Rabi Hinsa, a Mother Courage in Niger

Winner of two PlaNet Finance awards, Rabi Hinsa has not had an easy life. As a mother of eight children who suffer from sickle cell anaemia (drepanocytosis), an incurable genetic disease, she has still managed to set up a recycled soap business that employs from 2 to 4 vendors – giving her enough to bring up her children and face the future a bit more assuredly.

Paris in December, at the beginning of the afternoon in the Louvre auditorium: Rabi Hinsa, aged 38, is waiting for the PlaNet Finance awards ceremony to start. She has been invited along with Omar Maazou, the NGO’s Niger delegate, who will translate for her. Over her blue gown, Rabi Hinsa has put on a beige raincoat – autumn in Paris is relatively warm, 8°C, yet she’s never experienced weather this cold – nevertheless she takes it all with a smile. Several hours later, she wears an even bigger smile when she climbs onto the stage to receive her two awards, in the Environment and General Public categories.

“Making soap based on recycled components was her idea. She really believes in her business and is talented,” states Omar Maazou, project manager for PlaNet Finance in Niger.

Three days earlier, Rabi Hinsa was making her way to Niamey airport for her first trip to Europe. She was the pride and joy of her mother, who had come from her village to look after her 14-month-old twins, delighted to accompany her to the airport. “My mother said: ‘You know, that soap’s a good thing, it’s brought many blessings!’” says Rabi.

Microcredit opens the way for recycled soap

Born in a small village a hundred kilometres from Niamey, the capital of Niger, Rabi Hinsa was 19 when she went there to live with her husband, a seller of clothing at the local markets. “I started off selling mangos in the street – I had 250 CFA francs (about 25 euro cents) to begin with – but that wasn’t profitable enough!” she explains. So when she was offered the chance to take part in an experimental microcredit programme aimed at families affected by sickle cell anaemia, she jumped at the opportunity – microcredit would help to develop her idea of recycling soap.

To manufacture her soap, Rabi buys two types of residue from a Niamey soap factory: solid fragments left over from cutting blocks of soap and the water that the workers use to wash their hands after they’ve finished their work. Afterwards at home she mixes them together in a large barrel. “I do it in the evening when it’s not too hot so that during the day I have time to spend with my children,” Rabi explains. Once the soaps are wrapped up individually, they are sold door-to-door for washing dishes.

According to the time of year, two to four vendors work for Rabi. Altogether, including wholesale supply to a Nigerian importer, Rabi Hinsa now earns between 10,000 and 20,000 CFA francs (15 to 30 euros) a day. The money enables her in particular to pay for school equipment for her children, including private education for two of them. “I manage to keep up with my family responsibilities,” summarises the businesswoman in simple terms.

A new family balance

When we ask Rabi about her husband’s reaction, she thinks for a moment, then smiles. “Before, he used to give me a little money, just enough to buy a small bag of rice. Now, I can buy a ten-kilogram bag all on my own!” Rabi remembers his very first reaction: “He was a bit surprised that I wanted to make soap. But he didn’t stop me,” she points out. “On the contrary, he said: ‘May the Lord help you!’” Today, Rabi believes that she gets better consideration and has greater standing in the household.

Despite her business’s success, Rabi still has a difficult life. Her country, Niger, is rich in uranium but remains one of the poorest on the planet. Rabi must face up to her children’s illness, sickle cell anaemia. At 19 the oldest child suffers most from the disease and sometimes has very painful attacks. He attends the new specialist clinic in Niamey, which was set up with the support of Monaco’s Office of International Cooperation and Development. Furthermore, like lots of other women, Rabi does a “double day’s work”: bringing up her children and going out to work.

All the same, thanks to her small soap business, she has been able to buy a small plot of land on which she hopes to build her family home.

This article is part of the special report: