Here at Black & Abroad, we work to ensure that our mission concedes simple brand recognition.
Often along the way, we encounter other like-minded individuals that have successfully mastered the space beyond their anticipated approach to empower the diaspora.
These are the influencers, visionaries, and tastemakers that have managed to successfully employ their own blueprints to create a better world for us tomorrow and make impacts that deserve your consideration.
That deserve your support.
That deserve your attention.
Welcome to the Black & Abroad Conversation Series.
Enter Derreck Kayongo.
Derreck Kayongo made a name for himself by creating the Global Soap Project, a non-profit organization that collects partially used bars of soap from hotels, then sanitizes and recycles the soap to be given to refugees and others around the planet.
When Idi Amin triggered a brutal war in Uganda, the 10-year-old Kayongo and his family fled to Kenya, landing among refugees who lacked many of the basic necessities — including soap. On his first day in America, the now adult Derreck was preparing to take a shower in his hotel when he discovered the many different kinds of soap in his room: hand soap, face soap, body soap, shampoo, conditioner. He had never seen so much soap for one person. A few days into his stay, he began to wonder what happened to the partially used soap that disappeared from his room each day and discovered that it was just thrown away. This peek into how wasteful hotels could be sparked the idea to turn that waste into health for someone else. The Global Soap Project has donated close to 15 million bars of soap since its inception in 2009.
Kayongo, a 2011 Top 10 CNN Hero, has since gone on to be named the Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Civil & Human Rights, located in Atlanta, GA, where he currently resides.
Derreck sat down with us for a chat about the Global Soap Project, traveling with purpose, and going home to Africa.
Kent Johnson of Black & Abroad: Why was the initiative behind Global Soap Project personal to you? What was the driving factor for you?
Derreck Kayongo: I grew up around soap. My father made soap, so I was familiar with the process being making it. I had this great business idea: What could I do with the volumes that we are throwing away, about 800 million bars of soap every year, or $2.6 million of soap every single day? That's a lot of volume. I thought to myself, “Wow, what does it cost to make a brand new bar of soap?” You need lye, you need color, you need perfume, you need chemists. The whole production process and cost of it, I would cut that in half, literally, if not more. This is just easy money right here.
But then the second part, as I thought more about it I realized, I'm a former refugee and the need for soap was so huge, and it's still huge. Right now we have almost six million refugees around the world. Jordan, the country, has about 600,000 refugees. The biggest problem with refugees is not so much the war. I mean, of course the war is a problem. But once they have become refugees, it's health. It's hunger. Germs are fantastic at being circumventers of the situations and environments. They don't live symbiotically with us for most of the time. They love to eat us, if they can. And soap is a big deterrent. Every year, the Center for Disease Control says we lose about two million kids to lower respiratory diseases, diarrhea, ring worm, and all that stuff. So if you look at how much soap we're throwing away and how many kids we're losing every year, how many kids drop out of school every year, childbirth fever… These are all soap related.
So that's what got me into the whole thing. It was the initial idea that it would be a good business. And then the fact that I was a former refugee.
B&A: I think you're right. I think that a lot of things that we attribute to bigger issues could be narrowed down in a lot of cases, to soap. If it's a young girl who couldn't wash up for days and didn't want to go to school because of embarrassment, the trickle down effect of such a choice has an impact. Or if it was something as simple as the person who had access to medicine being able to consistently wash their hands, or someone serving food. That has such an impact. And like you said, once you become a refugee, it's more so about maintaining your health so that you can eventually move out of that status. I definitely understand.
One of the things that I have noticed in travel is that, especially in the black community, we all want to find a way to give back when we travel. But there's a fine line between exploitation and being a true help. What do you think is the best way to be of service when you're traveling? What do you think is the way to not fall into that line of exploitation when looking to be of service?
Derreck: You know, I think travel, like everything else, is going to create waste. What we need to think about is not so much how to stop the waste, because people are not going to be true to recycling and to preventative measures of waste as we think. They have habits and habits are hard to break. So I think what we need to focus on is to figure out how to do it like what I did. They have so much to throw away. The hotels have to serve, they can't use the same batches for five years because clients are not going to come back. So my goal and your goal would be to figure out how to turn that waste into something else, a product that can be used. The MGM in Vegas and other hotels are turning waste now into projects, into business. They are selling their waste away, because we found ways to use that waste. But having said that, once we find that solution, it's still important for people to be careful. So when you go into a hotel and you need one bar of soap, just use one bar of soap. Leave the other alone. Because if you don't tamper, the next person actually can use that. Once you crack the box open, they've got to throw it away. This is the law. So, that's something you just have to teach at home, for kids to learn. So they grow up and become you and I and don't waste. But another thing is, it's very hard for us to recruit hotels.
