An inspirational chat with Samir Lakhani of Eco SoapBank who found an innovative way to help countless communities in need around the world with items to contribute to better health and well being. Samir Lakhani is a social entrepreneur dedicated to restoring health and dignity to developing countries. Before founding Eco-Soap Bank in 2014, Samir was deeply involved in aquaculture and nutrition projects in northern Cambodian villages. He has also developed solar lighting solution projects in Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Through his six years of nonprofit work in the areas of nutrition, water accessibility, and sanitation/hygiene, he has witnessed firsthand how delivering key products like soap transform the health and well-being of impoverished communities.
“Women typically reinvest 90% of their incomes back into their family units. So if we want to uplift entire family structures, we need to employ women. And so that has been our model since day one; and we work in countries all around the world.”– Samir Lakhani
May 28. Okay. It’s a 20 minutes in lockdown, but it’s really not, it’s more like three and a half months, but high, or are you, um, this is an interesting day today, cause we’re talking about big ideas and I think that, uh, when quarantine started, we all had this Epic list of things you were going to do; learn Japanese, learn how to create the perfect. Pyelle learn how to roll sushi, all of these things. Um, no judgments on whether you’ve gotten that loose, done or not. I’ve been trying to play the guitar very badly and that’s that’s about all I can. Um, at the moment, but I want to talk about the importance of, of having and creating a big idea and more importantly executing it. Um, cause that’s, uh, that’s just the most incredible thing in the world and you not only can execute it, but you can help a lot of people at the same time. So I’m really excited and honor that enjoined by simila Connie who has founded, um, Eco Soap Bank, which is an amazing organization designed to help communities in need around the world. And he also has the distinguished honor of being a CNN hero. So welcome. And thanks for, uh, thanks for joining me. We have a delay, we’ve got some ground on the system, but we’re going to just go with it. So say hi and tell us a little bit about eco soap bank and your mission. Gabriela. It’s good to be here. Um, eco soap bank does something simple, but very powerful. Uh, we employ women all over the world to recycle leftover soap from hotels and factories, which we then redistribute to children in schools and families, particularly the most vulnerable families. And slum communities and refugee camps. Everyone is talking about hand washing during the global pandemic. And so our mission has skyrocketed in terms of importance. And I’m very happy to say that we’re employing 154 women in the developing world to recycle soap. And we have reached 1.5 million people with soap in the last eight weeks. And these are families that typically don’t have access.
Well, that’s amazing. And I think in a big idea comes from finding a pain point, finding a resource and connecting them both. So when you came up with, well, first, how did you come up with this idea? And then what was the first step you took to get this done? Where does one start with a project as ambitious and as, as huge as this.
It’s a good question. And it’s an interesting question. Um, this organization started in a single moment, actually. So I was traveling through rural Cambodia when I witnessed the village mother bathing her newborn son, but unfortunately she was scrubbing his skin with. Laundry detergent. Uh, in that moment, I didn’t know what I could do. And naturally I’ve returned back to my relatively luxurious hotel room and stepped into the bathroom. And I realized that my housekeeper had thrown away a bar of soap. I had barely even touched. And it was in that Seminole moment. I knew that I needed to connect this waste. With the need. And, uh, so eco soap bank was founded in a hotel bathroom and it has since scaled, uh, to 13 countries around the world. And, uh, it’s even more important during the Corona virus.
So what is the first thing that I did? Well, I had this idea, this kernel of an idea. And so I hopped on a rickety bicycle and I think I was wearing a really, really ugly Hawaiian t-shirt and I showed up at. Five star hotels to speak to fancy, uh, general managers from Italy and France. And I was covered in sweat. I remember, and I basically asked them, give me your dirty soap. Don’t let it go to waste any more. It could save lives. And of course they thought I was totally crazy. But, uh, after I explained to them that their waste could save lives, that we could transform trash into treasure. They immediately got the idea it’s stuck. And now we have over 1200 hotel partners around the world and that’s only growing.
Okay. So you’re rolling this, uh, amazing eye is happening and then oops, pandemic. So hotels are taken down. It’s shipping is difficult. Supply chains are impacted. And I know from, you know, helping out here and there and different, you know, Parts of the world, even on a good day, it’s difficult to get supplies where they need to be. And it’s difficult to get things to work the way you wish they would work. So what happened at that moment, you know, because that’s also a big deal on a big idea, how you give and how you, how you handle things that all of a sudden seem completely out of your control. What happens when everything’s sort of shut down?
