Social Impact – one bar of soap, one chocolate spoonfull at a time

Story and Photographs by Peta Kaplan & Ben Sandzer-Bell from www.greenglobaltrek.com

For further details on Alila Manggis and the destination’s activities, please visit www.alilahotels.com/manggis

Charly Esposito, a native of Florida, came to Bali over a decade ago for the surf. Based in Hong Kong as a corporate executive, he saw Bali as a vacation destination. But then Bali happened to him and it became clear, after a 50 day fast, medidation about the course of his life and his positive experience with Balinese surfers, that there was perhaps a different life trajectory for him in Bali.

Surprised that his surfer friends were idle when the waves did not create the conditions for good surfing, he found out that they really had not path to get jobs in their native East Bali. It did not take long for this chemistry major to put two and two together, looking around at the plentiful coconut tree groves, to suggest that they try to create a small business activity around the production of soap, which uses coconut oil as a primary ingredient. This was 12 years ago.

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Fast forward to the present and Charly, with the help of Alila as a valued customer, has succeeded in creating an entrepreneurial climate around soap making that would make any development professional proud. He puts empowerment theory into daily practice and as a result has the life satisfaction he sought after his 50 day fast.

What started in a small garage has become an attractive and eye catching bamboo architectural compound, where several teams work to meet ever increasing demand for their high quality, organic soap.

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Charly does not like the terminology of employment, rather he explains he is a consultant to self-directed teams of mostly women who pay themselves a salary from the proceeds of their production. The first group of surfer-turned-soap makers took things a step further and organized themselves into a now larger enterprise that also produces organic soap and coconut-oil based face creams and treatment oils. In all, his current team is comprised of 15 associates, split evenly between soap makers and chocolate makers (more on chocolate making later). Another 25 jobs were created by his surfer-soap makers in a spin off location and business. In all, that’s 40 well paying jobs in a region that was traditionally farmer-centric, a lifestyle that requires hard and long hours of work, for little money. Instead, he has created a virtuous circle whereby the women, traditional bread winners, who work in the soap making facility come to work with their children, and organize themselves to meet demand.

Not only is soap making a profitable enterprise, it is one that features the island’s bountiful products. Coconut oil is a primary ingredient.   Carbon 14 from coconut trees not only gives the soap an attractive black color, but it also absorbs toxins. Volcanic ash is used in some of the most popular soaps. White clay is also used as it has purification attributes for skin. Some of the skin products also use aloe vera and seaweed that Charly, ever interested in being in the water, collects personally.

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The soap making process is rather straight forward and one finds oneself in an alchemist’s laboratory where tantallizing organic essential oils combine with all of the above to yield an array of colors and scents in a bar.

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Back to the social impact aspect: in order to make this enterprise “self sustaining”, Charly cleverly broke down the production part (soap making) from the packaging part. This means that the team of women responsible for meeting incoming customer orders, drive the production unit team members and pay them an agreed fair “market” price, in addition to sourcing colored paper from local banana leaf paper producers.

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Drop by visits, such as ours, is an opportunity for the workers to make some extra money. While their daily salary is paid from regular clients, such as Alila, drop in business allows them to sell their product at retail prices. The difference between the wholesale price and the retail price they fetch, is shared evenly as “bonus pay”.

It is clear that there is a large amount of creativity in the place. The packaging is very attractive, exemplified by the books of “Salvador Bali”, which once you open the cover page, becomes a container for 6 brightly colored soap bars.

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While self effacing, it is also clear that Charly remains a “soft touch” driving force behind this social experiment in organic entrepreneurship – after he meets with us, he is off to pack his bags as he goes tomorrow to China to source a price competitive, attractive container for the line of coconut body lotion, coconut oil and surfer sunblock made of cacao.

And talking of cacao… it’s hard to keep a good entrepreneur down, especially one with a chemistry background. While Indonesia is a major exporter of cacao raw material, few are the producers of higher value added chocolate products. Enter Charly and his team of Balinese coconut oil stirring elves.

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Using techniques that are not entirely different from soap making, but of course with different ingredients and different “magic formulae”, they have started to make chocolate. And REALLY good chocolate at that. When a European traveller kept singing the praise of Nutella, the inquisitive Charly decided to make a healthy, organic Balinese counterpart – that became his Nuteresa line (the European friend’s name is Theresa).

When told that chocolate buyers gravitate toward crunchy chocolates, he and his team developed the Bali Krunch bar (made of black rice covered dark chocolate – delicious!). When Sasa, one of his young Balinese colleagues expressed an interest in cooking, he helped him get organized and Sasa now runs the kitchen, churning out delicious hot chocolate and French toast covered with chocolate and coconut syrup.

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Alila Hotel’s role in all this is that any enterprise, be it a small business, a collective or an NGO that seeks to have social impact through the development and production of a product, it is critical for this enterprise to have anchor customers. Alila plays an essential role in this sense. First, Alila creates predictable, recurrent demand for their soap products. But also, Charly was quick to point out, Alila has an enabling financial management function — Alila not only pays on time, they in fact pay in advance for the production of soap bars that make their way into every room of the hotel as well as the gift shop. This is of critical value to a small operation as it allows the team to focus on high quality production and meeting the customer’s quantitative needs, without all the often challenging complexities of cash management.

Charly’s soap making operation now sells soap beyond Alila Manggis, to Alila Jakarta. From the contacts made there, a small export business is starting to emerge. But don’t expect to see Charly’s soap in every Walmart any time soon. Chasing the big contracts is not what this is about – it is about having, manageable, sustainable social impact, one bar of soap at a time. Steady, cautious growth is indeed a wise approach for this endeavor. A holistic community around the organic bounty from their surrounding land and sea and a growing community of women who work in harmony ~ the Balinese way.

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