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An Open Letter to Global Soap Project


Derreck Kayongo
Founder
Global Soap Project
PO Box 94021
Atlanta GA 30318

 

Dear Mr. Kayango,

First, let me begin by saying well done. Your decision to start a social enterprise to fight poverty and disease in the world’s poorest nations demonstrates a level of empathy and compassion to which we should all aspire.  That alone makes you a well deserved “CNN Hero”.

But, second, may I suggest that your business model can be dramatically improved, quadrupling your impact and eliminating the unintended damage you are doing.

Currently, you receive donations of used hotel soap, which are sent to your warehouse in Atlanta. At this point you:

“…sanitize them first, then heat them at very high temperatures, chill them and cut them into final bars. It’s a very simple process, but a lot of work.

A batch of soap bars is only released for shipment once one of its samples has been tested for pathogens and deemed safe by a third-party laboratory. The Global Soap Project then works with partner organizations to ship and distribute the soap directly to people who need it — for free.”

Here’s the problem. As you yourself state, a bar of soap in a place like your home nation of Uganda costs about 25¢. The cost of a shipping a bar of soap to Uganda is considerably higher than that.  In fact, not seeing your books, I’m guessing that the shipping costs are your highest budget line.  Another problem is that when you distribute your soap for free in Uganda, or Haiti, or elsewhere, you are undercutting a local small business which is selling locally manufactured soap.  Your father was a former soap-maker in Uganda. Imagine if he had to compete with Global Soap Project’s free products? If you’d like to learn more about these problems, just google the acronym “SWEDOW“.

But both of these problems can be solved at once. Why don’t you take that hotel soap, clean it, repackage it, and then sell it in Atlanta? Then take the profits and buy soap from local vendors in Uganda, to distribute to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it. There are a wide range of vendors in the US who would trumpet the social-impact benefit of your soap which both reduces waste and help the less fortunate. Your market would be considerably larger than you’d expect.

You may be tempted to try a “sell one – send one” deal like TOMS shoes. Please fight that inclination. It’s also wasteful and undermines local entrepreneurs for the same reasons listed above. Just stick to the “sell one – send money” model.

If the figures on your CNN story are accurate, you’ve collected 100 tons of soap, and distributed 100,000 bars. Let’s assume a local bar of soap can be bought for 25¢ and that your reprocessed hotel bars could be sold in the United States for a profit of $1 each. If you had sold those bars instead of shipping them, then bought locally, you could have distributed 400,000 bars by now, quadrupling your impact! And what’s even better, you wouldn’t have put a local soap manufacturer (like your father was) out of business.

I would sincerely like to help you improve your business model. I share your passion to fight poverty and disease, and would be more than happy to work with you on this.  For example, we can help connect you to over a dozen soap manufacturers in Haiti.

Once again, congratulations on being named a CNN Hero, your spirit and hard work make this richly deserved.

 

Best Regards,

Scott Gilmore

 

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25 Comments

  1. Alana Weaver says:

    Here’s several of the problems with your recommendation regards to Mr. Kayango’s Global Soap Project. I commend Mr. Kayango’s social enterprise too with helping people living in IDP or refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda & Haiti and being a steward of environmental conservation but NO ONE in Atlanta, Dallas or else where in the U.S. (not even myself) is going to BUY recycled hotel soap from Global Soap Project when their purchasing AXE, Caress, Dial, etc from Wal-Mart and other retailers (i.e. Family Dollar) or African Black Soap either indirectly or directly from Ghana or their local African store in their region. Also what you completely ignored is each local soap manufacturer’s natural soap is going to be completely different in ingredient composition and PH level.

    Mr. Kayango would have to ensure that each local soap manufacturer produces their soap within a certain standard and maintain quality control to sell to people here in Atlanta or else where in the world.

  2. Linus says:

    Alana, I just wanted to say thanks for your vibrant contribution to the conversation. I bet you’re fun at dinner parties. Suggesting alternatives might have been more interesting or even, dare I say, helpful, but you took the high road, squatted down and tried your gosh-darndest to drop a steaming turd on ideas to make a flawed idea better. Way to do the right thing!

    Actually, it’s not the right thing at all. It’s blatant, closed-minded defeatism. And it’s what I’m doing now, so I should move on to some sort of positive contribution, lest I begin to look like…well, you.

