A research trip to Cambodia prompted a University of Pittsburgh graduate to change his career trajectory and create an international nonprofit organization aimed at helping people get soap.
In a remote village where he was studying climate change, Samir Lakhani watched a woman bathing her newborn son, scrubbing his skin with laundry detergent.
It was all the woman could afford to clean her baby.
“It fundamentally changed me,” Lakhani said.
The experience sparked the idea for Lakhani’s Eco-Soap Bank, a nonprofit that partners with hotels across the globe to recycle, sterilize and distribute bars of soap to families with limited access to hygiene products. Lakhani, who still lives in Pittsburgh, started the organization about six years ago, and since, the company has grown to provide soap to 13 developing countries and provide jobs to nearly 150 women. The 27-year-old was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for social entrepreneurship this year, and in 2017, Lakhani was named a CNN Hero.
“There’s an enormous gap when it comes to access to hygiene that you and I take for granted,” Lakhani said.
In 2014, Lakhani was a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying environmental science when he decided to go to Cambodia for an internship. He was working on a research project on climate change and how small villages in remote parts of the globe were reacting and adapting. That’s when he saw the woman bathing her son with the detergent.
He was baffled. He approached the woman to ask why she was using laundry detergent, and she told him it was all she could afford in terms of hygiene products. It would cost her two days wages to purchase a single bar of soap.
Returning to his hotel later that day, Lakhani noticed that the housekeeping staff had thrown away a bar of soap he had barely used. He began pondering what he called a mountain of soap that is wasted in the hotel industry. Hotels waste 5 million bars of soap per day worldwide and about 2 billion bars a year, Lakhani said.
This is remarkable, Lakhani said, considering the number of deaths caused each year by poor hygiene. In 2016, there were 829,000 deaths worldwide due to issues with water, sanitation and hygiene, according to the World Health Organization.
Lakhani started Eco-Soap Bank in that very hotel room in Cambodia and has since expanded to 13 countries, including Cambodia, South Africa, Rwanda and others.
Eco-Soap Bank employs women from remote villages in developing countries across the world. Partnering with local hotels, the women collect leftover soap from the hotels and take them to recycling workshops. There, the soap is sterilized and recycled into brand-new bars, which are then distributed to health clinics, schools and hospitals.
Lakhani estimated that the nonprofit currently employs 147 women worldwide. They are paid about $200 a month, substantially more than the approximately $15 a month women earn in developing countries, he said.They also receive health benefits and in-house education.
“If we can use raw materials to create employment for women, that’s an added benefit,” he said. “Women typically reinvest 90% of their income back into their families. If we really wanted to holistically help families in the developing world, we need to primarily employ women.”
The nonprofit is based in Pittsburgh and relies primarily on funding from Pittsburgh, Lakhani said. It can be challenging to get local funders to connect with work that is happening in faraway, remote places. But in the future, Lakhani hopes to continue scaling the organization to even more developing countries, and he hopes to get local hotels in Pittsburgh involved in the recycling process.
“I’ll tell you, this work has been a dream,” he said. “It has absolutely flown by. It’s continuously challenging and rewarding, and I have no doubt I’m going to keep doing this for the next five, 10, 15 years.”