it black. People don’t discriminate between the brown or white soap; the only people that ask for the black one are those that use it for traditional medicine, religious purposes or baths. They believe it must be black for it to be efficient, so they ask for black soap but really in normal use, there isn’t any difference. In fact, the brown one is neater,” Mrs. Adepoju stated.

Ingredients used for black soap production are basic; shea butter, red palm oil, coconut oil, roasted plantain skins and roasted cocoa pods. Some people add other materials like Agoa bark, oils and scents but these are not basics and can be left out. In Ife Odan, the basic material used is palm kernel oil (yanko) and ash from roasted cocoa pods (eru igba koko). Also, the soaps come out darker when roasted plantain skin is used in lieu of cocoa pods.

The traditional process of making black soap is a tedious one that needs excessive energy and engages the muscles. The base oil is extracted from palm kernel chaff by hard pressing while the ash is made by burning cocoa pods and plantain skins. The resulting ash solution and the palm oil are mixed and cooked in water and semi-liquid hot soap is then scooped off from the pot and placed on a hard surface to cool and harden.

In simple steps, ash is prepared from plant waste like burning cocoa husks, banana steam and leaves, palm bunches e.t.c, after this, potash is leached from ash using hot water. The ash is then boiled while the oil is added gradually to break up the foam it produces while boiling and rigorous stirring is required until a thick jelly-like substance is formed. This is scooped and left on a surface to cool and harden

The life of a black soap producer is not an easy one as the process is not only cumbersome and energy sapping but also time consuming. For the Ife Odan producers, the effort put in is not commensurate to what they make, as despite the huge quantity of soap they produce, what they make is only to keep hunger at bay and just manage life.

A black soap maker, who identified herself as Iya Oyo but claimed to have been born and bred in Ife Odan, stated that soap making is a craft she inherited from her mother. She explained that it is hard work and only gives money for daily living, adding that in this age, you cannot boast of getting what you really want from the proceeds.

“I am Iya Oyo though this town is where I was born. This place was Oyo State before the creation of Osun State. I inherited this craft like every other person in this town; we grew up in the trade and our children are also joining us now but God should make a way for our children, this is not a trade that I want my children to continue.

“It is hard work and though we make enough to sustain our family, what we get is only sufficient for daily living. We have many people coming to buy from the cities in bulk and even those that take it outside the country in large quantities so we are always working to meet the huge demands but the effort is not commensurate to what we get,” Iya Oyo concluded.

Mrs Adepoju and her team packing soap, ready for the market, left and a soap maker putting palm kernel oil on fire to start production.
From left, Mrs Adepoju and her team packing soap, ready for the market and a soap maker putting palm kernel oil on fire to start production.

Her sentiments were echoed by Mrs. Sabaina Adepoju, who stated that though soap making could be termed as lucrative because there is always demand for their products, the reality of the economic situation demands that if one can get additional source of income, he should embrace it, adding that soap making is very tedious and leaves little chance for other things except petty trade which is why most of them also sell palm oil though they do not produce it.

A young man, Saheed Abdulkareem also told Nigerian Tribune that soap making involves a lot of trouble. Though he also inherited the trade from his mother, he started out on his own two years ago and claims he has his own client base. However, he also confirmed that the stress involved in producing the soap outweighs the income.

Nigerian Tribune discovered that the economic situation of the people remained poor because the products are bought from them at prices that are below the market rate. After dissipating their energy in production, people come from the cities to buy in bulk at extremely cheap rates. Consequently, the retailers and middlemen smile to their banks while the producers continue to languish in poverty.

Nigerian Tribune met a regular customer of the Ife Odan soap makers on ground but the man who, it was gathered, comes from the Eastern Part of the country to buy the soap was vehement about not having his name in print. Investigations however revealed that he comes to the community during the last weekend of every month and leaves with a truckload of the product.

One of the soap makers however informed Nigerian Tribune that they suspect that the man who mixes freely with them and packs the soap with them when he comes to hasten the process, uses it to produce one of the packaged black soaps being used in the city.

As the gospel of using organic products to prevent diseases and elongate life rises, so does the demand for natural products like the black soap which in recent years has become more popular because of its numerous uses and because it is now commonly used by beauty experts.

The number of people that uses black soap is said to be on the increase and this is evidenced in the level of demand for the Ife Odan soap; the people now work round the clock to meet the demands of their numerous clients. This translates to more work but not much difference in financial freedom for the people.

Mechanizing the procedure to meet demands is however not in the plans for the poor soap makers as they hold the belief that this will reduce the quality and efficacy of the soap.

The people of the sleepy Ife Odan community in spite of their friendliness were experts at evading questions especially when it comes to the issue of their craft. Many were of the assumption that people come from the cities to learn the basics of the trade in order to start mass production and cut them off the market.

Nigerian Tribune moved around the town and out of the many outlets, only two people were ready to discuss the procedures involved with the condition that it will be a practical session.

The trick of the craft was treated like a secret that should not be revealed though Saheed Abdulkareem, on his part,  expressed the willingness to take on trainees from outside the soap making community.

The reticence on the part of most of the soap makers according to one of the women stems from the fact that people come every time to talk about soap making and they only talk and get nothing in return while she accused some entrepreneurs of pretending to be researchers just to learn the trade.

“We have been used time and time just to get information, in the city, don’t they pay to get information. They tap our ideas then go to the city to use it. It has to stop; this talk and talk without money is enough,” she murmured.

Their secretive attitude to talking about the technique of producing black soap also forestalls any suggestion on how to reduce the stress involved in the process using simple equipment or any advice on need to review pricing.

Though many agreed that people that buy for commercial purposes from the city rip the producers off in terms of what they pay, they seem satisfied to continue selling at their current price while many are too set in their ways to think of ways of improving their situation.

Consequently, even youths in the community that are already in the trade are content to follow the step of their parents and are not considering evolving or getting a more simple and efficient way to tackle production and review prices.

And in spite of their seeming wish for a better life, the Ife Odan soap makers continue mass production of local soap that are sold at cheap cost daily and continue to wallow in squalor, putting in so much effort but reaping meager profits.