Vermont Businessman Helps Liberians Learn To Make Soap
Larry Plesent is passionate about helping people and he’s also passionate about making soap. As owner and chief formulator of the Vermont Soap Company, based in Middlebury, which makes all-natural soap and cleaning products, he combines the two during annual trips to the western part of Africa.
Since 2001, Plesent has served as a volunteer consultant in Ghana, Guinea, and Liberia, working under a USDA grant called the SHOPS (Small Holder Oil Palm Support) program. It provides Liberian-made palm and palm kernel oil presses, along with microloans and training to small rural landowners.
He recently returned from a two-week stay in Liberia, a country that was settled by former slaves from America. While there, he spent some time in the Paynesville section of the large city of Monrovia, consulting with employees at all three locations of the Mawa Love Soap Co., the largest artisanal soap company in the country, along with a half-dozen other small soap-making operations. It was his second trip to Monrovia, since he was also there in March of last year.
“What we’re doing is kick-starting an economy from scratch,” Plesent explained. “After 20 years of civil war in Liberia, the place is completely devastated—20 years with no schools, no churches, no economy, no work—people living in refugee camps, and children stolen away to be child soldiers. There are villages where the women were raped by three different armies! How could I NOT volunteer to help?”
He first became involved when the soapmaker guild he belongs to was approached to see if someone would be willing to go to Ghana to help a women’s group there improve the quality of their black soap, a local product made from wood ashes and palm oil.
“They use it for laundry, dishes, shampoo, bathing, household cleaning—everything,” Plesent said. “Even in the cities, there is very little running water.”
“This year, I talked with people in the soap factories about workplace efficiency and tried to help them improve their work flow,” he explained. “Some people were receptive, and others were defensive. We talked about improving storage, cleanliness, ergonomics, work flow, lighting, safety, and cross-ventilation.”
An energetic, intense man, Plesent began his own soap company in 1992. He and his wife, Sandy Lincoln, who has owned and operated Sandy’s Books and Bakery on Main Street in Rochester since 2004, are the parents of four grown children, and their third grandchild is due soon. Sandy has gone on a number of the trips to Africa, but stayed home this year.
Teaching His Craft
During his two-week stay, Plesent also spent four days at Nimba Community College in Sannequillie, a seven-and-a-halfhour drive from Monrovia, where he taught 80 people the African box soap method of making their own soap. They also did experiments with palm kernel oil.
Booting up his laptop to show the hundreds of pictures he took during his stay, Plesent smiled as he saw the faces of his driver, Melvin, and translator, Senkro, who accompanied him throughout his stay.
“At the college, everyone spoke modern English, as opposed to ‘market English,’” he said. “There are also several native tribes that speak their own language.”
Plesent encountered many different attitudes among the people there, “from those who didn’t want to have anything to do with me, to those who were so thrilled with their new knowledge that they literally danced with joy! We called it the ‘happy soap dance!’”
“I had two missions at the college— teaching soap chemistry to the students and teaching practical soap making skills to the women of the village,” he added. “It turned out that the school did not want me to teach the village women. They wanted to open their own body care business to help support the school, and they didn’t want any competition! They had been withholding the information that I was there, then tried to change the location, so the women wouldn’t know I was there to help them.”
Plesent ended up foiling that plot and taught both groups.
“What I teach is a one-day ecochemistry course that focuses on the soap reaction—oil which makes you greasy turns into soap that makes you clean,” he said. “We also throw in some bush medicine, combined with some aromatherapy, and that’s my oneday class aimed at making chemistry relevant in the lives of the students. I think basic science concepts are important for everyone to understand and should be taught first before the vocabulary. Once you understand what’s going on, it’s easy to remember the words for it.”
“I show them how to find a balance between caustic and oil— that’s what makes good soap. We also look at the properties of plants around them.”
As he scrolled through more photos of the people he met and worked with in his travels, it was obvious from the smile on his face and the comments he made that Plesent had probably gotten back as much as he gave.
“I go with minimal equipment and donate it when I leave,” he said. “The most important equipment they need to make good soap is their God-given sensors—nose, tongue, ears, eyes, and fingers—as well as their common sense.”
“My four best students founded a company called Play Soap Liberia, and I invested some of my own money to help it get started,” he added. “I told them I’d be back again next year.”
“Overall, I think my work was successful,” he said. “The essence of the work there is to move people away from a locally-made ‘emergency soap’ called ‘iron soap,’ to the more user-friendlybox soap. The iron soap will wear out your clothes and damage your skin—it’s the world’s worst soap! They need to have real soap now.”