The Surf Ballroom & Museum is a historic rock and roll landmark in Iowa that showcases history while also promoting the future of music.
Samir Lakhani is a force of nature. Since 2014, his organization Eco-Soap Bank has employed nearly 150 economically disadvantaged women in ten developing countries to recycle leftover hotel soap. They then sanitize, remold or liquify it, and distribute the new product to people in need to reduce disease.
So far, the organization has provided recycled soap and free hygiene education to over 1.1 million people in the developing world. And now, he is launching a new zero-waste and nonprofit soap product, Project EcoSoap, with the goal to reach 2.5 million people with soap by the end of 2020.
I caught up with Lakhani while he was working in Cambodia to learn more about what inspires him, what drives him, and what's next.
1. How did you first begin working in Southeast Asia?
My parents were refugees from East Africa — and living in the U.S., they never forgot to tell me how big the world was, and that there were people out there that needed our help. This was the foundation of my drive to travel.
My sophomore year studying environmental sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, I was required to fulfill an internship. I decided to go to Cambodia to study the devastating effects of climate change upon communities who lived off the land for generations.
I chose Cambodia because it's one of the most rural countries in the world — and these communities often look the same way they did 1,000 years ago. I wanted to see that — and give these people a voice.
2. What was your inspiration behind Eco-Soap Bank?
While working in rural Cambodia, I witnessed something I will never forget: I saw a village woman bathing her newborn son, but she was scrubbing his skin with laundry detergent. A harsh and toxic alternative to bar soap that should never be applied to the skin. The baby was crying.
I didn't know what I could do, but as I returned to my hotel room and stepped into the bathroom, I realized that my housekeeper had thrown away a bar of soap I had barely even touched!
It was in that lightning bolt moment, I knew what I could do for that village woman and for countless others like her.
Today, Eco-Soap Bank employs women in 16 cities worldwide (10 countries) to recycle hotel soap. We've reached over 1.1 million plus people with soap and free hygiene education — and we're just getting started!
3. What's the most difficult part of starting a nonprofit?
Advocacy. Founders need to both run the organization and advocate for the mission as well. This is a full-time job, but honestly, it is an honor to do.
We should not live in a world where over 2 million children die per year because of diarrhoeal diseases that could easily be stopped by the simple act of handwashing!
This is especially urgent because it is estimated that 5 million bars of hotel soap are thrown away every single day.
We can do something about this — and it's my life's work to redirect as much hotel soap to those who need it in this world.
4. What advice do you have for young people wanting to get into philanthropy?
Just start it. Don't overthink it.
The more you overanalyze the work, the more likely you'll be discouraged by the mountains of challenges that will arise. Obstacles need to be addressed one by one when they appear.
The only way to truly change the world is to dive deeply into what you believe in — and not to be discouraged before ever trying it out.
5. What are your long-term goals for Eco-Soap?
We want to reach 2.5 million people by the end of 2020 with lifesaving hygiene and free hygiene education. But, we can't do that without a groundswell of support from people who share our mission. I can't wait to advocate for this simple, cost-effective intervention that saves lives and restores dignity to so many.
6. Anything else you'd like to share?
We employ 147 women to recycle soap and their stories are inspiring and full of resilience. Providing predictable employment to women and mothers (along with health insurance) is the best way to invest in families, ensure children are going to school, and can receive proper nutrition.
Lastly, and this is important: soap-recycling is a win-win-win initiative.
Hotels can significantly reduce their waste protecting the environment, we can provide green jobs to women, and we can support hundreds of thousands of people with lifesaving soap!
For those who want to get involved, or make a difference through their everyday soap purchases, visit projectecosoap.org.
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