B&A: Why is that?
Derreck: Because hotels are run like chiefdoms. They are run by the owners who are franchisees. So even when a hotel’s corporate headquarters, like Marriott or Hilton says, let's all recycle soap, it's still up to the owners of the hotel to actually do that, as this becomes extra work for the cleaners and housekeepers. What we’ve found is that when you explain it to them and say there's a way we recycle these, because it's going to help people back in Africa, in Latin America and Asia, they actually love to do it! Because then it gives purpose to their work. So, I think that the best way to recruit hotels is for patrons of the hotel, to say, “Are you recycling your soap?” If you're taking a big event to your hotel, ask them, will you recycle soap? If you want us to come to your hotel, we want to make sure you recycle soap. Because that's the way to get them to really be, to stay true to the whole process. In other words, to leave it to them, it's not going to work. The customer has to press the issue. That's the most responsible thing you can do. Because you cannot stop the waste. It's going to be there.
B&A: Habits are hard to break especially when we're on vacation and everybody wants to have that luxury feel. Even if you're staying in a two or three star hotel, you still want that idea that I'm being taken care of. And sometimes, intentionally or unintentionally, you’ll be more wasteful than you would if you were at home. But until customers, until the money, puts purpose into it, then they don't see the reason to do it.
So, on that note, do you feel as if it's our responsibility as members of the African diaspora, to find ways to be of purpose or of service when we travel to other countries in our diaspora, whether it's in the islands or back to the continent of Africa and within the countries there. Do you feel that it's our responsibility to find ways to be of service?
Derreck: I call it purposeful travel. One of the biggest ways to help Africa, for example, is by going there. When you travel and stay in their hotels, that’s leaving money in those communities and it empowers them to do other things. I don’t think many African Americans know this, but they have been a boon for the cruise industry. If African Americans didn't go on cruises, they would shut down (laughs)! But in the same way, it's important for you to travel with the purpose in mind. Think of it this way; it's like being from somewhere and choosing never go back there, ever. Europeans don't do that. They go back to Europe. They love Paris. They love England. And of course they love it, because it's beautiful and supposedly wonderful. But Africa is an equally beautiful place. Kenya is beautiful. Botswana is fantastic. Namibia is cool. So are South Africa and Ghana. These are beautiful countries that people don't know about.
For example, my brother and I were talking about doing a beer tour. Africa has some of the best beers, like Tasca. They're a local to them. We hear about Oktoberfest all of the time, beers from small, little towns. But Africa has the same thing!
So, the best way to empower places, is to go there. Not to talk about maybe going and hold this fear about it being too far. Planes are extremely comfortable these days. A flight from here to Jorbug looks far, but they take care of you. They really do take care of you! Meal after meal. You can watch 20 movies if you want to (laughs)! So I think that's what people don’t understand, is that Africa is very attractive. It's very different. It asks questions of you that you don't necessarily know about or take care of and it makes you think about ways to be purposeful. So I will conclude this saying that there's a legacy account and a financial account. Most of us are wealthy by the financial account, but we have no legacy at all. So it's important for people to use travel, to figure out where they want to be as a legacy. Because we have this saying at home, “Traveling is seeing. Seeing is knowing.” Before you taste your neighbor's food, you may think your mom is the best cook. That's all about traveling. So that's why it is important. Your neighborhood isn't the best neighborhood in the world. There are other neighborhoods that are equally good. Now it's what you know right now, but it's not the best.
B&A: I think there's a major disconnect in African Americans and Africa. And it only goes one way. All of my friends who are either from Nigeria or Ghana or South Africa, and they have families here in the U.S. They very much have a connection to the families here but it doesn't work the other way around. We don’t have connection to our families there. We're quick to take a trip to Paris before we take a trip to Egypt or Dakar. And we don't see the purpose or the takeaway from it. We don't see the benefit of going. Everyone who goes sees it once they get there, but it’s hard to convince those who haven’t been yet.
Derreck: The only thing that is attractive about Paris, is the idea. What is impressive about Africa for African-Americans, is that you come home. There's something about you feeling like you're home. That's the difference. Anybody could go to Paris, but you get to come home. So that's what I tell people. You will never feel like you're home until you come back to Africa. It will never happen.
