When 23-year-old Samir Lakhani travels, he likes to do something significant. Not the typical touristy stuff but rather, volunteering and providing service. He has traveled all over the world helping diverse organizations, from fish farming to providing nutritional supplements to children.
In 2014, Lakhani was in a remote village in Cambodia when he saw a mother bathing her infant in laundry detergent.
“My heart collapsed. We know how toxic it is but many Cambodians do not have access to basic things we take for granted. And often, there is also no education around it.” says the Pitt grad.
In Cambodia, 75% of residents in rural areas lack access to soap for hand washing.
Lakhani thought of the many soap bars routinely discarded by hotels in the resort town of Siem Reap, the country’s most popular tourist destination and home to the Angkor temples. “Why can’t we make use of it?” he asks. “I returned to my guesthouse that evening and started collecting soap the rest of my stay and experimenting. I was going back to my room with a meat grinder and whisks—the hotel staff thought I was crazy.”
According to UNICEF, over one-third of Cambodians live below the poverty line and the country has one of the highest child mortality rates in Southeast Asia. And as Lakhani notes, “One of the leading causes of hospital visitation in Cambodia is hygiene-related illness. Hand washing regularly reduces risk for infection by 60-70% and education around it is desperately needed. Especially with young children with underdeveloped immune systems.”
Lakhani spoke with the organization he was volunteering with about his idea. “I was working with Trailblazers Cambodia, a local NGO (Non-government organization) advocating for local organic agriculture and aqua culture and they supported it.”
He returned to the United States to raise money and along with funds from Trailblazers Cambodia, started Eco-Soap Bank. “I returned a few months later with a better strategy for soap recycling, hired staff members and jumped into it full time.”
In one year, Eco-Soap Bank has recycled 80,000 pounds of soap collected from hotels in Cambodia. The organization estimates that they have impacted the lives of approximately 100,000 Cambodians in 600 villages and 50 schools.
“We serve many communities who desperately need soap—we even provide soap to two hospitals, one government-owned and one NGO-operated. A hospital without an adequate supply of soap is a breeding ground for infection,” he adds.
The organization is working with other NGOs to provide education on hand washing, especially in the schools. “We need to start with the schools; we also need to educate so that we can create a demand for it.”
Lakhani is intent on making sure that every aspect of Eco-Soap Bank’s work has a social benefit. They use recycled water bottles, for example, and all employees are Cambodian—six of whom are village widows with no other source of income.
Lakhani graduated from the University of Pittsburgh this past spring and travels 5-6 times a year to Cambodia. Seeing the need for this simple yet significant contribution to hygiene in developing countries, he is working to expand Eco-Soap Bank to Laos in the next year.