Kelly Kovack [00:00:08]: This episode is presented by The Woods & Co., a fully integrated marketing and communications firm with niche expertise in beauty, health, wellness, and fitness.
Samir Lakjani [00:00:24]: Hi, my name is Samir Lakjani and I’m the founder of Eco-Soap Bank. And to me, it’s a matter of gratitude.
Kelly Kovack [00:00:37]: Words matter but actions matter more. I’m Kelly Kovack, Founder of BeautyMatter. There are those among us driven by purpose and a commitment to making the world a better place for everyone that’s engrained in their very being. They are true heroes. Taking the desire to do good, making it actionable and scalable, goes beyond passion. It’s a unique talent. Very often, these people are visionaries, solving important but complicated global issues by identifying simple solutions that are in plain sight and using their charisma to harness support for this vision. Soap is something that most of us take for granted. For Samir Lakjani, Founder of the Eco-Soap Bank, a humble bar of soap represents the ability to restoring health and dignity in developing countries. He is very literally changing the world, one bar of soap at a time.
Hi Samir, thank you so much for joining us this morning. It’s nice to – well, not see you again, but we are seeing each other, even though it’s a podcast.
Samir Lakjani [00:01:50]: Good morning, Kelly. Thanks for having me back.
Kelly Kovack [00:01:53]: Of course. You know, I want to set the foundation for our conversation by just asking you to share what Eco-Soap Bank does, because that’s sort of at the crux of what we want to chat about today.
Samir Lakjani [00:02:06]: So I’m the Founder of Eco-Soap Bank, which means I’m obviously biased and don’t tell anyone, slightly obsessed with the mission. The mission is very, very simple but abundantly powerful. And the mission is: we employ economically or disabled women around the world to recycle leftover soap from factories, which we then reprocess into brand new bars of soap and then redistribute it to partners, schools, refugee camps, health clinics, you name it. Wherever there is a need in the developing world, we provide soap. We’re very happy to report, actually, that as of January 22nd, last month, we reached our four-millionth person with soap, and more importantly, hygiene education. Because we provide that providing soap alone is not enough, we also have to teach people how to keep themselves healthy and happy for life.
Kelly Kovack [00:03:15]: The impact you’re having is so profound and you only launched in 2014. Can you share the impetus for your path to creating Eco-Soap Bank? Because it’s one of those – I don’t know if you call them “aha” moments, lightbulb moments, where you saw a problem and there was kind of a very simple solution kind of right in front of you. Well, it started in your hotel room, but…
Samir Lakjani [00:03:45]: Yeah, I would say less gloriously, Kelly, Eco-Soap Bank was actually founded in a hotel bathroom, and I’ll give you the story. When I was a college student, I found myself traveling through rural Cambodia. I don’t know if you’ve ever been?
Kelly Kovack [00:04:01]: I haven’t, but I would love to, actually.
Samir Lakjani [00:04:04]: I will take you to Cambodia when it is safe and I will also take you to our humble workshop, where you can meet 30 women who work for us there full-time alone. But, that’s another topic.
Kelly Kovack [00:04:17]: Okay. And that would be an absolute honor.
Samir Lakjani [00:04:20]: They’re inspirational. And I will tell you how we got to that point. But, so when I was traveling in these villages, I was actually conducting a climate change research project, just frankly seeing how climate change was affecting agrarian families who lived off of the land. By the way, it affected them greatly. But while I was in these very other worldly villages, I saw a village mother actually bathing her newborn child, but unfortunately, and I will never forget it, she was using laundry powder, or detergent, to wash her child, and I remember the child was visibly uncomfortable. And so with the help of a colleague, who spoke Cambodian, I asked her if she was able to buy a bar of soap, something that, frankly, we in the west here can afford and take for granted. And she said that it would cost her at least an entire day’s wages just to buy a single bar of soap, which was considered a luxury product.
Secondly, I pushed a little farther and I also asked her, okay, you’re using laundry powder and detergent, and in the most respectful way, I asked her if she felt that those products could actually prevent diseases, like diarrhea and pneumonia, the flu, COVID-19, and she told me something that equally, I’ll never forget, which was if her child fell sick from one of those diseases, it was probably because of sins he may have committed in a past life.
