Soap Cycling Singapore ("SCSG") entered 2020 on a wave of optimism. With our first hire, Ms. Jacqueline Tan, installed as partnerships manager the previous summer, our operations and impact developed rapidly in the last half of 2019. New local hotel partners were being onboarded rapidly, corporate partners were lining up for volunteer sessions, and our outreach efforts to charities serving underprivileged communities in Singapore and across Asia were improving the lives of thousands who lack access to sanitation and hygiene resources. A few months into the new year has seen that situation reverse dramatically. With the coronavirus situation steadily worsening in Singapore throughout March and April and the “circuit breaker” quarantine measures instituted in early May, all that SCSG had achieved was in danger of being wiped out.
The Covid crisis and the subsequent increase in cases among the migrant worker population in Singapore presented an unprecedented challenge for this young organization. Our two primary sources of revenue, charging hotels for soap collection services and charging corporates to hold volunteer sessions, were suddenly unviable. Hotel occupancy in Singapore, traditionally above 80% even in bad times, plummeted close to zero. Corporates were unable and unwilling to hold group events. In order to survive the incredibly difficult business conditions as well as help the ever increasing numbers of our community that were struggling, SCSG had to pivot quickly to new strategies.
The pandemic also brought a tremendous opportunity: suddenly handwashing with soap was a very hot topic. Even in an uber-developed city like Singapore, there was growing demand from many charities and individuals for our product as a tool to fight the coronavirus. In particular, the worsening health situation in migrant worker dormitories, responsible for 92% of Singapore’s 28,794 infections, created a powerful impetus to distribute as much soap as quickly as possible. According to a recent study published by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, a local NGO, 60% of 100 migrant workers living in dorms surveyed reported that the availability of soap in their dorms was a major concern. Apart from the migrant worker community, many low-income elderly or working families also were in tremendous need of free soap to stay healthy and save precious funds to survive the impending economic downturn.
While the revenue lost from hotel collections was certainly troubling, the fact also remained that it was also our only source of soap. With a diminishing supply of raw material to process and distribute, this situation was threatening to literally take the ‘Soap’ out of SCSG. Our first option to stay afloat was to tap into other sources of soap in our network. One of Soap Cycling’s longest and most supportive hospitality partners, Hilton Worldwide, offered to donate their soap directly, instead of shipping it to Hong Kong, which they have done since 2013. An intrepid group of Soap Cyclers, including board members, advisors, and student interns, answered the call on the morning of April 6th to make the 300 kg pickup, our largest to date in Singapore. This high-quality soap, totalling 7,500 bars, would make up the bulk of our circuit breaker donations to migrant worker dorms.
Thinking outside the “soap box,” SCSG also tapped into an unorthodox supply of soap from Singapore’s manufacturing industry. One of our key sustaining corporate partners, Eurofragance, operates a small-scale soap manufacturing capability to test fragrances. Although the soap often comes in strange shapes and colors, it is perfectly new and good to use. An additional 45 kg, or 1,125 bars, certainly came in handy to back up our dwindling hotel supplies. With many fragrance, and soap, manufacturers operating in Singapore (Unilever, Firmenich Takasogo, International Flavors and Fragrances, Symrise), this could represent a new business opportunity for SCSG when the circuit breaker measures come to an end.
While the soap provided by Eurofragance and Hilton bridged the gap, we also received a tremendous outpouring of support from members of the community. Personal donors stepped up to dust off hotel soap bars and amenity bottles in storage that were collected from years of travel in the region. All in all, 6 individuals donated 110 kg of soap bars (2,750 bars) and 45 kg of bottled amenities. The latter will be packaged into SCSG’s first ever hygiene kits to be distributed to Malaysian migrant workers who are rough sleeping through the circuit breaker.
