ATLANTA – Nearly two decades after he arrived in this country, Ugandan Derreck Kayongo is still bowled over by one subtle display of American wealth: the endless array of soaps available in stores.
In his African homeland, the cost of soap is out of reach for many, often with tragic consequences. In 2004, the World Health Organization found roughly 15 percent of deaths among Ugandan children under age 5 resulted from diarrheal diseases, many of which could be prevented through hand sanitation.
Now America's bountiful soap bars have prompted Kayongo to launch the Global Soap Project, an effort to help his country's poorest — one used bar of hotel soap at a time.
An Atlanta-based anti-poverty advocate, Kayongo has collected several tons of lightly used soap bars under a plan to melt them down, sterilize them and reshape the soap for shipment to refugees in Uganda to help curb disease.
For Uganda's destitute, soap is a luxury.
"Most people find it very hard to spend money on something like soap which could actually help them prevent diseases," Kayongo said. A bar of soap can run 500 Ugandan shillings — about 10 American cents — on a continent where many refugees have a dollar to live on daily.
Cleaning up with used soap sounds, well, dirty.
But Kayongo said soaps will be separated by hotel brand and gently washed to remove makeup and other surface dirt. Next, bars will go into a high-temperature oven where they will melt and transform into a soapy, sterile, slurry. Kayongo said the mixture will go into molds to harden and emerge as large bars of soap.
"All it needs is just cleaning and re-melting and remolding," he said.
Each day, in millions of American hotel rooms, the cleaning staff replaces soap and other toiletries.
Patrick Maher, a consultant to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, said hotels usually throw away used soap. But he said nonprofits have begun stepping up to recycle soap for charitable purposes.
"It's one of the new things this year," Maher said.
One such charity, Florida-based Clean the World, says it has collected about 17,000 pounds of used soap since February for distribution in impoverished countries worldwide.
For the Global Soap Project, Kayongo says he has gathered 10,000 pounds of used hotel soap from 60 hotels in Georgia, Florida and Tennessee. Hotels collect lightly used bars which they place in bins. One of Kayongo's 10 volunteers takes the bars to a donated warehouse near Atlanta that he's using.
Kayongo's own family had once thrived off his father's business making soaps and running a printing press in Uganda. But Kayongo said they went from being members of the middle class to refugees, losing everything under the harsh rule of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.
The family fled to Kenya, where Kayongo said life without basics became the norm.
Now Kayongo wants to give other refugees a small item that can make a big difference. He plans to send off his first shipment in late October.
Kayongo, a senior advocacy field coordinator for CARE International, has committed about $5,000 of his own money toward the $13,000 cost to send the soap and is seeking donations to make up the rest. CARE International, a global anti-poverty group, is not sponsoring the project.
Since June, just one Ritz-Carlton hotel in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood has turned over 3,000 pounds of soap which otherwise would have gone into the trash.
"When I heard Derreck speak about it, I thought it sounded really easy and why haven't we been doing this all along?" said Olivia Brown, a manager at the hotel.
Kayongo got the idea back in the mid '90s. He'd recently arrived in America and when he settled into his hotel, Kayongo was surprised to find packages of soap.
He used the bars, but was confused the next day when he found they'd been replaced.
"This went on for two or three days," said Kayongo, who finally called his father back in Africa and chuckled about it.
The men talked about how the soap could be melted down and reused. Kayongo sat on the idea for a few years, until his father recently brought it back up.
"If you live on a dollar a day," Kayongo said, "what are the chances you spend even one cent of that dollar on buying a luxury like soap?"