For many of us, a bar of soap is something that we take for granted. Soap is easy to find here in the U.S. and relatively cheap, unless you have a taste for fancy perfumed soaps. But for those living in impoverished areas worldwide, soap is expensive, closely rationed and even unheard of in remote places. Without enough of it, many die of easily preventable illnesses like diarrhea and pneumonia.
Enter Erin Zaikis, founder of The Sundara Fund. Sundara’s mission is simple — to prevent hygiene related deaths. With her goal of increasing access to soap and promoting regular hand washing, Erin hopes to save millions of lives each year. Discover more about her work in India, Ghana and Haiti and what you can do to contribute to the cause.
Why is soap so important to you?
Soap is usually overlooked. I myself was guilty of that until I met children in Thailand who didn’t know what soap was and had never washed their hands. Soap is the single most effective way to prevent childhood death — more effective and cheaper than vaccines, medications or clean water initiatives alone.
Today in 2014, over 2 million children are dying each year in the developing world of preventable hygiene related causes. But they don’t have to if we can increase access to soap and promote regular hand washing. It’s a low cost, low technology way to save lives and empower children to take their health into their own hands. I am really attracted to the simplicity of that — huge results from something so small and basic.
Your team is highly accomplished with jobs at high profile consulting firms and degrees from prestigious universities. What drives all of you to contribute your valuable time to this cause?
Before leaving to start The Sundara Fund, I worked in corporate real estate. The salary was great and the name was well known, but my soul was dead. When I escaped from the corporate world, I saw that by running my own nonprofit I could have a tremendous impact without dealing with layers of authority or years of grunt work.
To run your own company is extremely rewarding and also insanely scary at times. You don’t have the safety net of feeling like your mistakes won’t matter. But it gives us a chance to feel like we can actually make an impact on a large scale. That just wouldn’t be possible in the corporate world. Doing this on the side lets us give children a better future even if our day jobs can’t.
Tell us more about your work in India, particularly the project with local hotels to recycle soap. How did this come together and what results have you seen?
We were funded by LinkedIn to launch India’s first ever soap recycling initiative this year. We selected Mumbai, a city of 19 million with over half the population living in urban slums. We joined forces with seven luxury hotels in the city to collect their used bar soap. We hired women from a nearby slum at a fair wage and trained them to process and sanitize the soap so it is fit for use again. The soap is then distributed in two ways: as an incentive for good school attendance in urban slums, and as a handout to rural villages outside the city that face a soap deficit. We also train teachers and community leaders on hygiene modules so they can teach children and care takers about hand washing and other methods of preventative health care. This is critical so the good hygiene habits will stick and we will be able to make more of an impact in these communities over time.
In just a few short months we have been able to teach over 300 hygiene classes and donate 5,000 bars of soap, rescuing hundreds of kilograms of solid soap waste from Mumbai’s landfills. In the process we’ve also been able to provide job opportunities to 17 women and allow them to provide for their families.
Are there any differences you notice between rural areas versus urban ones when it comes to hand washing?
Certainly! People in urban areas tend to know what soap is, but their costs of living are higher. So they might be able to afford one or two bars of soap per household for a month. Therefore they save the soap and reserve it first for washing clothes, then washing dishes and if there is any left, for baths. Hand washing is not a priority when soap is scarce.
In rural areas, many of these communities don’t even know what soap is. They live on less than a dollar a day so their needs are immediate — food and water. They don’t have TVs, radios and other ways to be exposed to city life. So ideas about proper hygiene take a much longer time to settle into rural village life.
What are the bureaucratic obstacles you face in some of these countries?
Corruption! I never thought I would actually come face to face with this. But sadly corruption rules in a lot of the world’s slums. You don’t do business as you would in the US and most people don’t play fair. We have also had to deal with money and supplies being stolen. It is disheartening, but the truth. One of my biggest flaws is the fact that I always think people want to be nice and help, but many people are not supportive in these communities. It is very controversial that we hire women and work with trash.
What makes your projects successful?
Hygiene education is a sensitive topic, especially past the age of puberty. I have realized that new habits take hold the quickest when they are taught by someone who looks like you, speaks your language and has shared experiences. That is why we train local teachers, principals and community leaders to become hygiene ambassadors. With their involvement, we can effectively create a societal shift, which allows good hygiene habits to stick.
Women also make up the core of our hygiene ambassador team. We insist that our employees are women from underprivileged backgrounds. Hiring women makes sense for so many reasons: when they are earning money, they spend it on items which benefit the whole community; they are easily able to monitor hygiene habits and enforce positive behaviors; plus women are passionate about creating a healthier future for their children. It is our hope to empower these women not only economically, but socially as well by giving them positions of power and authority and allowing them to play an active role in tackling these problems.
As a young non-profit, what is your lifetime goal at Sundara? And what do you think it will take to get there?
Ideally I would like to increase local involvement in each of our projects on the ground. I take so much joy from having my own nonprofit. But I know that in the end this will work better if we transfer the real ownership to the locals so that we have the trust of every community we work in. On a domestic level, I hope that we can increase awareness of real hygiene and sanitation issues worldwide. If we can draw more interest in this issue, one day in the not so distant future no child will be asking what soap is. That would be a dream come true!
How can one help and/or donate?
We are incredibly grateful to anyone who is interested in our cause. Contribute to our crowd funding campaign here: http://www.gofundme.com/sundara. No donation is too small. Even $5 can cover soap donations for 200 students!
We are also looking for the occasional volunteer so if you’re interested shoot us an email at [email protected].
For photos credited to Bernat Parera visit bernatparera.com
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