It was 2014 and social entrepreneur Samir Lakhani was working on sustainable aquaculture projects in the villages of Northern Cambodia. Watching a mother wash and bathe her new baby using laundry powder rather than soap is a vision that has stayed with him to this day.
It was also the inspiration for his next business venture.
“I noticed that nobody seemed in good overall health — whether it was an infection that wouldn’t go away or a child with diarrhea,” he told Sustainable Brands in a recent interview.
Asking around the village, he encountered many other families who could only afford laundry powder and many more who had no soap at all, saying it was too expensive.
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On returning to his hotel one evening, Lakhani noticed the housekeeper had replaced a bar of soap he had barely used — and he realized that if he could begin saving hotel soap, he could start saving lives.
With that, Eco-Soap Bank was born; today, it has grown to a thriving non-profit operating throughout 10 countries and employing more than 150 women. They collect leftover hotel soap, recycle it, sterilise it and then distribute it into their villages for everyone to access.
Clinics, schools and individuals that could not previously afford soap can now get it from the organization at half the market rate. And since there is no prevailing culture of handwashing in many of the communities Lakhani and his team serve, every distributed bar of soap is accompanied by hygiene education to ensure beneficiaries understand how proper hygiene can prevent disease and helps families save money on healthcare.
It is a model that is “perfectly scalable,” according to Lakhani, requiring only a robust tourism industry in a single area and a local need for healthier hygiene practices: “We franchise our soap-recycling process to organizations, allowing us to scale efficiently and to rescue as much soap as quickly as we can.”
In the last three years the company, headquartered in the US, has provided soap to more than 730,000 people, with over 1 million positively impacted by end of 2018. Last year, more than 1,900 schools were able to get soap at an affordable price, too.
There is also a specific focus on supporting women — providing fair wages to women that commonly struggle to find a reliable source of income. As well as taking on roles as soap recyclers and hygiene educators, the company also helps women in remote areas start their own Eco-Soap-selling micro-enterprises, as a way of lifting themselves out of poverty.
“We employ women of various backgrounds, including widows, the disabled and HIV-positive individuals, where stigma, gender bias and domestic pressures prevent them from being able to lift their families out of poverty,” says Lakhani, whose parents came from poverty in East Africa. “As well as jobs, we provide free daily English and vocational classes to our 147 women for the day they wish to transition to the traditional economy and secure gainful employment.”
In Cambodia, one hygiene ambassador called Souey has been able to turn her life around with the company’s help. Her family had been living on the same land for generations when her two children fell sick with dengue fever.
“Fortunately, they recovered in a nearby hospital. But the medical bill was so high, Souey was faced with the impossible decision of whether to sell her land — her legacy — and lose everything. But then she heard about our hygiene ambassadors program,” Lakhani says.
Souey immediately enrolled and began travelling through villages selling soap. Villagers listened to her advocate for better hygiene and began buying her soap, one bar at a time. In six weeks, Soeuy had sold more than 3,000 Eco-Soap bars and earned enough to pay off her debts and save her home.
Of course, the enterprise is also supporting the hotel industry get to grips with its waste problem. Recycling soap is a carbon net-positive process, preventing the release of carbon dioxide and offering hotels a smart solution to their soap-waste problem. Currently, the 960 hotels that have partnered with Eco-Soap Bank to donate their soap are reducing their waste by almost 90,000 pounds a year.
“Together, this partnership saves lives,” Lakhani asserts. “We’re able to efficiently recycle soap, and in some instances, hotels buy it back for cheaper than other commercial products. It's a win-win-win situation between the environment, hotels and the people we serve.”