My mum was born in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania and my dad is from Kampala, Uganda. My sister and I grew up in the US, but my parents never forgot where they came from or to tell us that the world is a big place with people who need our help. We travelled extensively, visiting places such as Egypt and the Middle East so that as children we experienced what life was like in the developing as well as the developed world. It became a personal driver for me to return to the developing world to help others.
It wasn’t a surprise to my family that as part of my degree I decided to take an internship in Cambodia. I fell in love with the country. But the hangover of the civil war also permeates every single aspect of daily life. Poverty is extreme, hygiene is poor and if people get sick there’s no health clinic infrastructure to fix it. There are only three hospitals in a country of 15 million people, so that’s 5 million people per hospital.
During a visit to one village, I saw a young mother washing her baby with laundry powder. I saw that and couldn’t think of anything else. She was trying to keep her child safe and well with the only thing she had. She knew if her baby got sick, it wouldn’t stand a chance.
I went back to my hotel room feeling completely down. I wanted to help but didn’t know how to do so in a sustainable way. I stepped into my bathroom and realised the housekeeper had replaced a bar of soap I had barely touched. It hit me like a lightning bolt: I realised I could save hotel soap to save lives.
I was supposed to return to the US in ten days but the next morning I found myself on my bicycle, riding from hotel to hotel in the hot sun, asking their managers to not throw their used soap away, but to save it. They thought I was crazy, but as I explained more, it began to dawn on them that this could be a project worth supporting.
A few days later the idea of Eco-Soap Bank became a reality when we hired Thearang. At 23 she had had little formal education and was so shy when we first interviewed her that she didn’t even meet our gaze. Now she runs an Eco-Soap Bank workshop, managing 13 employees, and she works hard striking partnerships with managers of many of the country’s top 5-star hotels.
Thearang is just one of the 147 women we currently employ in ten countries worldwide. Many of them have been told from an early age that there were no opportunities for them. We reject that idea entirely. We provide free daily education (computer, literacy and numeracy skills) and should they wish, we help them into gainful employment in the hospitality sector through our connections.
In a sense, we operate a work-study programme where women can earn income and get a free education to change the course of their own lives.