So this kind of project where there had never been more of a need for. Of course, this global pandemic is it’s difficult and people are suffering and we should be sympathetic if not empathetic to that fact. But I think it would be wrong to say that this pandemic has only brought negative things. Um, for example, it has forced particularly nonprofit organizations to. Think creatively about how to preserve, if not scale their impact. During this difficult times, it holds us more accountable and it forces us out of our comfort zone. So I’ll give you one quick story. Um, this pandemic has fundamentally transformed the way Eco Soap Bank bank operates and I’ll tell you why. So, as you mentioned, hotels are shuttering by the day. And so we had a serious problem on our hands. We had 154 women, we were committed to maintain on payroll, but they had no leftover hotel soap to recycle. And so what we did is we had the idea to reach out directly to soap factories instead of hotels, to see if there was any waste there in Gabriela, what we found fundamentally changed our organization. We found that soap factories around the world waste as much, if not more soap than hotels ever did. And now we are collect in the last couple of weeks. We have collected over 200 metric, tons of soap that ordinarily would have gone to landfills. And we have redirected it to our women to recycle because we plan to reach over 3 million people in the next few weeks.
That’s incredible in which countries are operating in. What’s the plan moving forward?
Sure. So we specialize in the developing world because employment of women in the developing world can really transform family units. I want to share with you one statistic that, uh, brings, uh, brings me a lot of joy and that joy, that statistic is; that women typically reinvest 90% of their incomes back into their family units. So if we want to uplift entire family structures, we need to employ women. And so that has been our model since day one. And we work in countries all around the world and, uh, and very small countries that typically don’t get any global coverage. We work in countries like Swazi land and Sierra Leone, Lebanon, and Cambodia. And I just want to share one, one thing about these countries take Sierra Leone for example, it’s a country of 8 million people, but there was only one single available ventilator. Which means that we must transition our focus from treatment to prevention. And during this pandemic soap can save lives.
So, and how is it? Is it also education? Because unless I think, yeah, something new is introduced and then people are taught..inaudible.. vent in that end. Cause it’s wonderful. They have the product and that’s incredible, but what happens on the other side to try to teach best practices, lead to chill.
Behavior change is extremely difficult. I mean, in this country, uh, we all know that, um, we should floss our teeth and exercise, but we have one of the biggest obesity epidemics in this country as well. So awareness and education is not enough. Sometimes there has to be community buy in and I’m happy to say. That the same principles actually apply to the development world as well. But with the avid added caveat of this global pandemic has actually raised awareness, if not legitimize, the powerful effects of hand washing with soap. Uh, and so with this increased global discourse and awareness surrounding hand washing it only enhances hygiene education outreach so that people will take this particular action more seriously. And I may also say that hygiene investments in hygiene is some of the most cost effective ways we can change the public health landscape in developing countries.
That’s incredible. I think people can’t quite picture it cause we’re all sort of caught up in our own, our own issues and our own four walls. But maybe talk to me a little bit about what it’s like for a community that, that. maybe cannot easily socially distance, um, and have, you know, compromised lifestyles where, I mean, what, what does it look like when you travel there and maybe cause I think for some people I know that, you know, being on a side of, um, fundraising for causes and things, unless you see it and unless you’ve been there yourself, it’s really, really incredibly difficult to convey the gravity of a situation. Um, talk us, just in real real terms, what you see.
I think, um, In no other circumstance, Gabriela has every single person on this planet experience, the same event. Um, and that’s a powerful phenomenon. Uh, we have all somehow gotten closer, at least to me during this global pandemic. And we have formed a new understanding and maybe a new level of empathy that previously wasn’t there. Now of course, with travel, going to places like Sierra Leone and Swazi land and Cambodia is off limits, but I would encourage people to think that let the data and let the images be sufficient. You don’t need to know that in, in a single slum in South Africa called Khayelitsha, there was only one available hospital. In that entire slum of 1 million people, we don’t need to go there to have an emotional response to understand the gravity of that problem. So what that means is that at all we have right now, the only currently available resources, we have are data and media and, um, That should be enough in this new world to develop a certain level of empathy. Um, because much of the developing world doesn’t have access to basic, uh, basic public health. I’ll just leave you with one additional statistic that keeps me up at night. In a country like Liberia. Only 1% of households have access to soap. Now you don’t have to go to Liberia to know that that is a problem and it needs to be addressed.
Absolutely. And so with all of this amazing structure that you feel, where do you go from here? What’s the plan for the future, obviously, to continue to define these, you know, these resources and supply for, with hygienic products they need, but what’s the, what’s the big, big, crazy dream.
