INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of DERRECK KAYONGO
At the risk of sounding like a broken record (or an overused quote from some classic movie), it is sometimes the simplest ideas that make the biggest differences. After noticing that hundreds of thousands of soap bars were being thrown away by hotels all over the nation, and knowing from first-hand experience that hand-washing is among the most effective and inexpensive ways to prevent diarrheal diseases and pneumonia, which together account for 3.5 million child deaths annually (UNICEF, Soap, Toilets, and Taps, 2009), Derreck Kayongo decided to create an organization that ensures the recycling of these bars. The Atlanta-based Global Soap Project has already allowed for the widespread distribution of soap in ten developing nations, working with local partners and fulfilling the educational needs required to make soap the norm. The project founded by this hero (literally, Derreck was nominated as one of this year’s CNN Heroes – vote for him here) should serve as a reminder that our world does not lack essential resources; we just haven’t found a way to distribute them safely to those who need them the most.
Can you briefly talk about the actual importance of soap? I feel like we are bombarded with information about the prevalence of malnutrition and lack of access to clean water, but less so about the devastating effects of not being able to use something as simple as soap.
The numbers are astonishing. 1.4 million deaths can be prevented each year by hand-washing with soap. Organizations like UNICEF have concluded that “opportunistic” diseases like diarrhea or cholera can be mitigated by 40% if you actually wash your hands. It’s more expensive to treat those diseases than to buy soap, but people in certain countries can’t afford that. Think of the economic impacts, in addition to the obvious mortality rates: if you have a mother supposed to take her child to the hospital every single day instead of working, it slowly digs into the GDP of that country. If you give soap to every child and teach them how to use it, it’ll be a lifesaver… even from unexpected factors like bullying.
Bullying? How so?
Girls with periods who cannot properly wash due to poor hygiene at school, especially boarding schools, will get teased and bullied by boys. Hygiene is extremely important, especially for women. Have you heard of Child Bed Fever?
No. What is it?
It happens when a woman is giving birth to a child and the midwife doesn’t have gloves or soap to wash her hands. Imagine going into a woman’s body with all the germs on their hands. The germs infect the child, especially when the umbilical cord needs to be cut. It can be deadly. And if you look at people with HIV/AIDS who don’t wash their hands because of a lack of access to soap, they will most likely die of any infection that they contract because their bodies are already weak as it is.
Going back a little bit in time… During your own experience in refugee camps, after you fled Uganda, was lack of sanitation an issue?
I first noticed it not only as a refugee, but in the schools where we were. There was just no soap to use! You started seeing people smell a lot, getting things like ringworm… No doubt that it was a real problem.
How did you come up with this brilliant idea?
Before the war began, my dad had two businesses: a printing press, and making soap in our house. He influenced me by teaching me the importance of soap from a very early age. I then moved to come to the United States, checked into a hotel, and they had three bars of soap: hand-washing, facial, and body. That did not include the shampoos. I wondered why they had all of this soap around. I was very happy and took two bars of soap in my bag… just in case!
Hey, everyone does that!
I didn’t know. I came back that evening and they had replaced everything. The third day, it happened again. I thought something was wrong, and that they would charge me for this soap. I took the bars that I had stolen to the concierge downstairs and said, “Look brother, do me a favor. I’ve been stealing your soap; I want you to take it back. I can’t afford it! Please give it back to the hotel and don’t charge me.” He started laughing and laughing… I asked what they did with the partially used soap, and he answered that they threw it away for etiquette purposes. I went back to my room and I lost it. Cried and cried. I thought about all the refugees who didn’t have access to soap. You hear that excuse all the time: there are not enough resources around the world. But this abundant resource was being thrown away. I gathered myself and thought: there has got to be a way to recycle this soap! I did research and found out from the Hotel Lodging Association that there were 4.6 million hotel rooms in the U.S. that threw away 800 million bars every year. That’s how Global Soap Project was born.
Once a hotel agrees to participate in the Global Soap Project, what happens and how easy is it for them?
They collect it and ship it. It’s important for the following point to be made: most of these hotels have housekeepers from all over the world who know what it’s like not to have soap. When a hotel manager talks to them about recycling soap, they are guaranteed a positive response. Housekeepers are the most appreciative people, but the least appreciated, in my opinion. If they know the soap they usually threw away is being recycled, it adds value to the job. They put it in a collection bin and use that bin to ship it to us.
The hotel has to pay for the shipping, then…
It’s tax-deductible, so they can actually write it off.
Is there a verification process to ensure the purity of the soaps once you receive them?
Once we get the soap, there are five stages. First, separate the soaps by hotel. We then peel the first layer of soap, which is what we use to shower. The inner layer is called “spiders,” and we put it into a machine, feed it to 215 degrees, and out comes a brand new soap cleaned and purified properly. Finally, we ship it to a lab in Connecticut that checks the bars for pathogens. If there aren’t any, we can then send the bars to the most vulnerable in developing nations.
To this day, do you have an estimate in terms of how many bars of soap you have been able to collect and ship, and how many estimated people that has benefited?
Sure. 150 tons of soap have been shipped. We were able to make about 200,000 bars of soap so far, and our goal is to make one million. If we estimate that four people share a bar of soap, the results are dramatically positive. The first country we went in was Kenya; I was a refugee there, so it felt appropriate to go back to the scene of the crime. [laughs] Then came Uganda, Southern Sudan (the newest country in the world), Ghana, Swaziland, Malawi, Haiti, Uzbekistan, Saint Lucia, and Iraq.
Could this concept be expanded into other products? There are enough food or shoes to go around the world; it’s just a problem of distribution.
You’re absolutely right. The key here will be responsibility and accountability. All these things can be recycled, but in a smart way that doesn’t sideline the market of these countries. Working closely with local partners, we’ve been able to ensure that the soap does not end up in the black market and gets in the hands of those who need it.
You’re not going to like me for this one, but shouldn’t the goal be to eventually have these people not be dependent on large shipments of soap from America?
Of course. But there is a reality that needs to be confronted: a lot of resources such as fat, color, and perfume are needed to make soap. Our goal is twofold: taking soap out of the environmental degradation market in the global north, repurposing it, making brand new soap, and setting up factories in Africa to build that new soap. I would like to eventually have Global Soap Project create local jobs.
Tell me about your experience going to Kenya, working with distribution partners, and interacting with local residents.
The first partner we worked with, Kenya Relief, owns orphanages with kids whose parents either died of AIDS or were killed in the conflict that occurred three years ago. They got 5,000 bars of soap: enough for a whole year. People were crying, smelling the soap, and suddenly incorporating it in their daily routine. Some of these hotels have very beautiful soap, so the reaction was spectacular.
How has life changed since you’ve been nominated as a CNN Hero four months ago?
Oh my goodness! I started this organization in my basement; now we’re in a factory and known by a lot of people in the development community. There’s nothing as powerful as a small idea that has the ability to change the lives of people around the world.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Of course, we need more money to recycle as much soap as possible and to put in the hands of those who need it. It’s only fifteen cents to recycle a bar of soap from the time it leaves the hotel to the time it gets to the poor. We need money to buy new machines to recycle more soap – the goal being one million bars every year. Also, please vote for me on CNN Heroes. This would bring light to the issue. It’s not about Derreck so much as it is about bringing about information on sanitation. Even in this country, 10,000 people die every year of causes that could have been prevented by hand-washing. Finally, if you have any readers in Atlanta, have them come and volunteer in our factory.