Washing hands, saving lives

Giving Something Back

Did you realise that washing with soap can save lives? Yet in Asia alone, hotels throw away millions of bars of soap every day. Why not recycle them? That’s exactly what Soap Cycling does. And four of our students deserve some of the credit.

Why soap is important

You might think that HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis are the main causes of death in children under five years old. But they’re not. Pneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases are responsible for one-third of the mortality rate, killing more children each year than HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. Yet studies have shown that these deaths are relatively easy to prevent or reduce by washing hands with soap. If only people could get hold of soap in the first place.

Reduce, reuse and recycle

David Bishop is a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong. Driven by the desire to reduce the number of deaths resulting from poor sanitation, he decided to create an organisation that would, as he said, “put the soap in the hands of Asian underprivileged communities”. In 2012 he founded Soap Cycling. Its operating model is beautiful in its simplicity: slightly used bars of soap are collected from partner hotels and are sanitised and recycled into new bars; these are then distributed to those who need them.

The challenges

Soap Cycling was the first organisation of its kind in Asia. And although it was set up as a not-for-profit organisation, David wasn’t going to rely on sending out letters to obtain the occasional funding required. He realised that his venture, like any other, needed a robust strategy for it to be viable and sustainable. “But we didn’t have time to think through all this on our own, as we were trying to get the ball rolling,” he recalls. And this is where our full-time MBA students came in. For Cátia, Ana-Maria, Sergio and Juan Fernando, Soap Cycling was going to be their Giving Something Back project.

Their biggest challenge? They only had six weeks and wanted to do a lot in that short time. The initial scope was limited, but they got so caught up in the project that they spent the summer not only designing the operational structure and defining the roles of the key positions, but also tackling production, logistics, HR policies, marketing and communication, and finance.

The narrow time frame was not the only challenge. “Soap Cycling is to be run by volunteer students and that’s a challenge in itself. University students here don’t have work experience like they may have in the US or Europe,” David explains. “You see, Soap Cycling was envisioned first and foremost as an educational platform for university students in Hong Kong. But no one has ever done anything quite like this here, so it took the collective work and knowledge of the Vlerick students to think through how our students would operate, what roles they would play, how we could quantify or grade their performance, how we could lessen the loss of information when students move on, etc.”

The results

Today Soap Cycling is indeed operated largely through student volunteers from the University of Hong Kong. More than 60 hotels in the Hong Kong area have asked to join the initiative, and more are expected to follow. The organisation contributes to reducing child mortality rates by improving sanitation and hygiene in underprivileged areas, not only through the distribution of soap, but also by educating children about the importance of hygiene, the dangers of germs, and proper hand-washing techniques. The initiative is also good for the environment. By recycling soap, Soap Cycling avoids tons of chemical waste that would otherwise end up in landfills. And what’s more, Soap Cycling provides students with a great platform to gain hands-on experience in managing and operating an organisation.

Closing the circle

David is extremely satisfied with what our students were able to achieve in such a short time: “They helped us leapfrog years of trial and error, and move closer towards our ultimate goal of having a hands-on, student-run not-for-profit company in Asia. Basically, they helped design the path to allow our fledgling charity to go from a very small organisation to a sophisticated company with an organised and effective student volunteer base.”

With this project, our students have made a contribution to the Hong Kong community that will, in turn, enable other students to make theirs. And so the circle is closed.

It was a totally different way of volunteering to what I was used to. Being able to combine academic knowledge and business experience with voluntary work was a unique and rewarding experience” Cátia Candeias

There are plenty of books you can read and learn from. But it’s only through being involved in this project that I truly understand what it takes to be a social entrepreneur and what the benefits are of such initiativesAna-Maria Manole

I chose this project because I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to experience a different culture, discovering social entrepreneurs that have a lot to give. And I didn’t regret it for one secondSergio Pinzón

It’s been a challenging yet rewarding experience. Not only because I acted as a consultant for an atypical organisation, but also because I was immersed in a totally new and fascinating business cultureJuan Fernando Ramírez

Sergio Pinzón, Cátia Candeias, Ana-Maria Manole and Juan Fernando Ramírez

Sergio Pinzón, Cátia Candeias, Ana-Maria Manole and Juan Fernando Ramírez: “Projects like these show that there’s a win-win opportunity to collaborate. Business people learn to look at an organisation beyond the numbers, while NGOs learn how to achieve their goals more effectively.”

These also made a difference

During the summer break all full-time MBA students undertake Giving Something Back projects at NGOs, not-for-profit organisations or social enterprises. The emphasis is on bringing managerial know-how to these organisations. In general, the students don’t receive any financial support, so it’s an opportunity for them to use their skills for the benefit of society. The list of projects undertaken during the summer of 2012 illustrates the diversity in scope and location.

& Rankings

Equis Association of MBAs AACSB Financial Times Economist Intelligence Unit