Soap is more than a personal hygiene item; it can bring hope to those who make it. Such is the case for a group of Haitian women who will be using local ingredients to make and sell soap as part of a U of G initiative to help them earn a living.

Jennifer Vansteenkiste has been studying development issues in Haiti since 2006. While working at a community centre there, she learned that food security was a priority for local women, along with starting their own businesses and sending their children to school.

When she returned to Guelph, she started a PhD with geography professor Evan Fraser, focusing on food security and the political economy in Haiti.

“What has really created food insecurity for people in Haiti was the demise of national agricultural production by poorly designed government policy and international policy,” says Vansteenkiste. She points to Haiti’s debt crisis in the ’70s and ’80s, which forced the country to open its market to imported food as part of a debt renegotiation strategy.

“Rice from the United States, which was subsidized by the American government, started to flood into Haiti and displace Haitian production, and that of course put many farmers out of business,” she says.

The resulting high unemployment meant that many Haitians could not afford imported food, which was often of lower quality and nutritional value than local food, she adds.

Vansteenkiste established the Haiti Food Hub, which aims to strengthen the Haitian economy by increasing local food production. As a pilot project, the food hub will produce soap using local ingredients, such as coconut oil, palm oil, vegetable oil and goat’s milk, all of which are readily available in Haiti.

“Often the imported soap is of poor quality, so the goat’s milk soap is a safer alternative for Haitians,” she says. “It’s also culturally appropriate because Haitians used to make their own soap before their efforts were displaced by cheaper products.”

A Haitian women’s group will make the soap, and the Haiti Food Hub will distribute it to local markets. Vansteenkiste hopes to eventually export the soap to high-end stores in Canada that sell ethically-made products. All profits will be reinvested in the food hub to expand its programs to include exporting other products, such as coffee and chocolate, and continue building local Haitian markets.

The soap project is a collaborative effort between the Department of Geography and the Department of Management, which developed a business plan, production and marketing strategy, and the Department of Food Science, which helped with import guidelines, labeling and testing of the recipe. The project also aims to connect researchers with entrepreneurs in Haiti.

“We needed collaboration to reach a model of what we believe, based on our research, to be the optimal and inclusive plan for a new charity that would become self-sufficient,” says Prof. Elliott Currie, Department of Management. “We are helping the Haitians build basically from nothing to something in an environment where only 60 per cent of children go to school, 60 per cent of the economy is donations and the majority of people live on less than two dollars a day.”

Aside from selling soap, the food hub plans to improve food safety in Haiti through a certification program targeting better production, handling, storage and transportation. “Haiti currently imports about half of its fruits and vegetables from the neighboring Dominican Republic,” says Vansteenkiste. She wants to see Haiti expand its own agricultural sector.

She has applied to the United Nations for funding to help the project get started and she expects soap production to begin within the next two months. For more information, contact her at