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Derrick Kayongo remembers falling to his knees and muttering a few thank you words to ‘The man upstairs.’ The announcement came to him like lightning from the sky.

“At that moment, I tried taking a deep breath but my lips were quivering with shock,” he exclaims.

On June 16, CNN announced that Kayongo had been nominated for their esteemed CNN Heroes award. He is among the top 10 contestants of this year.

What started as a one-man operation at his home basement in Atlanta, Georgia, has grown into an effort that includes about 500 hotels and hundreds of volunteers all over the US.

Kayongo is the brains behind the Global Soap project that collects discarded soap from hotels and reprocesses it into new bars that are given to vulnerable people throughout the world. The project began in Atlanta in 2009 after he met with Vicki Gordon, a former Vice President of InterContinental hotel group and explained his vision of recycling used soap from hotels.

“She made me meet the Buckhead Hotel Association group and before I knew it I had my first hotel giving me soap,” he says,

“The Buckhead Intercom hotel gave me five hundred pounds the first month of pick-up.”

Influences

Two factors influenced Kayongo’s social entrepreneurship interest in soap making: taking over from his father, Tom Kayongo who was a soap maker and his aim of reducing wastage in hotels. He estimates that about three million bars of soap were wasted by hotels every day. He narrates that when he landed in the US, he noted that hotels were throwing away the partially used bars of soap.

Unaccustomed to someone using soap just once and then throwing it away, Kayongo’s curiosity drove him into finding a solution for all the waste. Comparing with the Ugandan situation where most people in homes use the same bar of soap even when there is a visitor and on weddings where people line up to use one bar of soap to wash their hands, he needed to redress the wastage.

“My idea was simple; take three million bars of wasted soap and reprocess them into new soap and to date, this project has provided more than 100,000 bars to communities in nine countries,” he says.

He then sought an opportunity to demonstrate that social problems are not only profitable but also an opportunity for economic growth. This is because through participation, hoteliers divert tons of waste from the landfill and bolster environmental sustainability programmes.

The factory is in Atlanta and mainly uses volunteers from the community as a way to interest them in the need for environmental protection and recycling as well as teach them why the “bottom billion” might not have soap when they live on a dollar a day. This lack of soap causes a lot of diseases which needn’t be a problem. For example, soap is key in maternal health; when mothers are giving birth, they need midwives to have clean hands.

The soap is being distributed to countries like Uganda, Swaziland, South Sudan, Malawi, Kenya, St. Lucia, Haiti, Afghanistan, Ghana and Uzbekistan. They also have interests in Italy, China, Dubai, Israel and UK.

The start

However, the start wasn’t easy. He says convincing hotel management on the feasibility of the project took months. When he was finally given a go-ahead, he only had $15 (about Shs 40, 000) as capital and he bought a small soap-making machine that he placed in his home basement and kicked off with the help of family.

Today, the project is a fully-fledged factory with a capacity of producing one million bars a year. About 500 hotels are involved in the project and the soap goes directly to vulnerable populations through credible organisations like AmeriCares or MedShare International.

“Because we are a not-for-profit entity, we can only sell soap to recoup our costs of production and where the beneficiaries don’t have anything to offer, we give it away for free,” Kayongo says.

Who is Kayongo?

Kayongo was born in January 1970 to Tom and Miriam Kayongo. He is married to Sarah, daughter to Prof Patrick Muzaale and Lucy Muzaale. The couple has two children. He attended Norman Gordino aka Buganda Road Primary School and later went to Ruiru High in Kenya.

For his university education, he attended Daystar University and Eastern University in Pennsylvania. Although this soap project has turned into success, he likes to tell his story of how he ended up in the Diaspora.

Early one morning, he and the rest of his family woke up to a sea of people being hoarded off to the police station on Rubaga road. The people were suspected to have killed some government officials. They too were commanded to vacate Rubaga flats where they resided. They thereafter left the country and became refugees in Kenya.

“My mother and two sisters were the first to flee Uganda in 1979 during the war and my brother and I followed them to Kenya at the end of 1980,” he says.

While in Kenya, he had to learn Swahili and he failed his first papers miserably because he wrote them in Luganda. When the war ended, his family returned to Uganda but in a short while, he returned to Kenya to continue his studies at Daystar University.

Before soap making, Kayongo was a regional director of Amnesty International in the US and programme director of Peace Education with the Quakers. He is also the advocacy field director with CARE International. If he wins the $ 250,000 (Shs 675,000,000) cash award, he hopes to build the Global Soap project throughout the world with recycling centres in all continents.

Then, he will hope that infections caused by lack of soap will be history. He also hopes that if he wins the cash prize, he wants fellow Ugandans in the Diaspora to become innovative and contribute to new societies. He boasts that Ugandans are smart people and need to show off their incredible innovations.

To vote for Kayongo, go to CNN HEROS 2011, click on his name icon and vote by pressing the voting promote button.

You must have an email account and once you vote the first time, you’ve got to go back to your email address and agree that you are the owner of that email address. Henceforth, you can vote 10 times a day from now till December 7.

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