In India, two million children die every year of diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia. Read to find out how Sundara Soap is bringing about a change through a simple medicine: soap.
by Aisiri Amin
Millions across the globe watched and appreciated the 2011 film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire.’ While the privileged gasped at the rawness in showcasing the living conditions in the slums of Mumbai, many others felt inspired to spark a change. Though more often than not the impact of the film doesn’t linger long enough for the spark to turn into a fire. But Erin Zaikis became an exception.
After watching the film Erin, at the age of 19, took a flight to Mumbai where she volunteered at a girls’ orphanage during the summer. Ever since Erin has developed a deep connection with the country. She says: “India is a place that still fascinates, frustrates and inspires me”.
So when she had the epiphany of setting up a soap recycling enterprise, Erin knew she wanted to start it in India. “India, as we all know, is a place where extreme poverty and wealth, live side by side and recycling is all about connecting waste and excess to the need,” she says.
Today the Mumbai-based non-profit, Sundara Soap, recycles used soaps from hotels and distribute them to the underprivileged communities who can’t afford them. We caught up with Erin Zaikis to know about her journey and what keeps her going.
INKLINE: Recycling hotel soaps to promote sanitation and hygiene among underprivileged communities is an innovative approach. How did the idea come about?
Erin Zaikis: The idea actually came about when I was living in a rural area of Thailand, on the border with Myanmar. It was there that I met children who were as old as 13 and had never once seen a bar of soap before. They weren’t washing their hands during critical times (before meals, after using the bathroom) and as a result, the rate of diarrhea and pneumonia in this village was very high and many children under five were dying of these preventable diseases.
I (ignorantly) thought that there must not be enough soap in the world – and this is the reason the problem exists. Yet upon further research, I discovered that five million bars of barely used hotel soap go into landfills every day just in the US alone. I spent time in my kitchen making soap and trying to understand how to recycle and reprocess it into new soap. I won a pitch competition from LinkedIn and with the prize money moved to Mumbai to pilot this idea.
I: While addressing the problems that vulnerable communities face, hygiene and sanitation is often penned down towards the end of the list. How does that impact those communities and how important is it to make that a priority?
E: It’s unfortunate that hygiene and sanitation aren’t given more of a priority in government and private funding, but I do think that the past few years we have seen a positive change, especially here in India, and that makes me so excited for the future and development of this country. The past few years more people have come to us seeking to expand our work or collaborate or start similar initiatives, recognising that besides immediate food, water and shelter, hygiene and sanitation are next on the hierarchy of needs that India must focus on.
The most uplifting part is to watch the women who we hire absolutely thrive in this newfound place of employment and empowerment.
I: Sundara also focuses on empowering underprivileged women and aims to support them in rising above their circumstances through employment and fair wages. Could you tell us more about it?
E: Sundara values empowerment and employment about handouts. India is a country full of smart, talented, very hard-working people, but as we all know the opportunity is not distributed evenly. As a woman, if I can give more women the opportunity for fair wage jobs, health insurance and the ability to provide for their families, why wouldn’t I?
These women are the real heroes of this work, spending six days of the week processing soap and walking miles to remote villages to provide hygiene and hand washing education. I hope to shine more of a light on them. Not only do they support themselves and their households but they have become proper leaders in their community and inspire young girls to have dreams for themselves and do good for the people that surround them.
I: Discarding barely used soaps comes from a place of privilege. Do you feel privilege often makes us blind to the lack of global consciousness about social issues?
E: To be sure privilege makes us blind. However, with technology and interconnectivity, it has never been easier to go online and watch a documentary, read an article and educate yourself about crises all over the world. Privilege is and will always be there, but now the privileged can not hide behind a veil of ignorance as they once could.
I: What has been the most difficult part of this journey?
E: Working in India can be complex and bureaucratic. Raising money can be draining and crushing for your self-esteem. However, I feel truly lucky to have built a great team around me who believe in this mission just as much – if not more – than I do, and I really believe that as long as the people on your team are terrific, you can and will survive the bumps in the road.
I: What has been the most uplifting part or the one thing that kept you going?
E: The most uplifting part is to watch the women who we hire absolutely thrive in this newfound place of employment and empowerment. Once they are working for us we see their confidence soar – some are sending their children to school, taking care of elderly parents, starting side businesses. One is even running for local office! That confidence is something that they now have for life. I want them to believe that they can do anything they put their minds to, and I think they are well on their way.
Be one of the people that with all your actions, big and small, uplifts others and therefore the world.
I: Through Sundara, you showed solutions can be very simple. What’s the one thing you would tell all the people out there who often find themselves question how one person or action can bring about a change?
E: To be sure, sometimes your work (and mine!) will feel like a drop in the bucket. But to the people you are working with, this means the world. Sometimes our impacts aren’t immediate and not everything is linear, but maybe one day you meet someone and your idea inspires them to go out and make an even larger scale change.
Everything we say and do every single day has the ability to uplift or discourage people. Be one of the people that with all your actions, big and small, uplifts others and therefore the world. We all have to do our part to create the rising tide that lifts all boats.
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).