B&A: There are very few places in the world that evoke that emotion. I told my friends being in Johannesburg made me feel like that. When I first visited South Africa, I went to Johannesburg and Capetown. Capetown didn't make me feel like that so much. Johannesburg definitely did. It's a moment that you rarely get to experience, especially as African-Americans. This is a place that, by the nature of your history, is foreign to you. So to see, to go back and to see the things that are very much different, but the things that are very much the same, and the things that are innate to us as a people. I tell everybody they need to go. And I try to force people to go whenever I see an opportunity.
Derreck: I think the best way to do this is find your ancestry using a site like ancestry.com. They'll tell you what part of Africa you're from, literally. Then go there. And you will find something that’s just unbelievable. It's not going to be Paris, but it's going to be home. And Paris isn't going to give you that.
B&A: Definitely. So, what is your next project? I know you now sit on the board for Global Soap Project. Do you have anything else you’ve set your energy towards?
Derreck: My work now is around the Center for Civil & Human Rights. I think very few people get the opportunity to be the guardians of work that was done to elevate all our rights. This is sanctimonious in way, but needed sanctimoniously. Because you don't know how important your rights are until they're taken away. So having come from Uganda as a former refugee and lost all my rights, and then coming to the US and being given back those rights, like voting here for the first time. I've never voted in my own country of Uganda. What, who gave me the right to vote to the US? This is John Lewis. It's CT Vivian. It's Andrew Young. It's Jesse Jackson. These people, and others fought for this right for us to vote. Who gave you the suffrage movement? It's women who really fought. So I'm at the Center for Civil & Human Rights right now, to help reframe a narrative around rights. That they're not just a yesterday thing. They continue to be important and important to meet guardians like myself, and new guardians, new blood, to protect the notion and the idea that your right is as good as my right. So, that's my project right now. I want to make sure that I understand it. I want to make sure that I protect it.
If you're spiritually ill, you go to church, you go to mosque or to a synagogue. If you are financially not stable, you go to work. But where do you go to empathize or to understand what your rights are? You go to the Center for Civil & Human Rights. That's where everybody has come. When you had the situation in Orlando, the shootout, people came and held hands and then talked about the need for us to correct that together. When the Black Lives Matter question came up, people came to the center and displayed the importance of that. So that work is legacy work. That's what I'm interested in right now.
B&A: You're right, and sadly, that's not a museum that is going to remain the same way it is, because there's always a situation of someone's rights being put into question. So, until we get to a space where there isn't an opportunity for a new exhibit, where there is not unrest happening somewhere that could be highlighted and work is still needs to be done.
Derreck: Oh yeah. I mean right now we have an exhibit going on of the indigenous folks who are struggling with the pipeline, up in the Dakotas. We try to be relevant and bring in things that make sense right now. So yeah, rights are being abused as we speak right now. So that's why I'm invested in this part.
B&A: How should one, when traveling to those places where rights might be of issue, where there's a particular conflict, handle those moments?
Derreck: You know, sympathy is wonderful. It's great. But empathy is noble. Because empathy forces you to take action, to say I can do something about that. Empathetic human beings understand what it means to oppose the evilness that prevails and seems to come out of their fellow humans. They are the buffer we have against evil. So when they don't take action, they leave us wide open to abuse. So I think that everybody who sees an evil deed and sympathizes with it, is not really changing anything. But if they empathize with it, that means they're ready to say “No, that's not right. I've got to do something about it.”
B&A: And that's something that we're dealing with right now, just in the past few weeks, where we have to decide whether you're going to be a sympathizer or an empathizer to someone else's issues. Because it’s something we deal with every day, in minor moments and now in these larger situations, where you ask yourself, “Do I sit back and say oh, that's a sad thing? Or do I put action forward to affect change?” I don't think that's just limited to when you're traveling.
Derreck: That's what the civil rights movement was all about. That's what the human rights movement was all about. Can we take these abuses and turn them into a blessing to all of us? That's how the Magna Carta was born. People were just sick and tired of a small group of people owning everything, literally. And out of the Magna Carta, we came up with natural law. And natural law gave us human rights law. And we don't want to go back to the past and relive the vestiges of oppression, we’ve got to stop sympathizing and begin empathizing.
*Learn more about the Global Soap Project.
*Plan a visit to the Center for Civil & Human Rights in Atlanta, GA.
Follow Derreck on Twitter: @DerreckKayongo