Learning from the Land
Lebanese soap maker Salman Hamzeh uses natural ingredients to create a premium product that captures the essence of his beautiful home.
It was during the coronavirus pandemic that Salman Hamzeh discovered his knack for soap making. A bank employee in Lebanon, he found himself stuck at home during lockdown, wondering how to spend his time. An air of panic had gripped Lebanon as the death toll climbed. Supermarket shelves emptied amid the rush to purchase essential items, and pharmacists quickly ran out of stock.
Soap was suddenly seen as a premium product to ward off the virus. Soon, antibacterial varieties were hard to find, and Hamzeh saw an opportunity. “I thought, what will happen if we stop being able to import soap? I couldn’t just sit and do nothing.”
It started as a hobby. He experimented with different soap formulas, googling advice and reading up on remedies to tailor his blends to different demands, from acne and aging to gentler recipes for babies. At first, his blends were lumpy, and the bars cracked, but gradually, he learned more about the art of soapmaking, seeking advice from a friend who taught him the secrets of the business.
Demand remained high as the pandemic wore on and his business grew, but in the past year, interest has declined. With the war in Gaza threatening stability in Lebanon, the orders are dropping, so Hamzeh is diversifying his business to meet changing demand. “During corona there was this craze for soap, but now the market is more for novelty varieties,” he says.
Lebanon is rich in natural ingredients, and he draws inspiration from nature, infusing his blends with rosemary, lavender, lemon, and orange blossom from local orchards. Lebanese olive oil provides an enriching base that’s ideal for skincare. Other ingredients like activated charcoal and shea butter are imported. “We get Laurel berry oil from Aleppo, coconut oil from Indonesia, salt from the Himalayas,” he says. “It’s all 100 percent natural.”
Hamzeh named his company Savon du Mont Liban, inspired in part by the French heritage brand Savon de Marseilles. Their production method is labor-intensive, but it produces good soap rich in oils, and Hamzeh is working hard to achieve the same. His brand now produces more than 50 kinds of soaps, many of them medical and skin-care-based, including the most expensive donkey milk soap, which retails at $22 and is rich in cell-regenerating vitamins B and D.
With orders declining post-COVID and business slowing due to the war in Gaza, he has started producing a new line of glycerine soap bases to sell wholesale with support from an Ideas Beyond Borders Innovation Hub grant. “I know a lot of people who applied for this grant and was so happy to be chosen,” Hamzeh says. “I think IBB chose us because they want to invest in people that are really working hard to succeed.”
The new glycerine base is ideal for small business owners, often women working from home to create artisan products for a specific client base. With the grant, Hamzeh has purchased new equipment to ramp up production and continue diversifying to keep the business afloat. For him, the business is an anchor to Lebanon despite the challenges of recent years. Working with olive oil from the groves near his soap factory in Aley on Mount Lebanon reinforces his connection to the land. “It is a beautiful country; people don’t want to leave,” he says.
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This article was written by Olivia Cuthbert.