    I’m sure there are markets out there that don’t give a rat’s ass about the PH balance of their soap. Prisons come to mind, and from what I’ve heard, they aren’t going away any time soon. I doubt that’s the only option. We survived for roughly eternity without worrying about the Ph balance of our bathroom products. I’m sure there are people out there who still do. Heck, I’d give them a go. See? He could sell them to prisons and me. Or maybe animals? What about the birds that get coated in oil slicks? There you have it. Me, prisons and animals.

    And with regard to your final point about quality control, we’re not talking about cars here. Or toys for children that likely shouldn’t have sharp edges. We’re talking about bars of soap. Sort of like shea butter and some tree oils that are – wait for it – processed in deep dark scary Africa and sold in the good old U-S of A.

    I’ve managed to max-out my daily sarcasm allotment in one reply, so I’m going to wander off and try to do something slightly less belligerent. With any luck Alana, my own, personal brand of knee-jerk idiocy gets you to reconsider yours. Maybe instead of just dumping on an idea, you’ll offer alternative to make it better. You know…like Scott did.

  3. Beth Penland says:

    Mr. Gilmore,

    Thank you for taking the time to illuminate your concerns about The Global Soap Project. Unfortunately, the CNN piece and our website only share part of our story. We will work to communicate our process, and incorporate some of your questions into our website. First, I would like to address each one in hopes that you and your audience will understand our work a bit better:

    “In fact, not seeing your books, I’m guessing that the shipping costs are your highest budget line.”

    Actually, no. Our highest budget line item is the equipment necessary to convert used soap into new bars. The Global Soap Project does not have shipping costs to deliver the finished product as we distribute the reprocessed soap through
    other non-profits already providing goods and services in areas with a need for soap. We’ve found that partnering with other organizations that have established and proven distribution methods is more efficient and ensures getting soap into the hands of those who have requested it and understand the true value of the product from a sanitation and hygiene standpoint.

    “Another problem is that when you distribute your soap for free in Uganda, or Haiti, or elsewhere, you are undercutting a local small business which is selling locally manufactured soap.“

    The communities that we serve typically do not have access to commercially available soap. Even if they had the money to spend, many are unable to shop for themselves. Many of the recipients have never seen a bar of soap or had one for their own personal use.

    “If you’d like to learn more about these problems, just google the acronym “SWEDOW“.

    We give our soap to organizations by request, for communities with specific needs. The acronym SWEDOW stands for “stuff we don’t want.” This does not apply to the people we help, which include children in orphanages who for the first time are being taught about the connection between personal hygiene and their health. It also includes birth attendants in refugee camps who now have the ability to create a safer environment for mothers and their newborns. We’ve even provided soap to a prison in Ghana that requested soap to quell a ringworm outbreak amongst female prisoners.

    “Why don’t you take that hotel soap, clean it, repackage it, and then sell it in Atlanta?”

    We have not had the financial resources to do the type of market research, manufacturing/packaging, marketing and sales required to launch a commercially viable product in the United States. And, we believe that our model is the most effective route to making an impact on the health of the communities at risk.

    Again, thank you for raising these concerns Mr. Gilmore. Even if we cannot gain your support, it is good to hear from our critics so we can proactively identify challenges that will come as we grow. Many of the observations you’ve made we consider quite valid, and indeed our Board continues to explore ways to improve operational efficiency and
    effectiveness. We welcome a dialogue and look forward to hearing your ideas.

    Sincerely,

    Beth Penland
    Founding Board Member
    Global Soap Project

  4. Ned Breslin says:

    Beth states:

    The communities that we serve typically do not have access to commercially available soap. Even if they had the money to spend, many are unable to shop for themselves. Many of the recipients have never seen a bar of soap or had one for their own personal use.

    Any data to support this claim?

  5. Beth Penland says:

    Hi Ned,

    These are the stories that Derreck has shared with us through his personal experience as a refugee in Kenya, his journey to Africa with our first shipment of soap, as well as his work at CARE International. There is good data, however, that documents the need for soap and education in the UNICEF Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Annual Report 2010.

    http://www.unicef.org/wash/index_documents.html

  6. Alana Weaver says:

    PDT encourages and welcomes all comments and view points, within reason. We do not condone foul, offensive, racist, inappropriate or graphic language (our Executive Director has been known to swear on occasion – but he’s working on it). The first sentence of this comment has been removed for inappropriate language. Obviously those of us who manufacture natural soap or purchase handmade soap from other vendors including those who make natural soap from Ghana or else where in world or send cash to family members locked up in prison to purchase person toiletries or other supplies for themselves, have common sense aren’t that easily dubbed. Mr. Kayango is simply recycling hotel soap which would otherwise end up in the land field and providing it to people in Haiti, Kenya and Uganda who obviously cannot afford to spend $0.25 to purchase soap for themselves from the informal local soap manufacturers (or formal registered soap manufacturers e.g. Unilever (U) Ltd for that matter) in their prospective countries. So you can calm down with “trying to be all uppity or cool” in explaining yourself.

