What life it is to live, which has no experiences in it. Our experiences have the power to nudge our sensibilities and make us think beyond finite. When these experiences get transformed into knowledge, they create a vision.
Meet Samir Lakhani, the Founder of Eco-Soap Bank, a non-profit organization headquartered in U.S. working to save, sanitize, and supply recycled hotel soap for the developing world. Samir’s visit to Cambodia in 2014 changed his outlook towards life when he saw a village woman bathing her son with toxic laundry powder. The site not only reflected the circumstances that people lived in, but also triggered an immediate call for action.
Cambodia, a Southeast Asian nation, attracts a lot of visitors every year to its glittering historical and archaeological exhibits and beautiful low-lying landscapes. However, in spite of being one the fastest growing economies in Asia, approximately 4 million people out of the total population in Cambodia lack access to safe water, and 6 million lack access to improved sanitation. Exposed to the harsh living conditions of Cambodian villages and to the gravity of the matter, he decided to bring a difference.
For Real Life Heroes – By Manvi, I spoke to 2018 Young Entrepreneurs Awards Winner, Samir Lakhani on his initiative Eco-Soap Bank and how it impacts the lives of millions of people living in rural communities in developing countries. Read on!
Manvi: Congratulations on being 2018 Young Entrepreneurs Awards Winner! Can you tell us about your organization Eco-Soap Bank?
Samir: Thanks! Eco-Soap Bank is a global nonprofit organization which employs economically disadvantaged women to recycle leftover hotel soap and redistribute it to children in need! To date, we’ve hired 147 women in 10 countries; and we’ve donated soap to 1.1 million people!
Manvi: It all started with a trip to Cambodia, what you saw changed your life and outlined a purpose for you to fulfill. Can you share with us that overwhelming moment and the impact it had on you?
Samir: That’s exactly correct—when I travelled to Cambodia five years ago, I saw something that would change my life forever: I saw a village woman bathing her son, but she was scrubbing his skin with toxic laundry powder.
I felt I needed to do something but didn’t know what. As I returned to my hotel room and stepped into the bathroom, it hit me like a lightning bolt! My housekeepers had thrown away a bar of soap that I had barely touched and replaced it with a new one. I knew in that moment that I could begin saving those wasted soap bars to save lives in rural Cambodia and beyond!
Manvi: With comparatively low levels of access to basic sanitation and hygiene in rural areas, what according to you is the key to sustain improved rural sanitation?
Samir: Building lifelong, healthy habits is the single most important factor to sustain improved sanitation. We work in over 2,000 schools not just to provide soap, but also regular hygiene education so that children can form good hygiene habits and create generative change in their families.
Manvi: Do you operate outside Cambodia too? How do you choose your countries of impact (Do you do some kind of survey or do you make a visit to various countries and connect with people through focused group networks?) Why not India?
Samir: We’re proud to work in 10 countries around the world in Africa and Asia. We choose locations based on the need in the community, but also the number of hotels. That being said, we’d love to work in India to create jobs for women and also connect hygiene with children. If anyone reading this has good connections with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) which we can partner with in major Indian cities, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Manvi: Your organization creates employment opportunities for women with no dependable source of income. How?
Samir: That’s correct—we provide employment to women from difficult backgrounds to recycle soap and provide hygiene education in schools. These women have incredible stories of courage and survival that inspire me each and every day. We employ these women from donations. If you are interested in supporting women’s employment, please donate here: https://ecosoapbank.org/donate/
Manvi: Apart from supplying eco-soaps to rural areas, do you also provide basic hygiene education to people (like holding workshops)?
Samir: Exactly right—we want to be able to teach a man to fish rather than just handing out fish. Hygiene education is core to changing habits. Every single bar of Eco-Soap we provide is accompanied with hygiene education.
Manvi: Tell us, as a social entrepreneur yourself, what impact do social enterprises have on society? And, why do we need them now more than ever?
Manvi: Look back at your journey, what are some of the most defining/impactful moments that you can recall? And, why?
Samir: The most defining/impactful experience of my career with Eco-Soap Bank was when we hired our first employee, Thearang. When we first employed Thearang to be a hygiene ambassador, she was so shy she had difficulty lifting her head to meet our gaze. Life circumstances (which I choose not to disclose) left her with little confidence. Five years later, she runs an Eco-Soap Bank branch managing 13 other women and regularly interacting with 5-star hotel managers. She has grown into an agent for change and she continues to inspire every fiber of my being.
Eco-Soap Bank currently operates in 10 countries with ~150 women employees. Since its launch in 2014, the company has served ~6,50,000 people, recycled ~24,000 pounds of waste and donated ~170,000 soaps.