So, um, we have, we have kind of a, on the wall, um, goal. Um, so maybe you go to space X and you see a large, um, image of Mars, right. And for us it’s different for us. It is not to allow a single bar of soap to ever be wasted ever again around the world. And we can’t stop until we save and rescue every single bar of soap from entering landfills, whether that is from a hotel, or a factory. And I would just say, if anyone has connections to soap companies or manufacturers, please get in touch with us at ecosoapbank.org. And the point is this. So we don’t ever want to let soap be wasted again. But secondly, if we can use those supplies to maximize employment for women, that is the best win, win situation I have ever heard of.
Absolutely. And that, that is, you know, I was going to say, how can people help? I mean, obviously the, the so resources and things, and I think it does give you pause, especially to someone like me who travels a lot and sees a lot of the waste, you know, where you can wash your hands once and you put this open the garbage, um, you know, I think we’ll think about things a lot differently, but you know, it can keep. Well donate or, you know, can they, if they are traveling in the future, are there opportunities for them to visit any of the projects on site and get involved and roll up their sleeves?
The most important thing that people can do and that we need right now, particularly because we are living in a digital era. But there was still life saving work continuing every single day. Um, people can go to our Facebook page. Um, our channel is @ecosoapbank and where we currently have the fundraiser where all dollars will be matched dollar for dollar up to $15,000. If people really want to make a cost effective impact that maximizes employment for women, this is the time to do it in such a difficult era.
Amazing. And tell me a little bit about what happened to you when you became a CNN hero. Cause it hasn’t been a game changer, you know, doing your, your work and you’re, you know, you’re kind of putting, putting it all out there, but what was that moment like? I’m curious. And how did that change everything for you moving forward?
You know, my, my perspective on it changes over time. Um, in the beginning, in the first couple of years, cause it’s been awhile since we received the award in 2017. In the beginning, of course I was totally bulldozed with emotion. I was totally taken by surprise for goodness sakes. I used to watch that show as a kid and now being on the show was utterly surreal. But now that I, now that I have some time and distance to internalize the, the event, I actually think it may have been. More premature than I had wanted it to be. And the reason I say this is because our work is just starting. We are just, we are, we’re employing 154 women, and we have just reached over 2 million people with soap and education in the last five years. However the need is so much bigger than that. And we have such a long way to go. And so what I’m beginning to now understand is that CNN heroes actually solve value in our idea. And now we have the responsibility to transform that idea into access, um, of soap to millions of more people. We have a responsibility to do that now with this accolade.
It’s amazing. And I love hearing that when you say, you know, you’ve reached what millions of people and you’re just getting started. I think that that’s amazing and inspirational. Um, you know, cause I think that that would be a great benchmark for anyone really, for you to say you’re at the beginning of the journey is incredible. So for, you know, I love the fact that you wrote on your bike and you just got out there and did it and you, you know, you figured it out on site. So anybody who’s. Back home during quarantine. What are your words of wisdom? If they’ve got a big, big, crazy idea, what should they be doing with that? Even if they can’t get out and buy, I’m hoping you’re going to say, well, what’s your best words of wisdom.
That’s a good, that’s a good question. Um, I would say, I would say this and it might sound a little abstract, but bear with me, please. Um, I think as an addendum, to what I said, that we’re just getting started here. It’s never to be satisfied with our impact. Um, I think that’s one thing for, at least to me that is very compelling, but secondly, we should let the problem define our actions rather than what.
What we want to do or what opportunities actually arise. So, one thing that we are always guided by is we’re always guided by the problem itself. What are the problems that women are facing and how can we alleviate that? What are the problems that communities around the world are facing and what can we do to better their lives?
I think if you’re always guided by that standpoint, you’ll never go astray. Um, and the work will naturally, uh, reveal itself. I think sometimes Gabriella we’re constantly searching for that idea that will change the world, but actually what we should be searching for is the problem and our respective place in that problem.
They love that. I think, yeah, a lot of us think we know best and sometimes it goes down to the most simple principle, just listening, listening, and responding and observing properly. So again, tell everybody the website, how they can get in touch with you if they want to help. Two things, guys, thank you for tuning in.
I hope everyone is safe and washing their hands, but please remember that we shouldn’t take such a thing for granted. Um, two things. Number one, please visit our website, eco soap bank.org, and get in touch with me. My email is on the website. Uh, secondly, if you’re on Facebook, please go to our channel eco soap bank and donate what is personally significant. Again, everything is matched dollar for dollar up to $15,000 as we seek to reach 3 million more people in the developing world, but the soap they need and deserve.
You are amazing. Thanks. Great chatting and keep doing a wonderful work that you and your team do. You too Gabriella. Thank you for having me.