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School in Bolivia cleans up using pedal-powered soap

The Cochabamba Pedal Project (#PedalingForward) uses a pedal-powered soap mixer to produce high-quality soap – and help teach children about personal hygiene.

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    Boys carries drinking water from a water truck in La Paz, Bolivia.
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Freddy Candia Aguilar, affectionately known as “MacGyver” for his uncanny ability to make something out of nothing, proudly held a banner with the words “Cochabamba Pedal Project” emblazoned on it. He had been providing free bike tune-ups all day to participants in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s first Bike and Pedestrian Day, while promoting his new social enterprise.

While Bike and Pedestrian Days are common in Bolivia, it was the first time Cochabamba Pedal Project participated. The organization came to life with the help of two Bolivian NGOs, a US-based nonprofit, two innovative American volunteers, and funding from an American social enterprise.

At the time of the Bike and Pedestrian Day, held this past April, Cochabamba Pedal Project was months in the making and at the very beginning and was never intended to be more than a month-long volunteer project.

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The story began with another Freddy, Freddy Rosa Echeverria, the principal of a small school in Tiquipaya, on the outskirts of Cochabamba.

Principal Freddy smiled broadly as his elementary school students clamored to demonstrate to two American visitors the correct method for washing their hands.

“Just one volunteer,” he bellowed, but the children couldn’t contain their excitement. A dozen or more rushed to the front of the classroom. Freddy’s smile grew even more. He allowed them all to participate in the exercise. The students mimed the method they used for washing their hands. They lathered their hands intently, not wanting to miss any crease or crevice.

“This is how we wash our hands,” Freddy proudly told us.

Washing hands was such a big deal at Freddy’s school that students wanted to start a soap-making business. With help from Cochabamba Pedal Project, the school began realizing that dream.

Few Bolivian children knew such basic hygiene. Only 32 percent of schools nationwide have access to handwashing facilities, while only 61 percent have sanitation systems of any kind. Without appropriate hygiene infrastructure, health problems abound: food poisoning, diarrhea, and staph infections are common and infectious diseases spread unchecked.

Fortunately, schools like Freddy’s have help to face this crisis. Fundacion SODIS, a Cochabamba-based public health nonprofit organization, partners with schools to educate teachers and students about the importance of proper hygiene and hand-washing.

“Students must learn appropriate hygiene practices at school,” said Elsa Sanchez Montaño, executive director of Fundación SODIS. "Only 3 percent of families in Bolivia have a place to wash their hands with soap and water after they use the latrine. Proper hygiene is not being taught at home, so it must be done in the schools.”

Educating students was of the utmost importance, but Freddy and Elsa were doing more. The Tiquipaya school treated its water by a solar disinfection method and produced its own soap – handmade by the students – for everyday use. The students learned the chemical process of soapmaking and, of course, the health benefits of using soap.

The ultimate goal for this joint project was to create a self-sufficient, sustainable business, producing enough high-quality soap to sell to the local municipality for distribution to other schools in the region. The Tiquipaya school´s business model, if successful, would be replicated throughout Bolivia at other schools and communities.

The plan was good, but Freddy needed help to make it a reality. What the school needed, he said, was soap-making machinery to increase the efficiency and quality of the soap production.

No one knew it that day, but the seed was planted that grew into Cochabamba Pedal Project, a small social enterprise that harnesses the power of pedal-powered machines to improve the daily lives of Bolivians.

Working with Sustainable Bolivia we met with Freddy to brainstorm ways to increase the school’s soap productivity and quality. After some research, we found the designs for a pedal-powered soap mixer that were developed by an engineering professor in Nigeria. After getting the go-ahead from Principal Freddy, we went to work.

There was no way we could do it alone, however. With the help of another local NGO, CECAM Bolivia, run by Freddy Candia Aguila and his wife, Rosio, the sourcing of raw materials and the construction of the bike machine or “bicimaquina” began to take shape. Funding for the project was provided by Soapbox Soaps, a one-for-one beauty care enterprise located in the United States.

Three weeks (and a lot of sanding, cutting, welding, and painting) later, the completed pedal-powered soap mixer was delivered to the school. A school assembly featured soapmaking, a lesson on how to better merchandise the soap, and a performance from the school marching band.

The project was a huge success.

Several months later, Freddy and Rosio contacted us, with news that a second pedal-powered soap mixer had been built and donated to a second school.

Could utilizing simple pedal-powered devices, like the soap mixer, be a sustainable and economically viable solution to the difficulties that many Bolivians face on a daily basis?

The staff at Cochabamba Pedal Project think so. Freddy and Rosio have already started devising new ways to implement the pedal-powered machines, from pedal-powered clothes washers and water pumps to bike-operated corn shellers and smoothie makers. The possibilities for this simple, yet effective technology are endless.

Freddy and Rosio are the heart and soul of Cochabamba Pedal Project. They hope to create a sustainable social enterprise by refurbishing and selling bikes to community members for transportation, then use the funds created by the bike sales to construct and donate more bicimaquinas.

It will take a collaborative effort from community members, local NGOs, and volunteers, but we are confident that this social enterprise will flourish. We are excited about what lies ahead for Cochabamba Pedal Project as we continue #pedalingforward to increase public health outcomes in Bolivia.

• Cochabamba Pedal Project is on Facebook at CochabambaPedalProject; Instagram @cochapedal; and Twitter @cochapedal. Email: CochabambaPedalProject@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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