Now, let’s pause for a moment. What are the takeaways from that interaction? Obviously, bars of soap are way too expensive for the world’s poor. That’s the first takeaway. The second conclusion is also quite striking, which is health education and hygiene awareness is low in these countries, and so products alone will not suffice. We also needed to accompany it with culturally relevant and respectful hygiene education.
So after that interaction, Kelly, I was visibly upset and returned to my hotel room, stepped into the bathroom, and I saw a brand new, furnished bar of soap there when I had just unwrapped the new one the day before. So I began to realize there is a ton of soap waste being generated by the hotel industry. Some estimate that five million bars of soap are thrown away per day. And if I may, things have certainly changed from that day in the bathroom where Eco-Soap Bank was founded. We now go higher in the supply chain and we work directly with factories and manufacturers, and we have also discovered there are thousands of tons of waste that are thrown away at the factory level each week, and we’re there to recycle it and make sure it gets into good hands, Kelly.
Kelly Kovack [00:07:27]: You know, the work that you’ve taken on I think has a much more profound context, given hand hygiene has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds during the COVID crisis. But I think being able to properly wash your hands is something that in the west, and kind of in the developed world, we take for granted. It’s really hard to sometimes understand, sort of intellectually, that that’s not available to everyone. And as an industry, we can support your work. We have waste. Everyone wants to be sustainably-minded. There’s a problem, and all we have to do is sort of combine it and you know, come up with a solution. But what is the environmental impact for discarded soap? I mean, it’s a waste and it can clearly go to good use, but I’d imagine there’s also an impact on the environment from all this wasted soap.
Samir Lakjani [00:08:23]: Certainly. This is certainly not my expertise, but I would just say the vast majority of the products we are recycling are palm oil based, and you don’t need me to kind of elaborate on the costliness, if you will, from an environmental perspective of that product. Here’s the point, it’s very simple: we are crying over spilled milk. It’s as simple as that. We don’t want those products which are inherently somewhat destructive, certainly, to be wasted. We just want to maximize the environmental availability of the product, but then simultaneously, collectively, we’re addressing an urgent problem here that is just common sense: that we cannot just waste something that could potentially save lives in another country.
Kelly Kovack [00:09:12]: Yeah. And so what does your recycling process look like usually for your partners? Because I know you make it so easy, it’s crazy.
Samir Lakjani [00:09:23]: From the factory perspective, we pick up full truckloads at a time. And I will tell you, the discovery of the volume of waste just in North America is pretty astronomical. We’re now collecting one-to-two truckloads per week. And so that supply and collection is pretty straightforward. When it gets to one of our recycling hubs or countries, in Sierra Leone or Cambodia or South Africa, we have full-time staff, the women you will meet later this year, hopefully, Kelly, who are positioned and ready to receive and recycle that soap into brand new bars.
It can be recycled in one of two ways. We use a non-electrified press, where you basically just press pieces and dust into brand new bars of soap. And secondly, for regions of the world where there’s a lot more soap waste volume, we actually use very simpler plotters and extruders, if you will, they’re mini-factories, to make new bars of soap and get it out the door as quickly as possible.
I want to stress this: the turnaround time from collection from the factory to ending up in someone’s hand in a health clinic or school is about two-to-three months. That is not very long considering it is a continuous supply and a continuous distribution, which means that we consistently provide people with soap. We don’t hand them a bar and then say goodbye.
Kelly Kovack [00:10:59]: So we’ve gone from sort of your development of this idea in a hotel bathroom all the way to sort of a business that’s impressive, sort of the scale and kind of operations that you’ve put in place. Can you share a little bit about how you took this idea and kind of brought it to operational scale for other social entrepreneurs out there with an idea? And also, if you could share some of your key stakeholders in that progress.
