So much more than a piece of soap

One day, Manolis Mitakis would like to go to back to Coimbatore in India and find the place transformed, where people are healthy and properly clothed. People who know the importance of washing their hands with soap — and who proudly sell their own soap.

Mitakis has already set up a soap production project in southern India. This is about so much more than the choice between lavender, rose or lemon: It’s about hygiene as the first-line of defense against disease.

 

Poor but proud

Mitakis traveled to Coimbatore for the first time in the fall of 2017 as part of the Making More Health initiative (MMH). “I was immediately struck by the pride of the people there, despite their poverty,” said Mitakis, who heads the communications team at Boehringer Ingelheim’s Greek subsidiary.

 

Yet, as a pharmacist, Mitakis noticed something else, too: Many people walking around barefoot had athlete’s foot. And they did not typically use soap for washing or cleaning agents for cleaning. “When we visited the hospital, I saw numerous patients with infectious diseases,” he remembers.

 

Hand washing protects

According to a study by the World Health Organization (WHO), religious beliefs are one of the factors preventing many Indians from using soap. Animals, specifically cows, are revered in Hinduism, but many soaps contain animal fats. The second hurdle Mitakis identified was the cost of a bar of soap. “From our perspective, 30 cents is nothing. But most people in Coimbatore simply cannot afford it.” he explains.

 

Inspired by elephants

And so Mitakis launched his soap manufacturing project. “The only way to make people 100%  confident that their soap does not go against their religious convictions is if they make it themselves,” he says. “They can be proud of their soap. They can sell it and even generate an income, while championing the hand-washing cause at the same time.”

Mitakis and his fellow campaigners call their project “Elephants.” In India, elephants are held in high esteem for their intelligence and revered in Hinduism in the form of the elephant god Ganesha. “We simply wanted to give soap some positive associations,” he explains.

In November 2018, some Boehringer Ingelheim managers came again for a MMH leadership week. Proudly, women who had been trained by Mitakis showed off soap they had produced on their own and started to sell.