Scaling up local production to increase access to hand hygiene supplies

To contain the spread of the coronavirus and protect children and at-risk communities, UNICEF is working with governments and partners to scale up local production of hand hygiene supplies including soap and hand sanitizers.

A child wearing a mask shows his hands while washing them with the UNICEF-supported blue soap in Bujumbura, Burundi.
15 October 2021

Pandemic or not, hand hygiene supplies help prevent infections and the transmission of pathogens.  

As COVID-19 spread across the world and lockdown measures disrupted health supply chains restricting global movement of supplies in 2020, UNICEF looked for local solutions to equip children and their communities as well as health workers with affordable, high-quality hand hygiene supplies.  

Working with governments and local partners, UNICEF made soap and hand sanitizers more accessible and affordable at national scale for the most vulnerable in the midst of the pandemic. From subsidizing raw materials to building local capacity, UNICEF addressed hand hygiene supply shortages in different contexts, tailoring its response to support national markets of soap and hand sanitizers.

Making soap more affordable and accessible  

Soap is an important, multi-purpose commodity that is easy to produce and distribute. As COVID-19 escalated into a pandemic, UNICEF began looking for ways to scale up local soap production in different countries.   

To rapidly increase access to and affordability of soap in Burundi, UNICEF entered into a partnership with the largest soap manufacturer in the country. This allowed UNICEF to leverage the manufacturer’s production capacity and distribution network to reach vulnerable households with low purchasing power, especially in rural areas. UNICEF supported the manufacturer to switch one of its production lines to produce generic soap in compliance with UNICEF requirements.  

Branded Blue Soap, the soap was subsidized by UNICEF, USAID, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the World Bank, and had a standardized price engraved on its surface to avoid bulk buying and price grouping.  

Through this partnership, 43 million soap bars at half the price of non-subsidized soap were produced in four months, from June through October 2020. All soap bars were distributed and made available at retailers across the country within that same period.

Meeting the demand for hand sanitizers with innovative partnerships

Like soap, hand sanitizers are easily made locally. However, an unprecedented surge in demand for hand sanitizers in 2020 translated to supply shortages that could not be addressed with offshore procurement. This was the case in many countries such as Iraq where the dearth of hand sanitizers in health facilities and schools was especially concerning.  

With the support of the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), the Government of Japan and the German development bank Kreditanstalt für Wiederaufbau (KfW), UNICEF worked with graduate students from the pharmaceutical department of the University of Karbala to produce and ensure local availability of hand sanitizers.  

Three students wearing masks in a lab at the University of Karbala in Irag.
Graduate students at the University of Karbala in Iraq manufacture hand sanitizers to meet unprecedented demand.

Working closely with the Iraqi Ministry of Health, the UNICEF Iraq Country Office provided technical guidance to students to meet required regulations and quality-assurance standards of production.

The ‘Sustain Hand Hygiene for All’ partnership resulted in the production of 78,500 bottles totaling 19,625 litres of hand sanitizer as well as 30,000 bottles of disinfectant totaling 33,320 liters. At $2 per unit, the production cost of a 250 millilitres bottle of hand sanitizer was a third of the average market price. During its seven-month run, production averaged 2,500 bottles of hand sanitizer per day.