Samir Lakjani [00:11:32]: Absolutely. I really always go back to platitudes or clichés. There’s a reason why we constantly say that. Here is my absolute favorite phrase or saying. It is: ideas are easy, implementation is hard. We receive a lot of pro-bono support, Kelly, and a lot of pro-bono consultants come and say, “Listen, we’ll do strategy for you.” And you know what I really want to say? I want to say, “Strategy is easy. Help me implement this idea!”
Kelly Kovack [00:12:04]: I 100% agree. Big ideas are great, but they’re useless unless you can execute them.
Samir Lakjani [00:12:11]: I don’t need to see another white pager, okay? I need some real help. We need more partnerships, which I’ll get to in a second. So my advice to entrepreneurs is please move quickly past the idea stage and get your hands dirty. In my industry, it’s get your hands clean. While working, you only know the challenges when you fall into them. You cannot really imagine them during a white paper or ideation session. So that’s my advice: get started right away. If I may steal from Nike, just start. Just do it.
So, our key partners and stakeholders predominantly, the vast majority of our supply comes from North American manufacturers. Larger ones include Bradford Soap, Vanguard Soap, and Dr. Squatch now in Compton, California. And that’s North America. Globally, we are working hand-in-hand with a number of noodle makers in Southeast Asia, but also we work extensively with Unilever in Nepal as well. The point is this: if you represent a manufacturer globally, but most particularly in the developing world or nearby, please get in touch with us at EcoSoapBank.org. We want to collect, recycle, and save lives with your waste streams.
Kelly Kovack [00:13:39]: And I am so excited, you’re one of my, I guess, COVID relationships, because we’ve never met in person yet. It was on another webinar that our friend Irena from Inter-Cause set up. And one of the things that we always kind of think about is how can we make an impact? So we have a platform, we have a community, and we’re really excited to be partnering with you to hopefully help move your mission forward. But the work you’re doing represents such a simple solution to health and well-being in these impoverished communities. But it also goes beyond the simple kind of transaction of education and soap. You’re really making an impact on the community at large. Can you share one of those examples? Because I don’t know that it’s sometimes sort of handwashing, but it’s so much more than that for these communities.
Samir Lakjani [00:14:35]: It is, and it goes back to my first statement: I love this work. And with the help of outside advisors like yourself, it helps remind me the ripple effects of the work, which I do forget sometimes. In the most simplest terms, yes, we make a huge environmental impact. Number two, yes, we make an enormous and consistent hygiene impact; a public health impact at a time where it’s needed desperately. But lastly, and likely the thing I’m most proud of, is we get to create gainful employment for women who, frankly, would have no other income opportunities. Let’s say they’ve left school early, they have disabilities, they have family responsibilities which reduce their economic options. We are currently employing 160 women to recycle soap full-time. And I’ll give you an example as to what a little bit of faith and a little bit of investment can do for an individual.
When I think about this work, I see someone’s face, and her name is Thearang. Thearang was our very first employee in Cambodia. If we go visit, you will meet her, and you will quickly run off with her and say Samir is awfully boring and loquacious and let’s hang out with Thearang. Regardless, she was our very first employee, or soap maker, that we hired. During our interview, I recall she said no more than two words. Clearly, very, very shy, or something was bothering her, which we would later discover, which I cannot disclose. But regardless, she is still with us today, six years later. And this is the punchline, this is the impact: she is managing 30 other women just like her in a soap recycling operation. She manages our supply chain. We have been investing English classes and computer classes with her, and she now communicates with me, in English, online.
Kelly Kovack [00:16:45]: Wow.
Samir Lakjani [00:16:46]: That is an indescribable transformation. You can’t put that on a website, which we need to update. This is the proof of the pudding. And so, very simply, a little bit of faith, a little bit of investment is needed, and women will rise to the occasion. Frankly, I’m useless. It’s all about Thearang.
Kelly Kovack [00:17:09]: Well, I’ve read that women are the key to economic development in third-world countries, and you focus specifically on women. Can you explain, or kind of unpack, the cultural relevance of why this statement is true?
