Cruise through the toiletry aisle in any well-stocked Kathmandu supermarket and there will be a dizzying array of soaps. Attractively packaged and perfumed, most are the mega brands that are a testament to the relentless march of globalisation.
Increasingly, however, there is also a growing selection of exotic Nepali soaps that have enough unique selling points to appeal to consumers everywhere. To begin with, who can resist the cache of 'handcrafted'? Add to that exotic Himalayan herbs, other natural ingredients, an Ayurvedic tradition, no animal testing and-kaaachiiiiing-cash registers are ringing here and abroad.
Ayurvedic soap recipes that have been around for thousands of years use natural oils mixed with Himalayan herbs for moisturising and medicinal properties. The formula may have been tweaked for modern users, but no one messes around with the basics.
One of the names that is fast gaining an international following with a range of Made in Nepal handmade herbal soaps is Wild Earth. It was set up by entrepreneur Carroll Dunham almost a decade ago to support women's income generation in Nepal and the Himalaya by exporting Ayurvedic soaps.
The company believes in literally going the extra mile. It was the first to craft soaps with fresh yak milk from Langtang, carried in ice coolers by porters from 8,000ft. Mixed with red clay, honey and a choice of lavender or vanilla oil, the yak milk soap became a bestseller among the 30 soap varieties in the Wild Earth stock.
The 'Made in Nepal' tag translates to value added and unique qualities that are especially attractive to international buyers who don't want mass-produced generic soaps and shampoos. Nina Henning, managing director at Wild Earth explains: "Internationally, people are getting more interested in holistic health. It influences a person's entire lifestyle." That means more Wild Earth soaps are making their way to bigger markets in the US and Australia, Europe, Canada, Japan and recently, even Brazil.
The fascination with a well-marketed version of Nepal's exoticism is neither new nor difficult, and it is not just the West where it is becoming a rage. Japan is the biggest market for Cosmos Herbal, which started in 1994 as a Nepali-Japanese joint venture. Its soap recipe uses 20 aromatic and healing plants including lemongrass, citronella, palmarosa, basil, shikakai, aloe and spikenard. Cosmos Herbal exports an average of 50,000 bars a month. Administrative assistant Dev Shrestha is confident they can meet growing demands, which is good news all round. Higher demand means more jobs.
Soap making of these Nepali bars is entirely manual. Handmade soaps rely on the cold process, which is all about following the right recipe. Simplified, it involves mixing sodium hydroxide and base oils. This sets off a chemical reaction, which, when complete, leaves only soap and glycerine. Unlike commercial soap making, where the glycerine is stripped and used in other cosmetic products like creams, the cold process requires personal care and attention.
Besides creating more jobs, there are other indirect benefits. Since the soaps are made with many herbs traditionally used in the Ayurvedic healing system indigenous to the Himalaya, they are all found growing in Nepal. "The Himalaya are a treasure chest for medicinal plants," says Henning. Communities involved in growing and harvesting the herbs find a market through soap makers. She adds, "One of Wild Earth's roles is to link growers and harvesters of Himalayan herbs to international markets." The company encourages sustainable harvest practices and experiments with growing herbs at its medicinal herb farm in Nagarkot.
With virtually all the raw material available in Nepal, Sambhu Lama at Farm House Herbal is now working to make a 100 percent Nepali soap. The only stumbling block remains in finding all Nepali base oils. Though mustard, castor and neem oil is possible to source from Nepal, soap makers have to rely on coconut oil from India. But Lama is trying to substitute it with seed oil from the Churee tree, good for dry skin. It is fast growing and can be found in the western middle hills of Jajarkot, Rukum and Rolpa. "If we find Churee can be a substitute for coconut oil, we will get the indigenous Chepang community to harvest it," says Lama.
Unlike some other Nepali products, the quality of Nepali handmade soaps still enjoys a spotless reputation. "I am confident my line will pass any test in any lab anywhere in the world," says Lama . While Nepali handmade soaps are popular abroad, the local market is taking time to catch on. And the price of these exotic soaps is the biggest deterrent. The cost of the best Himalayan herbs, pure base and essential oils drives the price higher than commercial soaps.
Even so, Lama decided to make a soap that fitted ordinary budgets, relying on a formula used by an Ayurvedic doctor for 25 years with consistent results. His secret ingredient is dri butter. "We're used to calling in yak butter but that's not correct because a yak is a male," chuckles Lama. "We use dri butter, which has less water than milk and mix it with mustard oil-a combination of the high Himalayan and lowland secrets for good skin." At Rs 85 for a 113g cake, My Favourite Soap is a bargain even by the standard of generic global brands.