  7. David Week says:

    Beth, nice to see that you really do have your business model so thoroughly worked out. Pity about the CNN compression. My first thought was that the lesson hearing was that when hearing a story like yours, we should go to the website first, to check on the business model. But then I find that your site (at least on first inspection — most that anyone has time for) there is no description of the business model.

    I think this is a general problem. Few NGOs describe their business model. On the other hand, the business model the best way to assess the sustainability and real benefits of what NGO is doing: as Scott Gilmore has highlighted with his questioning. Therefore, I’d like to encourage you to publish a top-level web page explaining your business model. I think as donors get more savvy, and donor consciousness is sharpened by stories like “The Cups of Tea” saga, the more that having a published and transparent business model will be relevant for all NGOs.

  8. Beth Penland says:

    Thanks David, and we will definitely be making improvements to the website soon. Every penny we get goes to improving our production facility – we have no paid staff, only volunteers – so our marketing is pretty rudimentary. I appreciate the questions raised in this forum and will make some changes on the site as soon as possible!

  9. Marie Claire says:

    Congrats to PDT (as usual) and the Global Soap Project. I read all of the above with interest and learned something new – a good enough start to any day.

    An even better start to the day was reading Linus’s pungent riposte to Alana – even if it did bring me close to dousing my laptop with some of Timor’s finest coffee. Thank you Linus, I haven’t laughed so much of a morning in an age.

  10. Liora Hess says:

    There is value in the story of reprocessing hotel soap and physically sending it to people who need it — a story that is somehow more compelling than that of simply sending money to those same individuals. It may be less efficient than selling the soap locally and sending the money where it’s needed, but I think there is an unmeasured element of the value of the story. Humans are often more inspired by the overall process and story like this that is being told than what may be the most efficient way to do things. I’m sure there’s always room for improvement in any business model, and the dialogue that’s been opened is good.

    After reading CNN’s story, I spent an afternoon at the Global Soap Project today and wrote about it at http://mindfuldough.com/2011/06/23/global-soap-project/.

  11. […] Gilmore of Peace Dividend Trust wrote an “open letter” to GSP citing his views that GSP’s business model is resulting in “unintended […]

  12. […] representatives of the Global Soap Project have shown willingness to engage with the criticism, and are promising more evidence on their website soon to demonstrate why they think their business […]

  13. c-sez says:

    “The Global Soap Project does not have shipping costs to deliver the finished product as we distribute the reprocessed soap through other non-profits already providing goods and services in areas with a need for soap.”

    So the costs of shipping soap from the USA to Uganda are invisible to you in the Global Soap Project. Which dodges the question. Who are you partnering with and how much of their generous donors’ money are they spending to ship your soap from the USA to Uganda? If buying soap in Uganda is cheaper than shipping it from the USA, is it ethical for these other agencies to use their donations to ship your products?

  14. […] this got me thinking about the stories NGOs tell about themselves and their work, in particular the recent discussion around Global […]

  15. […] this got me thinking about the stories NGOs tell about themselves and their work, in particular the recent discussion around Global […]

  16. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    Well intended and really, really inefficient. There are shops in Uganda. They sell soap. Soap is easily, readily, cheaply available, in all sorts of qualities. It really makes very little sense to go to all this effort and then ship stuff around the world (carbon foot print, too) if you can just walk into any shop in Uganda and buy some soap. Send some cash to Uganda – purchasing this locally also gives a boost to the local economy.

  17. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    Mukwano Industries in Uganda manufacture soap: http://mukwano.com/manufacturing/laundry_toilet_soaps.php

    Madhvani Group has a soap factory in Kakira: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madhvani_Group

    If you google a bit more, you’ll also find plenty of references to SMEs and even smaller soap makers. I’m sure they’d be delighted to sell you some soap. Helps them make money and keep their kids in school.

  18. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  19. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  20. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  21. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  22. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  23. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  24. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]

  25. […] kits. The hygiene/sanitation approach is also taken by many NGOs, such as Clean the World and Global Soap. By contrast, most medical NGOs have focused on the oral rehydration solution to treat the […]


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