Samir Lakjani [00:17:24]: Yeah. There’s one statistic by UN Women which I always go to. It is very simply that women in the developing world context will reinvest 90% of their income, on average, back into their family units and expenses, as opposed to just 40% for men. So the point – actually, if you will, it’s quite a cut and dry economic decision to hire women. If you want to sustain and help maintain entire families, you need to focus on moms. It’s as simple as that.
From a women’s empowerment and independence standpoint, frankly, if you are not financially independent, you are at the mercy, if you will, of a breadwinner, and that can affect family dynamics too. So we play a small role in this going forward.
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Can you sort of share what the ecosystem is kind of on the ground in these communities of getting soap, sort of the recycling process, and then into people’s hands? So some of them are through donations, but some of them are also women who are selling the soap, correct?
Samir Lakjani [00:19:31]: That’s right. So soap is made in a centralized facility and it can be redistributed to the community in two ways. By the way, our soap ends up in all sorts of different settings and environments. It has gone it prisons. It has gone to vocational training centers. It has frankly gone to every single healthcare facility and hospital throughout Cambodia. The point is this: the need for soap is universal. It is not just restricted to one place or another. So soap is redistributed to partners directly from our facilities who come and collect the supplies and take it back to their setting, whether it is a prison, hospital, or community. It is also redistributed to, if I may, an army of women who are redistributed throughout countries who receive the soap product and serve as hygiene ambassadors, which means that they go from door-to-door, safely, now things have changed a little bit. But basically teaching women about good hygiene and also selling it at an affordable price so they can cultivate their own livelihood.
If I were to end up in Cambodia or Liberia and start talking to moms and recommending about soap and diarrhea, I would be quickly swatted away and kicked out. We need mothers or women to talk to women about sensitive topics such as this; there’s no place for an expat like me. So local education is the right education.
Kelly Kovack [00:21:09]: And I would imagine the fact that all of the repurposing or recycling of the soap, the fact that it’s happening on a community level as well, also, I would imagine, reinforces the buy-in of the whole program. There’s an ownership stake in kind of the work that’s being done. It would be very easy to kind of make the soap somewhere else, drop in and distribute it. But this is really sort of everything is done kind of on a grassroots level, and I would imagine that’s very intentional.
Samir Lakjani [00:21:40]: That’s a terrific perception. I actually think that we can improve at this. Our problem is there’s so many different value points, and I can’t really choose between all of the three simultaneous impacts. But, you’re right. When partners understand that this is locally-made soap by frankly local artisans, the perceived value increases substantially. And most importantly, if there is a purchase that occurs, that purchase and those finances stay in those countries and support the soap makers or hygiene ambassadors themselves. Money is not being flown out of the country to support different shareholders or parties.
Kelly Kovack [00:22:26]: You know, one of the things that I love is that the soaps themselves are so beautiful, and the way that they’re packaged looks like there’s so much care that goes into each and every bar. Like, this is not sort of a utilitarian bar of soap. Just from the image, you can tell sort of the love that goes into each one of them.
Samir Lakjani [00:22:46]: I won’t take all the credit because a lot of the packaging has been developed by the women we employ. So we have three kind of packaging solutions, the first of which is naked packaging. Sometimes less is more. That is the vast majority of the soap we redistribute, it is completely naked. By the way, it is actually packaged in collected boxes from municipality cardboard boxes, because there’s no cardboard recycling in a lot of these cities and countries. And furthermore, we actually tie the boxes with rice bag string, which is also thrown away. But those are details.
So we have naked bars, but then we also have bars that are wrapped in linens, which we also collect from hotels. Hotels will discard a ton of linens per year, and so we hem and sew each of them and wrap each bar carefully in them so that families and/or children have a hand towel the can dry themselves with. And lastly, we’re currently working on this and are very, very proud, we are working on developing water-soluble packaging as well, which means you just take the bar, you put it under water, and it’ll immediately disappear and it has some hygiene messages on it, too. So, we’re currently rolling that out.
And lastly, at the risk of talking your ear off, we’re also going to be making, which I – I did not come up with this idea, this is our local team, soap in the shape of animals. Now, I know that sounds simple, but for a child who has perhaps never seen or used this product before, that is a memorable experience and hopefully will create a lifelong habit.
