Mama Mzungu - how a Sussex soap company is helping Ugandan women with albinism

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 April 2020

People with albinism can encounter prejudice and suspicion in some African countries (c) Mi Elfverson

People with albinism can encounter prejudice and suspicion in some African countries (c) Mi Elfverson

Mi Elfverson

Brighton businesswoman Monica Norley is empowering Ugandan women with albinism by teaching them the skills she learnt from building her Visionary Soap Company

Monica Norley (c) Mi ElfversonMonica Norley (c) Mi Elfverson

For American-born Monica Norley, home is an old Dutch barge in Brighton Marina where she lives with three pets – two chocolate brown Labradors and a wise old cat. But Monica’s professional life has taken her all over the world. She has lived in Sussex since 2004 – mostly in Brighton, with a six-year period in Hastings from where she ran the award-winning Visionary Soap Company. Her current project is the Mama Mzungu beauty brand, a soap company providing employment to women with albinism which necessitates regular travel to Africa.

Monica first became interested in female economic and social development while on a business placement with the US Peace Corps in Guatemala, back in 1995. She worked there for two years, volunteering within an indigenous community in San Miguel Chicaj after graduating in Business at Eastern Washington University. Here, she met women making textiles for pennies a day, and became aware that the international male sellers were receiving a much larger cut.

“I learnt very quickly that working with the women in undeveloped regions meant that the income would go directly back to the household,” says Monica. She felt that if she could support women in developing countries to start and run businesses of their own, she could help bring economic strength and positive social change to these areas of poverty.

She moved to San Francisco after her time in Guatemala and was hired to develop a childcare and eco-friendly cleaning cooperative for immigrant Latino women in America. Unfortunately, the success of this business created other challenges. “As these women started to earn, household roles changed, men became threatened and sometimes domestic violence/custody battles arose,” she says.

Monica Norley with a child affected by albinism (c) Mi ElfversonMonica Norley with a child affected by albinism (c) Mi Elfverson

During this time Monica relieved stress by joining a soap-making class. “There wasn’t a cupboard in my house that didn’t have piles of soap in it,” she says.

She moved to the UK in 2005 and the mountains of hoarded soap all came with her, leading to the birth of the award-winning Visionary Soap Company. Sadly Monica had to close VSC in 2015 due to a new and lower fair trade certification that put heavy commercial competition on her products.

Monica was on a trip to Uganda when she met Fabio Tebba, a musician who teaches music within deprived African communities. He suggested that soap-making would be a great business venture for people with albinism in the country, who can struggle to find employment due to superstition. They also face terrible danger due to the way they look: in some parts of Africa albinos’ body parts are prized by witch doctors so kidnappings and abductions are a constant threat. However, the greatest threat of all comes from the sun: without melanin, albinos are at far greater risk of skin cancer. Albinism groups say that more than 90 per cent of people with albinism in Africa will die before their 40th birthday. According to international statistics, there are currently around one in 3,000

albino births in Tanzania and between one in 3,000-5,000 in Uganda, in comparison with one in 17,000 births in the United Kingdom in total.

The brand’s name, Mama Mzungu, is a subversion of an offensive term: Mzungu, in Swahili, is a slur directed at a white person or someone with albinism.

Monica reminisces about the first day she trained her protegees to make soap in November 2018: “They were so eager to learn that they knew how to make soap in just one day. We made 1,000 bars of organic, fair trade soap that first day. I put the whole stock online and in 24 hours we were completely sold out!” she says.

“We buy our ingredients locally from Kampala market (oils, butters and essential oil) and have set up a garden where the women are starting to grow their own botanicals – cinnamon, turmeric and peppermint – which are used as natural colourants and exfoliants,” she adds.

The women have now begun expanding their skills from soap-making and fabric packaging, to creating clothing and handbags that are also produced from local materials.

But Monica worries about the sustainability of the project. The biggest challenge is growing a business when the health needs of the albino community are so pressing.

The long-term goal for WACWAU is to set up production houses for woman and children affected by albinism throughout Africa. The aim is to sell these hand-made products internationally, not as a commercial entity but as a social enterprise, to empower women and create large-scale social change towards albinism.

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