by Junita Thakorlal
Samir Lakhani clinches the prestigious CNN Hero title through a novel idea that gives hope to women in poverty.
Growing up watching CNN’s annual show CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute with stars in his eyes, Samir Lakhani never realized that he himself would be awarded this coveted title through the creation of Eco-Soap Bank, which impacts hundreds of thousands in poverty, creating a micro-economy through recycled soap.
The year was 2013 and Samir Lakhani, then a 20-year-old sophomore student at University of Pittsburgh decided to go on vacation with his sister to South East Asia. He took to Cambodia right away. Cambodia is a tourist haven, attracting over 5 million tourists annually who aim to experience the exotic temples, lush forest adventures, and cheap food and beer, all of which can be afforded at pennies on the dollar. Voted by Trip Advisor as one of the best places to visit in the world, a stark contrast to the fact that Cambodia also has a child mortality rate hovering at 14%.
Seeing first-hand how people lived below the poverty line, he was motivated to do something to help them. He decided to come back a year later through his environmental studies major, as an intern on a global climate change project. Witnessing the severe lack of hygiene and sanitation standards in remote villages, and especially how it affected children, he knew he needed to do something more, something drastic, or more children would die due to not having a simple thing such as hand soap.
Reminiscing about the turning point which led to the formation of Eco-Soap Bank, Lakhani shares, “I remember watching a regular village mom bathing her newborn child outside using laundry powder, which is an inexpensive alternative to soap. I mean, that couldn’t have been safe for the baby! But what was the mother supposed to do with no affordable means to purchase soap, something my hotel was throwing out and replacing for me every day! That is when it struck me.”
With no savings and a mountain of student loan debt, he pondered how as a bachelor, he was to find sustainable sources of soap at little or no cost and distribute to remote villages. He recounted beginning his days going from hotel to hotel on his bicycle, collecting used and discarded soap bars, which raised many an eyebrow. He took these bars back to his hotel room to sanitize and sterilize, grind into a powder with meat cleavers which he purchased from the local market, and then molded the powder into soap bars which he then distributed to remote villages.
He would also sanitize used plastic bottles with food-grade bleach, and fill with water and powdered soap to form a liquid soap. “I remember being escorted to the dumpsters behind the hotels to dig for the empty plastic water and coke bottles. I would be covered in filth head-to-toe sifting through trash bins, watching a man defecating on the street next to my tuk-tuk with no form of hand sanitization whatsoever, but I just kept going. My motivation was that the more I collected, the more I could clean and fill with liquid soap, the more people I could help.”
4 years later, Lakhani strings tennis rackets by day to pay his own bills which gives him the flexibility to work in different time zones to keep his non-profit organization afloat. He has partnered with the Government of Cambodia to form an alliance with over seventy-five non-governmental organizations which help him to run Eco-Soap Bank. Earlier this year, he opened branches in Nepal and Rwanda, employing a total of over 80 poverty-stricken women who process millions of bars of used soap to produce 600,000 bars of recycled soap. 80% of the soap goes to schools, orphanages, hospitals, and government-sponsored community programs. The remaining 20% is directed to hygiene ambassadors who sell the soap in remote areas.
“Hygiene ambassadors essentially distribute and sell soap to remote areas with inadequate access to hygiene. These women are nominated by our non-government organization partners; they are unskilled women from remote villages who demonstrate some need to either support themselves or their families. We train them with basic entrepreneurship and admin skills, and they are given unlimited access to soap to essentially sell at a price that is much cheaper than luxury soap.
“Souey, for example, has 5 children. The entire family was struck by Dengue fever and her children were hospitalized. They lived only twenty kilometers from the nearest hospital but she couldn’t afford treatment,” Lakhani shares, reminiscent. “There’s another story of a Cambodian landmine victim who used the profit from soap-selling to pay for a prosthetic leg. Another one of two 5th grade boys who get to go back to school because mom is able to pay for school uniforms and paper. And what of the HIV-positive women who finally have a fighting chance at survival, where it isn’t just about growing enough rice or drying enough fish to store through the dry season.”
An average 200-room hotel in Cambodia with an 80% occupancy throws away an estimated 2,000 pounds (1 ton) of wasted soap each year. One can buy a luxury soap bar for $1.50 USD, but with the help of these women, Eco-Soap Bank is able to offer recycled soap bars for 12.5 cents USD. “We don’t purchase this soap, it’s all donated to us by these hotels instead of them throwing it out. We just process it and these women sell it at a slight markup. So, our cost is extremely low which we pass onto the people that need it, and we can help empower these women to provide for their families.”
48 unskilled Cambodian women now work in urban centers full-time on soap processing for Eco-Soap Bank, while an additional 30 work in rural areas. “Part of their curriculum includes free daily education equivalent to what an American teenager would receive, including an English intensive, computer education with basic software, basic numeracy, and navigation through life skills such as banking, how to save, and how to type. The aim is to transition them within a 2-year period into the economy to work with a hotel, hospital or tourism program.”
Lakhani shares that full-time work for Cambodian women is rare. “You need to understand, these people live a tumultuous life, not being able to afford the basics to just simply live. And when their family or children fall sick, they need to be home to care for their family however they can. This is why so many fall back into Cambodian life.”
He has also managed to hire four women in both Rwanda and Nepal. “These are important areas. All four of the Rwandan women are HIV-positive and process soap from twelve hotels. The earthquake in Nepal left their communities with a lack of sewer infrastructure so I’m working with other groups to really get things going there. We already have signed up thirty-five hotels.”
Lakhani, whose own parents were forced to flee Africa under the Idi Amin edict in 1972 to settle in America, is circling back to Africa. Eco-Soap Bank is currently looking to expand into Ethiopia, Angola, and Tanzania. Also on the radar are Bangladesh and an island off the coast of Australia called Vanuatu. “We are just getting started, scratching the surface, there is a lot more to do,” he shares earnestly.
“These people have less than us, smile more, cherish what they have more, they laugh more. They are the ones that have taught me a lot in life, not to get intimidated by big corporations or by what my peers may think, but to remember what is important in life, to follow my dreams, and to live an authentic life.”
To learn more about Eco-Soap Bank and how to donate to their initiative, more information can be found on their website www.Eco-Soapbank.org.