CNN Hero shares vision of hope for Uganda
Rebecca O'Neil | Thursday, March 21, 2013
Derreck Kayongo, co-founder of the Global Soap Project and a refugee from Uganda, delivered the closing address of Saint Mary’s 8th Annual Diverse Students’ Leadership Conference on Wednesday in Carroll Auditorium.
In 2011, Kayongo was recognized as a CNN Hero for creating the Project, a nonprofit organization that recycles and donates decontaminated hotel soap to refugee communities around the world.
Lives upturned by his country’s civil war, Kayongo said his family left Uganda when he was ten years old.
His later entrepreneurial mission was inspired by his first experience in an American hotel, where the automatic toilets and faucets mystified him. He and his companions stood at the sinks, which he later learned were controlled by automatic sensors, unable to find knobs to wash their hands, Kayongo said. Every time they bent over the water rushed out, but as soon as they stood up, it stopped.
“We must’ve looked like such fools,” Kayongo said.
Kayongo said an unexpected perk of his stay at the hotel was the its seemingly infinite supply of soap. He said he stowed the precious toiletries in his bag each day, but new soaps would appear back in the bathroom the next day. Convinced that he would be charged for excessive usage, Kayongo confessed to a hotel attendee and offered to give them all back.
“I went up to him and said ‘Guess what? I’ve been stealing your soap. If I give it back to the room services can I get my money back? I can’t afford it,'” said Kayongo.
He said the man laughed and explained that everyone “stole” the soap. Relieved and curious, Kayongo recalled asking what became of the leftover soap bars and half empty shampoo bottles. He said he was appalled to discover that they were thrown away “for proper etiquette.”
“I returned to my hotel room and lost it,” said Kayongo. “Keep in mind, I am the child of a father who made soap. A child who became a refugee and saw people without soap. And I came to America to see it thrown away.”
Each year, American hotels discard roughly 800,000,000 bars of soap, Kayongo said. Such soap is a key weapon in fighting infectious diseases in third-world countries.
“It’s incredible that a problem of this magnitude can be fixed by [doing] something so small,” Kayongo said. “Putting a tiny bar of soap in a child’s hand reduces their chance of infection by 47 percent.”
After his return to Kenya, Kayongo said he spent ten years researching all he could about the infrastructure of the United States and building a foundation for his idea of a nonprofit project, which called for thorough education and serious networking.
Kayongo said he appealed to Hilton Hotels and Resorts’ desire to be eco-friendly because he said he told them when soap and germs mix in landfills it slows the decomposition process.
“I approached them with facts they could not avoid,” Kayongo said. “Companies want to be on the right side of history.”
To persuade those with self-serving perspectives, one must broaden their own horizons, Kayongo said.
“I took my general idea and broke it into tiny ideas so others could understand,” said Kayongo. “Each person has the ability to understand the environment in which they exist.”
“Empathy gives us the ability to be capacious,” said Kayongo. “You can’t lead people or be a part of their team if you don’t identify with them.”
Kayongo challenged his audience to leave their comfort zones and explore the world.
“Don’t under estimate the power of travel,” he said. “I know you love South Bend but get out there. A traveling mind is a productive mind.”
Kayongo encouraged students to acquire as deep and broad of an education as possible through diversity.
“You are the vessel of intelligence. In other words, you must apply yourself to get results,” Kayongo said. “The most powerful people in this country are those who innovate.”
Kayongo also said in order to be a successful leader, it is imperative to understand the power of self-awareness.
“If you don’t understand the power of self, it’s hard to see how you can change the world,” Kayongo said.
This vision is essential to growth because the youth now are the world’s future leaders, he said.
“Christian missionaries come with huge donations of clothes, but what they don’t realize is that their generosity is kills the clothing market at home even more,” Kayongo said.
Kayongo closed the lecture with a song and dance in Swahili, joined by the audience.
Visit globalsoap.org for more information on Kayongo’s foundation.