Kelly Kovack [00:24:31]: Absolutely. I mean, we take that for granted here. I mean, we kind of leverage that marketing trick of making fun products for bath time for kids. So of course, why shouldn’t these children kind of have the same experience? That’s amazing.
Samir Lakjani [00:24:48]: Yeah, we have yet to test it, but we’re currently working on turtles, dolphins, and elephants. What other shapes should we think about?
Kelly Kovack [00:25:00]: A fish.
Samir Lakjani [00:25:02]: Okay, alright.
Kelly Kovack [00:25:03]: What countries are you in right now? I know you’re in about 15 countries, but sort of regionally, where is your largest penetration? And where are you going next?
Samir Lakjani [00:25:13]: Of course. I would say our largest recycling hubs are in Cambodia, South Africa, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Nepal. And I know we did a bit of Carmen San Diego there. But basically, the regions of importance are Southeast Asia, South Asia, East, Southern, and West Africa; however, our impact last year actually extended to 22 countries, including providing 400,00 bars of soap to Honduras, unfortunately, as they faced the back-to-back hurricanes. What we have begun to realize is that the need for soap does extend past our borders too. We had been fortunate to be able to supply refugee camps in Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, and Syria with the soap that they need as well, an impact that we’re very, very proud of.
Kelly Kovack [00:26:10]: Yeah. So I’m going to take the opportunity to share exactly, sort of, your personal what you’ve achieved, because it really is impressive. I mean, you received a CNN Heroes Award, Unilever Young Entreprenur Award, Forbes 30 under 30, a TedX talk that everyone needs to watch. For six years, and at the age of 27, this is amazing. And something tells me that you’re just getting started. You know, most people would be happy to accomplish this in kind of decades of work. You’re clearly an overachiever, Samir.
Samir Lakjani [00:26:49]: Thank you. I will tell you my motivation. It is single and it is consistent. The motivation is: we are estimating there’s about 25,000 metric tons of bar soap waste per year and we are currently only collecting and recycling 1,000 tons per year. The need for this solution to go worldwide and/or viral, for lack of a better term, is essential. I am motivated by the waste, and I think partners and brands all around the world should be as well, and join us. However, secondly, I take a look at our accomplishments and I say, “Wow, that’s very little,” because the need is also extraordinarily great and it is consistent. The point is this: we are not a humanitarian organization that drops a container and leaves. We are there in the community to stay and make a sustainable difference, which frankly I think the world, especially the developing world, needs more of.
Kelly Kovack [00:27:57]: Yeah, I would agree. Do you work with NGOs as well? You know, how does that relationship work?
Samir Lakjani [00:28:03]: Yes, globally and extensively. We work with the World Food Program who just received the Peace Prize. We work with other major NIGOs as well. Effectively, our collaboration with NGOs extends into schools, where they have a very, very large presence, and so it’s very simply helping, for example the World Food Program, not only provide food but soap as well to keep their cooks, teachers, and children safe. It is a hand-in-hand collaboration. If you’re going to have school lunches, please wash your hands first.
Kelly Kovack [00:28:41]: I think with most collaborations, you can make a larger impact by sort of shared resources.
Samir Lakjani [00:28:46]: For sure. And the logistics piece is enormous. For example, UNICEF works in 13,000 schools in Cambodia. It would be very, very difficult for us to independently reinvent the wheel and distribute soap like that.
Kelly Kovack [00:29:03]: Right, right. What does the future look like for Eco-Soap Bank? I mean, you said you’ve just gotten started. What does success in your mind look like? I’m sure it’s a very sort of big idea. I just find it amazing that at 27 you’ve kind of found your life’s work. I’m 52 and I feel like I’m still looking for it. I’m slightly jealous of that.
Samir Lakjani [00:29:28]: Not at all. So I am motivated by a very simple idea, which is 1,000 divided by 25,000. That’s where we’re at. There does not seem to be a widespread, viable global solution to the problem, and I’m very happy to have stumbled upon this one solution. So when I am at 52, Kelly, if we are not recycling every single bar of wasted soap, we will not have done our job. So very simply, the global call to action is: let’s ensure that no more soap is wasted and let us redistribute it safely and sustainably.
