According to the World Health Organization, 2.4 billion people do not have access to clean sanitation, and 1.8 million children die every year because their immune systems are not strong enough to battle diseases — many of which could easily be prevented with soap. In fact, simple handwashing cuts morbidity rates by nearly 50 percent. Sicknesses related to contaminated water supplies and poor hygiene most often plague poor, war-torn regions or those in the wake of a natural disaster.
Derreck Kayongo, himself a Ugandan war refugee, started the Global Soap Project (GSP) to help vulnerable communities fight disease. Each year, the GSP delivers more than 10 million bars of soap to people in need. Now, as the CEO of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Kayongo continues to fight for human rights around the globe with a focus on safeguarding marketplaces, businesses and economies. Elizabeth Rennie, APICS magazine senior managing editor, recently spoke with him about his work and the plans for his general session speech at APICS 2017.
Why is the GSP’s work so important to you personally?
My father was a soap maker back home in Uganda, so I grew up around soap. Then we had a war that turned me into a refugee, and during that time I realized that soap is so important because we didn’t have it. Most people don’t know how powerful soap is until you see diseases like diarrhea, cholera and typhoid, which are related to hygiene. But soap really is one of the most important inventions by humankind.
So, then I came to the United States and saw a hotel throwing away soap, and I just realized how inter-connected the issues were. ... Those events helped me understand that there was an idea there that could be used to provide soap — something so basic — to people who need it. So, that’s how I happened upon the idea.
But just having an idea is not enough. You then have to have a particular skill set. So I went to school in the U.S. and learned a little bit about how [nongovern-mental organizations] work. I needed to know how to build a board, to raise money and to build a factory. It took me about 10 years to construct the idea and make things happen.
Rennie: How does the project work? How did you establish the key players, and what are the steps involved with getting a used bar of soap from a hotel through the purification and packaging processes and out to the people who need it?
Kayongo: Looking at cost of production, I figured that, rather than building a smaller factory in every state, we had to do a couple things. One was to [deter-mine] the highest concentrations of hotels — and those happen to be in Las Vegas and Orlando. Those two cities have the largest collection of hotel rooms and therefore the largest amount of recyclable soap. We built factories in those two locations. In doing that, we partnered with hotels … that offered us space to build our factories.
After we got the locations locked in, we looked at how to pick up the soap from every hotel room and get it to the factories. It was important to us to work with the managers and meet the housekeepers who would collect the soap. The soap from the hotel room has to be separated from the other trash, and the argument was that they wouldn’t want to do that because it’s too much work. We had to help them understand the power of what we were doing so they could buy in. Most of the housekeepers come from those parts of the world that we’re taking the soap to — they come from Africa, from Eastern Europe, from Latin America — so once they knew that the soap was being taken there, they were all in.
Once the soap got from the hotels to the factory, the issue was then taking the soap, once you have recycled it, to the people who need it. For us it was very simple. Every trucker who delivers into Las Vegas goes back out empty, right? So the idea was that, rather than having the trucks go back empty, tell us how much space you have. … We were able to give them a tax break, so they were able to write off the cost of transportation because we are a non-profit. So, that was very, very important. In fact, the first year we also got $1 million in in-kind maritime transportation services because so many of the ships that bring stuff into the U.S. also go back empty. So, that soap was transported at the price of zero dollars because we were offering this value proposition for the transporters.
So our supply chain was based on this cleverness, which we carried through all the way. That is my mantra: Before you put money out to solve a problem, ask yourself if you are being creative about it, if you are being clever about it. Money can be spent all the time, but you don’t have to spend money all the time. Sometimes the only way to understand that is by being very poor and knowing that you do not have the money to spend.
Rennie: What do you see as the GSP’s greatest accomplishments?
Kayongo: We’ve reduced sanitation diseases by 40 percent — we did that in Malawi, for example. But, more importantly, we also have changed people’s mindsets about waste. Hotels are not in the business of recycling; they’re in the business of giving you a beautiful room and a beautiful experience. But we put more value to their work. Now they can be proud of saying to their clients, “When you leave this hotel, you’re not going to leave trash behind and affect the environment, and we’re even using the trash you give to empower other aspects of our humanity.”
Rennie: What advice do you have for supply chain management professionals — particularly young professionals hoping to make their work as meaningful as possible?
Kayongo: Do your work. Do it very well. Be clever about things. You don’t always have to use the most expensive solution to every problem. We’ve proven that that’s wasteful. You see corporations spending a lot of money to solve a very simple problem. Why? Because they don’t spend time in thought processes; they don’t spend time in rewarding those employees out there who are quiet but are very, very smart, and they don’t have time to play the office politics. They are not very vocal, but they are very smart, and we overlook them.
Nobody knew that a small Ugandan boy would come to the U.S., which is very loud and very noisy, and invent an idea of recycling used soap to the tune of 10 million bars of soap every year from more than 5,000 hotels. … We are providing that soap to people all over the world, and their diseases are going away. So, never underestimate the power of small ideas in the marketplace. They are the key to gargantuan, Herculean problem-solving.
Rennie: Tell me about the work that you’re doing today as the CEO of the Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Kayongo: I usually say that the key to mathematics is multiplication tables. If you can multiply, it is easy to do math because then you can do fractions; you can do division. The key to chemistry is the periodic table. If you don’t know the periodic table, it’s very hard to understand compounds and gases and all that stuff. The key to human beings, the key to humanity, is rights. If human beings don’t have rights, it’s hard for them to create and build and construct and expand the marketplace. So, for me, as a child who had lost his rights because of Idi Amin and war, I looked at how human beings can actually destroy a whole country, destroy its marketplace, destroy its businesses, destroy its economy. The key to why people don’t have soap is because we abuse their rights, we destroy their countries, we destroy their lives by taking away their rights. So, by coming to the Center for Civil Human Rights, I am trying to do for humanity what multiplication tables do for math: get to the root cause.
Rennie: What do APICS 2017 attendees have to look forward to during your keynote speech?
Kayongo: You know, one of the things I want them to think about is what makes a good business. Is it how wealthy you are? Is it how good your idea is? Beyond good business and all of those ideas, I want them to think about understanding the importance of humanity and the role of their work in serving humanity. If you just think money is the only reason why you do business, you are doing the wrong thing, and eventually it becomes so disinteresting that you don’t get the full value behind it.
I also want them to understand the power of freedom in business. It’s very, very hard for you to be successful if [the country you do business in] has poor policies. Being a socially involved business in your community creates more opportunities for people to remember who you are and, therefore, they always subscribe to your business. It’s easy to get clientele by being involved in the community — and that doesn’t mean fake involvement. You don’t just come in there and do fake stuff and say, “Oh, we’re going to build a little school here.” No, it has to be at the core of your mission statement. You’ve got to really live it.
Elizabeth Rennie is senior managing editor for APICS magazine. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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