After witnessing firsthand the lack of knowledge about hygiene in rural Cambodia, an American student launched a project to recycle soap from hotels and make it available to local schools and NGOs. Now, his own NGO, Eco Soap Bank, employs thirty local people.
One of the main challenges facing Cambodia is sanitation. Those most affected by poor hygiene are children, who often fall victim to diarrheal and respiratory infections. An estimated 10,000 Cambodian children under the age of five die each year from diarrheal illnesses, according to UNICEF. Simple practices, such as handwashing with soap, can prevent these infections. However, many Cambodians—especially those in rural areas—do not have access to something as simple as soap.
The first few times he visited Cambodia, American Samir Lakhani wasn’t aware of this issue. He was too busy falling in love with the fascinating history of the country and the generosity of the people he met. However, during one trip, he traveled to the countryside with an NGO he was working with. There, he saw a woman washing her child… with laundry detergent. The scene shocked him.
When he started asking around, Lakhani discovered that a lot of people in rural Cambodia were using improper washing techniques like using detergent or, at the other end of the spectrum, just dirty water. In fact, there is a major lack of awareness and information about basic sanitation in Cambodia. Moreover, regular soap is expensive. One bar can cost 60 or 70 cents. A person living in an urban slum might only make $1.50 a day, while his rural countryman is likely to make much less.
Horrified by the image of the child bathed in detergent, Lakhani was determined to do something to help this situation. He found his answer when he returned to Siem Reap, a tourist hotspot in Cambodia. The many hotels that cater to foreign visitors throw away a huge amount of soap that is scarcely used by its guests. Lakhani got the idea of recycling this soap and redistributing it to rural populations. He quickly got the management of local hotels on board. In 2014, he launched his NGO, Eco-Soap Bank.
“It is powerful to see what would have been trash used for health and empowerment”
We started collecting soap from these hotels. Our method is simple. We cut it up, sanitize it and then meld it together into new bars, which we scent with tea leaves. We then package it with recycled newspaper.
“Our hope is that the kids will spread these ideas to their community”
We are now providing soap to 202 schools, serving 50,000 to 60,000 kids. We work with local NGOs to train teachers about the importance of instilling good hygiene practices in the kids. Our hope is that the kids will then spread these ideas in the community. We ask the schools to share data points with us, including child absentee rates, hospital visits and latrine use. When we see that a hygiene program is failing and teachers aren’t sticking to it, we keep going back and try again. We often tell them it is a way to combat high absentee rates as lack of hygiene can result in illness.
Some of these schools don’t even have proper taps, so we sometimes help install them. But if you only have one faucet, it is difficult to get all the kids to wash their hands. So we also started 'upcycling' buckets into handwashing stations for the kids. So far, we’ve distributed about 100 of these buckets along with our soap deliveries.
The rest of our soap (about 25%) goes towards community projects. Wherever we work, we partner with local non-profits who are embedded in the community and who can monitor the hygiene situation. Often, we work with them to train local women as soap sellers. They can make a living selling soap to the community and, in doing so, spread awareness and access.
All of these programs take time, however. You need to start the conversation about bacteria and sanitation and keep coming back to it. We have seen the demand for proper hygiene rise … but it is slow.
“Most of our employees are local women”
Our project is totally non-profit. At the beginning, we did small-scale fundraising. Now, we have several big corporate sponsors behind our project, but there is so much to do that we are always looking for more help and to expand.
Since we started, our operation grew quickly. We now collect soap from 227 different hotels all over Cambodia and we also get regular shipments of soap from an Australian non-profit called Soap Aid. We’ve expanded to three locations. Our main office is in Siem Reap but we also work in the capital, Phnom Penh, and a beachside tourist hub called Sihanoukville. We want to open a fourth branch in Banlung, an eco-tourism spot.
We now have thirty employees. Investing in the Cambodian economy is also important to us. Most of our employees are local women who were struggling to make ends meet. We have a Cambodian management staff, drivers who pick up the soap and employees who work the soap presses. We give all of these people a reliable income. We also provide them with English classes. We don’t want them to manufacture soap their whole lives, we want to help build them a sustainable future.
“The trash provides people with income as well”
The hardest thing about the project is the fact that soap is a non-renewable resource. It is always used up and there is always a need for more. Sometimes, that’s an overwhelming thought. However, Cambodia is quickly developing and, as the standard of living rises, it will lead to better hygiene.
When we pick up 300 to 500 pounds of soap from the hotels, it is amazing to consider that it would otherwise have ended up in Cambodia’s overflowing landfills. It is powerful to see what would have been trash used for health and empowerment. The trash provides people with income as well. The model keeps giving.