Samir Lakhani was building fish ponds in northern Cambodia, part of a project designed to help remote, rural villagers achieve food security, when he witnessed something that alarmed him: a woman in the village washing her child using powdered laundry detergent.
Laundry detergent can be unsafe for humans, especially babies. The sight made him realize that although the communities he was working with were in need of sustainable sources of protein and income, they also had a dire need for something much simpler: Soap.
A light bulb went on in his head. Lakhani knew that one in eight Cambodian children dies from a preventable disease before reaching the age of five, and that hand-washing with soap is the most effective way to reduce those diseases. As an Environmental Studies major, he also knew that in Cambodian cities popular with tourists -- in particular those surrounding Ankgor Wat -- hundreds of hotels were likely throwing away thousands of pounds of used bar soap.
So Lakhani decided to recycle it.
"I immediately returned to my guest house in town and went to the local market," Lakhani told MTV News. "I got a whole gamut of food utensils, all the way from a meat grinder to buckets for water, and meat cleavers and potato peelers, so that I could try to come up with a sanitary recycling process.
"I can't imagine what the housekeepers must have thought," Lakhani continued, laughing. "That I was running a butcher shop out of their hotel, probably."
Now, just a little over a year later, Lakhani's Eco-Soap Bank is a fully-operational nonprofit organization that has successfully supplied sterilized, recycled soap from hotels to over 150,000 Cambodians in need in the last year.
"Those catastrophic events have left a very deep scar," Lakhani said, "and a shadow over the land that's apparent as soon as you arrive there ... It also killed most of the country's doctors and totally dismantled the health care infrastructure.
"In Cambodia there are only a handful of hospitals, so if you're a rural villager and your child falls sick -- and God forbid it’s a hygiene-related illness because there's not enough sanitation or hygiene in the home -- the chances of that child dying are much higher, because you'll have to travel a very, very long distance, sometimes almost 500 kilometers to get to the closest hospital."
In addition to helping the environment by preventing thousands of pounds of soap and plastic water bottles from sitting in landfills (tourists can only drink bottled water, and Cambodia has almost no recycling infrastructure), Eco-Soap Bank has also partnered with a number of local NGOs to distribute the soap to the schools, orphanages and communities that need it most and -- perhaps most importantly -- to teach the recipients how to use soap effectively.
"We don’t want to go into a village that has never seen soap before in their entire lives, hand them a bar or bottle of recycled soap and then simply leave," Lakhani said. "We want to make sure that we're actually educating people and helping to change the culture around hygiene and health."
There are a few much larger organizations that recycle soap from hotels within the United States, but Eco-Soap Bank is unique in that it avoids international shipping costs by recycling soap and bottles from hotels within Cambodia and also supports the local community by employing Cambodians on the ground to help with the manufacturing and distribution process. Lakhani also said that Eco-Soap Bank works in collaboration with a company called Sealed Air's "Soap for Hope" program to make a special effort to employ disadvantaged Cambodian women.
"We try to hire either widowed women or single mothers who have no other source of income," Lakhani said. "This is a fantastic program for them because it's a reliable income stream, and the women feel good about belonging to a community working for the benefit of fellow Cambodians in need."
Lakhani noted that in the future, Eco-Soap also hopes to provide employees with educational resources to help them improve their literacy and numeracy. He has a lot of ideas about expansion; he said he hopes to one day create an alliance of Eco-Soap Banks all over the world.
"In Cambodia, the need for soap and hygiene is especially dire. Over 75 percent of the entire nation, more than 10 million people, live in rural areas and do not have steady access or access at all to soap ... But this issue is not unique to Cambodia. Eventually, depending on our success, we wish to replicate this all over the world, especially in other metropolitan areas with surrounding slums."
The 'Most Rewarding Work'
Lakhani said that being able to witness how communities are positively impacted by the work he's doing through the Eco-Soap Bank has been incredibly rewarding.
"These children do not want to be sick," he said. "They do not want to spend time in a hospital -- it's very inspiring when you come to a community that wants to improve their situation, and that can be done very simply -- it's the most rewarding work."
Lakhani encouraged anyone interested in helping out to get involved with the work being done at the Eco-Soap Bank, or to go out and start their own humanitarian projects based on the issues they're most passionate about, emphasizing that anything is possible.
"I really do believe anyone can take the future into their very own hands," Lakhani said. "When you look at the world's despair and the world's overall problems, it's intimidating. But I really do believe that whatever the mission is -- to make the world cleaner, healthier, more economically viable -- young people can do it themselves by relying on their own instincts and their own tenacity."