Working to save, sanitize, and supply recycled hotel soap for the developing world
Founder and Executive Director of Eco-Soap Bank
Have you ever realized that in some areas of the developing world, only 1% of households have soap for handwashing? Samir Lakhani, a social entrepreneur, once saw a Cambodian woman washing her kid with laundry washing powder, he was devastated. After, he began thinking of a place he could get large quantities of soap free of charge. Samir was staying in a hotel at that moment, and suddenly he realized that one solution to the problem was barely-used bars of soap.
So, in 2014, he created the Eco-Soap Bank, a humanitarian and environmental non-profit organization working to save, sanitize, and supply recycled hotel soap for the developing world. After collecting and sanitizing the soap, Samir and his team donate it to hospitals and humanitarian organizations working in remote regions in Cambodia. These organizations share their mission to improve hygiene, and they work within their communities to create a positive shift in hygiene behavior. Today, the organization has sustainably supplied more 700,000 people with soap and hygiene education.
“In today’s world, far too many suffer from purely preventable illness. We can end that, together, and institute hygiene, not as a luxury, but a basic human right” Samir says.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I was born in the U.S. and lived in a city called Pittsburgh. I went to the University of Pittsburgh where I studied Environmental Studies. Four years ago, I had the opportunity to travel to Cambodia to do an internship. The internship was about climate change and how it was affecting communities. So, I was spending a lot of time in villages and very remote rural farms. While I was there, we were working on the research project that ends to realize that all the low-income families that were living in the areas did not have any access to bathrooms and did not have the money to buy soap. Moreover, bad hygiene was everywhere around me. But there was one thing in particular which I am sure I’ve read about; I saw a village mother bathing her new-born son and scrubbing his skin with laundry powder. After I realized that many of these families were using laundry powder because of lack of education and finances. They also thought that laundry powder could be used on the skin. At that moment I knew I wanted to do something to change the current situation. But I didn’t have any money, so what I tried to do was to find corporate sponsors, such as Johnson & Johnson or Chinese factories, that would donate soap to us.
It was, of course, very hard for me. I was nobody to ask for soap why would they give it to me. Therefore, I had to look in other places. And I suddenly realized that I could get soap from hotels since I was staying in a hotel where the soap of my room was being changed and thrown away every single day. So, I had found where to get bars of soap.
What do you think why Cambodia has the problem with bad hygiene and sanitation?
Well, there are many different reasons. One big reason is some of the destabilizing effects of the war and the genocide that was 30-40 years ago. It had a tremendous impact as well as it still can be seen today. Another result is that Cambodia doesn’t have many natural resources to export. That’s why the country doesn’t develop. As we know when people live in poor conditions, they prioritize food over hygiene or health which is understandable because they don’t earn enough money consistently to buy bar soap, medicine and other things that are considered as luxuries.
So, I would say that there are many reasons why Cambodia faces this problem. But Cambodia isn’t unique to these sets of issues. There are also many other countries that have the same problem with hygiene and health education.
there are a number of reasons why Cambodia faces this problem. But Cambodia isn’t unique to these sets of issues. There are also many other countries
Now, I would like to ask you about Eco-Soap Bank. After getting realized where to get soap how you got started and how you began to talk to hotels?
When I knew that a lot of bar soaps were throwing away in Cambodia, I just went from door to door of the hotels, and I started asking them for their soap. As you can imagine they probably thought that I was crazy. But when I explained to them what we were doing and what I’ve seen in the village, they immediately got on board. So, our partnership with hotels has occurred very fast. (we have over 500 hotels that we are working with). They gave us bars of soap every month, and they were pleased to reduce their waste from the hotels. They were also proud to help the local community with hygiene. Since our mission is not only to make hundreds of soap bars that we give for free to hospitals and schools but also teaching the kids how to use the soap.
I suppose that some Ripplezoo’s reader might not be aware of the process of recycling soap. Could you explain how the recycling process is handled?
Of course. Eco-Soap Bank recycles hotel soap with a soap press and recycling method developed by Diversey’s “Soap for Hope” program. So, every soap bar is safe to use and has a lot of labor. We chose to do this is because we could hire underprivileged women. What we do is we identify women who could use full-time fair wage employment, and we employ them in our branches. By the way, we have four branches in Cambodia.
Is it like a big factory?
No, I wouldn’t say. It is more like a workshop.
So, when the soap is collected, the women come to the workshop. At that point, they need to sterilize the soap in order to make melted soap. We have a three-step sterilization process. The first step is scrapping the entire outer shell of the bar, then chlorinating the bar so that all batteries are killed. The next step is placing it in a mold and putting a little press on the top of it. So, we are applying some pressure to form a new bar of soap.
Which countries, expect Cambodia, Eco-Soap Bank work in?
We work mostly in Cambodia. But we have programs in Ruanda, Nepal, Tanzania, and Sierra Leone. The most important is that recycled soap stays in the country where it is recycled. For example, if we get soap from Ruanda hotels, then soap stays in Ruanda. So, we don’t ship any soap to another country.
How do you explain Eco-Soap Bank’s success since it was opened in 2014?
According to our calculation, we have distributed over than 1 million bars and supplied soap to nearly 700,000 people since 2014. I would say the success is straightforward because there’s a lot of soap being thrown away around the world. We don’t buy soap, we just utilize trash, and we turned it into a product that people can use it. I would say we are doing something ingenious or innovative. It is because we are very dedicated to not letting anything with some health benefits or health purpose go into the trash.
Looking at the future, with success also comes challenges. What will you be focusing on?
We will be trying to open new country branches because we are only working in the five countries right now. And there are a lot of countries that have hotels throwing away soap. When we opened our branches, I realized that there are so much more than needs to be started because hotels are throwing away soap every day. One of the challenges is we hope to raise enough funds in order to open new branches not only to save the soap but also to employ local women at the same time. Another challenge is from country to country there are differences in the culture, so it is sensitive to find the right partners to somehow explain in a locally relevant way: what hygiene is and what bacteria is and other things like that. It is not necessarily challenging but it’s something we prioritize, and we need to figure out it.
To find out more about the Eco-Soap Bank, please click on the following link