30 Under 30 Highlight: Samir Lakhani

This blog is an entry in ACC’s series to highlight the winners of our inaugural 30 Under 30: The Green Generation awards.  Learn more about 30 Under 30 here, or view a comprehensive list of profiles as they are released through this link.

In 2015, then-college student Samir Lakhani was traveling in rural Cambodia working on aquaculture and nutrition projects with a non-profit organization. Little did he know that what he would experience on this trip was about to change his life—and would inspire him to start his own non-profit, Eco-Soap Bank.  

While walking through a village, Lakhani noticed a mother using laundry powder to bathe her newborn son. Lakhani was immediately concerned, as the harmful chemicals in laundry detergent can leach through the skin. The sad truth is that many Cambodians resort to this method of cleansing due to a lack of hygiene education, as well as minimal access to soap.

Upon returning to his hotel, Lakhani walked into his bathroom and noticed that the housekeeping staff had thrown away a bar of soap that he had barely even touched. It was in that moment, Lakhani says, that he came up with a simple but revolutionary idea: recycling hotel soap could save lives.

Lack of proper, adequate hygiene is an enormous problem in developing nations. In fact, 1.6 million deaths annually are attributed to unsafe water, poor sanitation, improper hygiene, and lack of access to soap.

In an ironic contrast, Lakhani explained that five million bars of hotel soap are discarded every single day around the world. His vision was to see these two problems—one humanitarian and one environmental—addressed simultaneously. To accomplish this, he founded Eco-Soap Bank, a 501(c)(3) non-profit which recycles, sanitizes, and repurposes leftover soap and other hotel by-products like unused toiletries. The organization then distributes zero-waste products to children, hospitals, schools, and communities throughout the developing world. Eco-Soap Bank is also involved in hygiene education campaigns. View informational videos by Eco-Soap Bank here and here.

Founder Samir Lakhani has received many awards for his trailblazing efforts. Most recently, he was awarded The American Conservation Coalition’s 30 Under 30 award, given in partnership with EarthX and the National Audubon Society, for his work with Eco-Soap Bank. Lakhani’s success demonstrates how ingenuity, effort, and passion have the power to eliminate many environmental and humanitarian issues that plague the world today.

Still, Lakhani admits there are challenges that come with being so young and ambitious: “Ageism is really challenging as a social entrepreneur,” he admits. “However, that never stops us. The mission alone energizes the entire team and we persist.”

Because of this persistence, Eco-Soap Bank has already seen the positive effects of its programs, having reached over 1.1 million people with soap and hygiene education, and having reduced the hotel industry’s waste by 250,000 pounds so far.  

Source: EcoSoap Bank

Source: EcoSoap Bank

Additionally, Lakhani says, the soap recycling program is providing hotels with an avenue to practice corporate social responsibility by investing in green jobs for women, healthcare for children, and sustainability as a business. Eco-Soap Bank is also helping to boost the vital tourism industries in developing nations by improving participating hotels’ appeal to consumers, as the market moves toward embracing a more sustainable business model.

While Eco-Soap Bank has already made an impressive environmental impact, Lakhani acknowledges there is still a long way to go towards improving the sustainability of the hotel industry. Though he admits it can be discouraging work at times, Lakhani asserts that ultimately the challenges faced by the team at Eco-Soap Bank instill them with a greater urgency to scale-up their recycling program. The prospect of creating green jobs for women and providing soap to children in need, all while reducing environmental waste, is incredibly motivating and rewarding.

Eco-Soap Bank currently employs 147 women in 8 different countries, helping to mitigate another issue plaguing developing nations: the lack of steady employment for women. Lakhani sees himself as an advocate for his employees’ livelihoods, and considers this role an enormous privilege. “We employ women from all different types of backgrounds, but there is a common thread: resilience,” he says.

It’s incredibly easy to join in and help Eco-Soap Bank make a difference! Their brilliant, recycled soap products, scented with native local spices like Nepali Chai, Tanzanian green orange, and Cambodian lemongrass, are now available for US consumers when they make a pledge. To support this handcrafted soap product and the livelihoods of the women making it, visit their Kickstarter project page here. This new Kickstarter venture, Project Eco-Soap, is part of Eco-Soap Bank’s plans to scale-up considerably in their global environmental and humanitarian impact over the next few years. You can also visit here to donate soap to send abroad.

People like Samir Lakhani demonstrate the incredible results that passion, ingenuity, and effort can yield. Environmental and humanitarian problems can certainly seem daunting, even impossible, to solve. But sometimes, solutions to big issues come in unexpectedly small, simple, and, in this case, zero-waste packages.