Samir Lakhani noted a need for basics like soap while volunteering in rural Cambodia
Then a college student, he started a nonprofit to repurpose discarded soap from hotels
The group has provided hygiene education and soap to 650,000 people so far
Samir Lakhani has been selected as a 2017 Top 10 CNN Hero. Hero of the Year will be revealed during ‘CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute,’ airing live, Sunday, Dec. 17 at 8 p.m. ET.
For many Cambodians, a bar of soap is a luxury they cannot afford.
Yet children living in rural areas are vulnerable to disease simply because they are unable to wash their hands.
According to UNICEF, diarrheal diseases alone account for one in five deaths of Cambodian children age 5 and younger, largely due to poor hygiene practices.
In 2014, as a college student, Samir Lakhani saw the issue firsthand while volunteering in a Cambodian village.
“I remember quite vividly a mother bathing her newborn in a basin filled with laundry powder and water,” said Lakhani, now 24. “It’s an image I’ll never get out of my mind.”
Lakhani was staying in a hotel in Cambodia, and he realized that one solution to the problem was being thrown away: barely-used bars of soap.
So, he figured out a way to save this soap and give it a second life.
While still attending the University of Pittsburgh, Lakhani started the Eco-Soap Bank. The nonprofit recycles discarded bars of soap from hotels in Cambodia and distributes it to people in need.
While there are similar programs that recycle hotel soap, Lakhani’s focus in Cambodia is unique.
Today, the organization has four recycling centers across the country, providing jobs to 35 local women. The used bars are sanitized and remolded into new bars or melted down into liquid soap.
So far, more than 650,000 people have benefited from the group’s soap and hygiene education.
“What I love most is that we are killing three birds with one stone,” Lakhani said. “We are keeping waste out of landfills, employing locals and spreading soap all over the country.”
CNN’s Meghan Dunn spoke with Lakhani about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: Why is it difficult for rural Cambodians to access soap?
Samir Lakhani: First is affordability. If you’re earning only $1.50 every single day, you’re not going to spend $1 of your daily wage on an imported bar of luxury soap. They’re going to prioritize feeding their families. And if they can afford soap, they will pick the least expensive option, which is usually detergent, which is so harmful and toxic on the skin.
The second reason is access. The demand is so low, shopkeepers and local markets have stopped stocking soap. The last reason is, very simply, because many Cambodians don’t really understand where illness and disease come from, they don’t really take the appropriate steps towards mitigating those effects. And that includes use of bar soap.
CNN: Eco-Soap Bank’s work is based in Cambodia and largely run by Cambodians. What are the benefits of being in the same country you’re serving?
Lakhani: (It) has a ton of benefits, the first one being able to very quickly respond to outbreaks, such a cholera and impetigo and other things like that. Almost immediately, we’re able to use our stockpile of soap and critically address whatever crisis is present.
Another overlooked benefit is the opportunity to be able to hire local deserving employees who can immensely benefit from steady employment from our program.
CNN: What’s it like for the women you hire?
Lakhani: Our soap recyclers are all local women who were striving to find some source of reliable, predictable incomes. They face immense hardship. And unless someone is willing to invest in their future, it’s hard to crawl out of that. The women that we employ currently have been able to provide for their entire families, pay down debt and resume education for their children.
We believe very firmly in the intellectual capabilities of our staff members. We provide them with free daily English classes and other business skills training.
And the second type of employee can work from home or they can work from their own store. We give them a free supply of our soap to sell, generate incomes for them and their families, and also generally promote hygiene in the community.
CNN: What does the future look like for Eco-Soap Bank?
Lakhani: Lack of hygiene is not something that’s unique only to Cambodia. It’s seen across the developing world. The developing world is also home to some of the busiest tourism centers in the world. We can assume that they’re producing equally large amounts of used soap that should be redirected to the people who need it.
We’re looking at seven countries to expand to. We’ve scratched the surface. Especially when you see it firsthand, you just realize you really have a lot to do.
I did not expect to be so effective by such an early age, especially without the previous professional training (to run a nonprofit). If you have one part drive and maybe one part naivety or foolishness, you can do anything.
Want to get involved? Check out the Eco-Soap Bank website and see how to help.
To donate to Eco-Soap Bank, click the CrowdRise widget below.