Soap Makers for Social Justice

picture 1WHEN THREE OREGON STATE STUDENTS signed up for a project in the university’s new humanitarian engineering program, the first question was, Have any of you made soap? Nervous laughter broke out when each one said “no.”

“OK, this will be fun,” Brianna Goodwin recalls thinking.

But nearly a year and hundreds of bars of goat-milk soap later, Goodwin, one of the students and a mechanical engineering graduate from Seattle, and her teammates — Grace Burleson of Beaverton and Brian Butcher of Portola Valley, California — have taken their expertise and curiosity to Uganda, where they are learning how the act of making this simple product can smooth the way for social justice and empowerment.

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Two fistula survivors welcomed Mama T, the founder of TERREWODE, to a solidarity group meeting in a village near Soroti, Uganda. (Photo: Brianna Goodwin)

Under the guidance of professor Kendra Sharp (the Richard and Gretchen Evans Professor of Humanitarian Engineering), the students completed their capstone project for their degrees by working with a nonprofit organization, TERREWODE. This summer, they are conducting additional field research in Uganda.

Based in Soroti in eastern Uganda, the group aims to improve the lives of women suffering from a medical condition known as obstetric fistula. This devastating problem occurs when, during prolonged childbirth and without adequate medical care, tissue in the birth canal is damaged. The resulting fistula, or hole, allows urine or feces to leak uncontrollably. Victims may be shunned by family members and reduced to a life of poverty and isolation.

Fortunately, effective medical treatment is available. With support from the Worldwide Fistula Fund, TERREWODE works to educate women about the risks, to raise money for medical costs and to increase access to care, which is often out of reach in rural areas.


Oregon State’s partnership with TERREWODE goes back to 2011 when Bonnie Ruder, a midwife from Eugene and now an Oregon State Ph.D. student in medical anthropology, met Alice Emasu, the group’s founder. Ruder traveled to Uganda that fall, and others followed: two masters of public health students (Lauren Baur in 2012 and Callie Ball in 2015) and students in the College of Business in 2015.

On June 20, 2016, after a 48-hour trip from Seattle via Dubai, Goodwin, Burleson and Butcher arrived at Entebbe, Uganda’s largest airport, where they were met by a TERREWODE representative. The road trip to Kampala, the capital, had its anxious moments as drivers “like playing ‘chicken,’” Goodwin writes in her blog. “There are cars, people, and Bota Botas (motorcycle taxis) on the road, all trying to get to different places as fast as possible.”

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As an intern with TERREWODE, Robert Eladu sports an Oregon State beaver on his motorbike. (Photo: Brianna Goodwin)

Inspired by Oregon photographer Joni Kabana, TERREWODE is developing a soap-making business to provide survivors of fistula with a source of income. The students have three objectives for their four-week stay in Africa: identify a practical, local source of electricity so soap makers wouldn’t have to worry about periodic interruptions to Uganda’s power grid; determine if locally available ingredients can be used for increased soap production; find ways to improve efficiency and scale-up the soap-making process.

“The more the soap is made by the women with local ingredients, the more sellable it will be as a humanitarian product,” says Burleson.

Making Soap

Last fall, back in Corvallis, as they first pondered their task, the students assumed they would need to create a device to make soap. “We didn’t understand at first how the cultural context would affect our design process, but it’s relevant with anything you’re designing,” Goodwin says. “We had to understand who we’re designing for. The cultural context is huge. You can’t just bring something from America and expect them to use it.”

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Grace Burleson and Brian Butcher experiment with the soap-making process. (Photo: Brianna Goodwin)

To put themselves into the shoes of soap makers in Uganda, the students decided they had to make goat-milk soap. They interviewed Ruder and got soap-making instructions from Kabana and her colleague Dardi Troen, who had inspired the project by bringing a gift of goat-milk soap made in Spray, Oregon, to TERREWODE. The students bought goat milk and fragrances at the local food co-op and other supplies online — shea butter (made from nuts produced by the African shea tree), sunflower oil, lye.

One cold November night, outside Butcher’s garage, they hunched over two small cook stoves, the kinds commonly used in households in developing countries, and set to work mixing and heating the ingredients. In the light of their headlamps, they watched for the liquid to reach a critical stage at which it gains a consistency like whipped cream. The frothy liquid could then be poured into molds and aged for about two months. But the students wanted to speed things up. By keeping the soap at a constant temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours, they could cut the aging process to one day.

Cookstove“We sat outside for about three hours collecting temperature data to decide if it would work,” Burleson says. “But in the end, we decided that was impossible.”

In subsequent trials, they refined their approach, experimented with other mixing methods and even hooked up a mixer to a solar-charged battery. Solar panels are available in Uganda, they reasoned, and might provide the solution for a sustainable source of power.

They produced a lot of soap. Some of it was useable, and they chalked up the rest to experience. But more importantly, they understood what it might take to produce a product with commercial potential.

Learning on the Ground

As they learned how TERREWODE operates and what it takes for a new business in rural Uganda to succeed, the Oregon State students are fulfilling their own educational goals. Each is attracted to humanitarian engineering by a commitment to make a difference, a desire to serve others. Working with TERREWODE “allows me to do what I love but have an impact on peoples’ lives,” says Goodwin.

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During her trip to Uganda, Brianna Goodwin, center, got to know TERREWODE intern Robert Eladu, left, and Rebecca Amongin, a volunteer. (Photo contributed by Brianna Goodwin)

Burleson lived in Egypt for five years and studied drinking water treatment in Uganda for her undergraduate thesis in mechanical engineering. She worked briefly with TERREWODE in 2015 during an internship with an Oregon-based nonprofit, MAPLE Microdevelopment. She will enter Oregon State’s mechanical engineering master’s program this fall with a humanitarian emphasis.

Goodwin aims to combine engineering with biology. She wants to develop biomechanical systems that can assist people with practical, everyday tasks and is starting her master’s at the University of Washington this fall.

Before attending Oregon State, Butcher traveled to Bolivia and Chile where he volunteered for community organizations. This summer, the mechanical engineering graduate will intern with the Corvallis firm CH2MHill, after he returns from Uganda.

Kendra Sharp
Kendra Sharp

“Our program aims to inspire students to do work that they feel makes an impact on society,” says Sharp, a leader in developing Oregon State’s humanitarian engineering program. “We stress the importance of learning collaboratively in community to solve real-world problems. This is a skill these students will take away no matter where their careers take them. It’s remarkable to see both how Brianna, Grace and Brian have grown through this experience and how we are able to make a difference together with TERREWODE and our other project partners.”