Nonprofit uses discarded hotel soap to stop spread of disease in Africa

His hotel room contained three bars of soap. On top of that, after just one use, the hotel's housekeeping staff replaced the used bar with a new one. He started hiding the soap in his luggage, but each day there was more soap.

"All of a sudden, there was too much soap around me," said Kayonga, who had been in the United States a few weeks.

When he asked what happens to all the used soap, Kayongo was floored by the answer: it's thrown away.

For Americans, it may not seem like a big deal, but to Kayongo, who lived in Kampala, Uganda until he was 10 then fled with his family to Kenya to escape the military dictatorship of Idi Amin, it was a waste of a precious commodity.

He called his dad, a businessman and former soap maker, back home.

"We thought it was wasteful," Kayongo said. "For those of us who come from countries that don't have much, it's unbelievable. At home people are dying from diseases." Soap and clean water, he reasoned, could go a long way to stopping the spread of germs and certain illnesses.

Years and many hotel stays later, what he saw in Philadelphia continued to gnaw at him. Then, last year, Kayongo and his wife, Sarah, decided to act. They formed the Global Soap Project, which is based out of their Lawrenceville home. The project collects soap from hotels around the nation, recycles them -- using equipment that sanitizes and melts the soap. The soap later solidifies and is cut into bars and shipped to Africa.

"For some people," said Sarah Kayongo, a professional fundraiser, soap is a luxury "but it's important to life and dignity."

Hand washing has been "one of the fundamentals of public health for a long time," said Dr. Christine Moe, the Eugene J Gangarosa Professor of Safe Water and Sanitation and director of The Center for Global Safe Water at Emory University. Moe said she always advises students working overseas to make sure they frequently follow the practice. Recent studies show that hand washing is probably the most cost effective way to reduce disease -- particularly diarrheal and respiratory diseases.

Those disease "are the two main causes of childhood morbidity and mortality in developing countries," she said.

The potential supplier list is huge. According to Smith Travel Research, there are more than 4.8 million hotel rooms in the United States.

At last count, more than 130 hotels were participating in the project, including the 422-room Intercontinental Hotel Buckhead on Peachtree Road. General Manager Patrick Birchall estimates that the hotel discards as much as half a ton of soap annually.

"Businesses are continuously looking for ways to give back to the communities," he said. "This is a great way to be able to touch and reach out to the needy."

The program is "a great way to realize value from something that is typically thrown away," said R. Mark Woodworth, president of PKF Hospitality Research, an expert on the lodging industry.

Kayongo, a senior advocacy field coordinator for the humanitarian group CARE, arranges to pick up the soap from hotels and stores it at his home or in warehouse space donated by a supporter. Once the soap is collected, the Kayongas and volunteers carefully go through the soap, removing debris like hair.

He said the organization prefers the bar soap and not the liquid kind, which he said can be easily tampered with. The greatest need now, he said, is funds to help pay for shipment. So far, they've sent small shipments to Uganda and Swaziland. They hope to soon ship to Kenya and perhaps Haiti.

Kayongo prefers go to through humanitarian groups already on the ground to make sure that the neediest people get the shipments and that it doesn't fall into the hands of black marketers.

One such organization that has benefited is the Alpharetta-based Heart for Africa, which helps orphans in Swaziland. Spokesman Mann Nolan said the organization recently received 7,000 bars of soap for an event planned this summer for 15,000 orphans.

"It's so crucial to maintaining good health," he said. "For the vast majority raising themselves, something like soap becomes a luxury. They're really trying to struggle just to get food. If they need to eat or buy soap, food is going to come first. A small bar of soap goes a long way."

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