Kelly Kovack [00:30:13]: So our audience is clearly sort of the entire value chain of beauty, personal care, and wellness, and I’d love to be really clear about what you’re looking for from partners, so sort of on the supply side, those sort of in the manufacturing world manufacturing soap, but also is there a way that brands can be part of this? Because brands may not control sort of the waste in the manufacturing process, but if they’re in the soap business, I have to believe that there is a way for them to get involved as well.
Samir Lakjani [00:30:45]: Absolutely. Not every brand or company makes bar soap or necessarily has waste, which we commend. For brands, the call to action is also very simple, which is: let us all recognize that hygiene products are a luxury for too many millions of people around the world, and therefore we have experience integrating our work with brands all across the world to be able to sponsor entire schools, entire communities and countries with the soap that they need. We can do this in many ways: a buy-one-get-one partnership; other CSR-type partnerships. But frankly, brands will know best what will resonate with their customers, and so we’re open to any sort of collaboration that makes the most sense.
Kelly Kovack [00:31:39]: And even from a donations standpoint, just a small donation can have sort of a really profound impact.
Samir Lakjani [00:31:45]: Entirely. We can recycle soap at five-to-ten cents per bar. And let me tell you, this is not procuring raw materials. This goes directly into the pockets of women who reinvest 90% of it back into their families, send their kids back to school. So the point is this: yes, even small gestures can change the world. It can change a woman’s life and also save a child’s life.
Kelly Kovack [00:32:12]: Yeah. Well, Samir, I am so happy that we met this year, and I’m honored to hopefully be able to work with you and perhaps be a small part of moving this really important mission forward. So thank you for taking the time to share it with us.
Samir Lakjani [00:32:28]: I have to say, the reception I’ve received by yourself, your company, but also the industry at large has been surprisingly warm. I just want to thank the entire community for considering us as worthy of recognition, but also, more importantly, promotion. The idea is simple, right? We just need good partners to take this to the next level at a time like this, Kelly.
Kelly Kovack [00:32:58]: Yeah. No, the beauty industry is an amazingly warm place, and that’s why when we met, I was like people just need to know what you’re doing. This is easy, once you hear, of course you want to be involved. So I look forward to sharing your mission with our audience and seeing how many people we can get to jump on board.
Samir Lakjani [00:33:19]: Thanks so much.
Kelly Kovack [00:33:23]: For Samir, it’s a matter of gratitude. The world could use a whole lot more Samirs. The impact he’s making is profound. His ability to articulate an unconventional idea and build a solution with scale is a lesson in leadership and his commitment is humbling. Soap recycling is a win-win-win initiative. It reduces a significant amount of waste and pollution created by hotels, benefiting the environment; it has the power to employ women on a full-time basis, helping them achieve financial independence; and millions of bars of soap are deployed to the world’s most impoverished communities, helping save lives. As businesses focus on creating moral authenticity and initiatives that will resonate with socially conscious consumers, social entrepreneurs like Samir are doing the real work, solving problems and changing the world one person, one family, one village at a time.
Our role in this equation is to support entrepreneurs like Samir. So if you’re in the hospitality business using amenity bars of soap, or you’re a manufacturer of soap, or you’re a beauty brand or an individual, you can all play a role in the Eco-Soap Bank. Reach out, learn more and help Samir and his team change the world, one bar of soap at a time.
So in the end, it’s a matter of gratitude, and that’s what matters. I’m Kelly Kovack.
Samir Lakjani [00:35:00]: Hi, my name is Samir, and to me, what matters is gratitude. We take simple things in the west here for granted, such as soap, and I’m so thankful we all don’t have to think twice about simple products. But for millions of people throughout the developing world, soap is a luxury item. Let us all collectively compile our gratitude and ensure that good people around the world have the soap they need to keep themselves healthy.
Kelly Kovack [00:35:33]:
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