Singapore’s Soaper Heroes
With new supplies of soap secured, SCSG now had to turn to the ‘Cycling’ (or ‘Recycling’) part of our mission. With the circuit breaker measures in effect, it was not possible to host volunteer sessions with members of the public at our activity space in Farrer Park. At the same time, many Singaporeans were stuck at home and actively looking for an outlet for their volunteer energies. Using our network of existing volunteers, we started to arrange pickups of soap for homebound helpers to clean and package for distribution. One challenge was training. Without a Soap Cycling representative present, how would we give feedback and maintain quality control? The team came up with a creative solution by producing a video training volunteers on the basics of soap cleaning and packaging. Different SCSG representatives were also on call to provide video feedback on the work done. Using technology and creativity, we spread the work across the Lion City and were able to meet our goals On Time, On Target (OTOT).
Another side effect of the Covid situation was a surplus of students with extra time on their hands. With exchange programs cancelled, SCSG recruited 10 new interns to help with various projects. Engaging youth to help achieve our mission is an integral part of Soap Cycling’s DNA. The parent organization was originally founded in Hong Kong 7 years ago as an experiential learning project and over 150 interns have since contributed to creating Asia’s largest soap recycling charity. The SCSG spring 2020 batch brought diverse backgrounds and a plethora of new ideas to help us achieve our goals. Two secondary students from National Public School in Bedok focused on business planning our eventual move into bottled amenity recycling. A talented design student from NUS created a dance to promote hand hygiene. A group of NUS business students prepared a case study analyzing the local hospitality market to suggest business opportunities. The Millennials of Singapore have faced the uncertainty with a passion for improving their city that will hopefully provide concrete lessons for dealing with difficulty in their future lives.
Sending Soap to Those in Need
With sufficient soap supplies secured and sufficient manpower engaged, the circuit breaker regulations also hampered our ability to move soap out to those in need. In particular, the situation in the migrant worker dorms steadily worsened through May with hundreds of cases reported each day. Isolated in their dorms and unable to purchase necessities, migrant workers who were already living in overcrowded and suboptimal conditions were now living in a waking nightmare of fear for their health, jobs, and families back at home. Working with our remote volunteers and interns, SCSG was able to process 12,000 bars of soap to deliver with care packs containing sanitizer, vitamin C, and masks created by our charity partner, SGCare. While the donated items were definitely much appreciated by the 3,000 beneficiaries, the simple act of visiting and showing that the community cares about their plight was perhaps the greatest act of kindness in this difficult period.
While the situation in local migrant worker dorms commanded the lion’s share of SCSG’s attention during this period, the team also made efforts to reach out to migrant workers battling on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic. The cleaners who toil long hours in dirty, dangerous conditions in housing estates across the city are often the most vulnerable to contracting the disease. Living in cramped, often unsanitary conditions, in the estates’ bin rooms, these hardworking individuals often lack the means to afford daily necessities. While the donation of soap will not solve the root cause of their difficult working conditions, it will help them to stay healthy.
While SCSG spends the vast majority of its energies on trying to save soap from the incinerator and get it to those in need, our organization also requires funds to remain in operation. In particular, costs for logistics, materials such as masks and gloves for volunteer sessions, and rent to maintain our space requires a steady flow of funds. As our primary source of funding has traditionally been revenue based, charging hotels and corporates for providing services, SCSG has been confirmed as a registered social enterprise with raiSE, the local organization that governs social enterprises. With these sources of funding cut off due to the coronavirus situation, the team needed a new strategy to earn money. The team brainstormed possible sources and devised a campaign to both raise funds to help the less fortunate Singaporeans struggling during this period as well as to raise awareness of our mission. Using the crowdfunding platform, give.asia, #SoapforSingapore was born.
All in all, over $10,000 SGD has been raised from over 100 donors, enough to donate 10,000 bars of soap to the Singaporean community, a key weapon in the city’s arsenal to overcome this current crisis. The messages received from donors explaining why they donated their precious funds to our cause were incredibly heartening and underscored the importance of our work. With the experience and exposure gained through this exercise, the entire team feels confident that when conditions improve, SCSG will use this test of fire to reach new heights in its quest to create a more sustainable and equitable city.