Since taking over as the general manager of Soap Cycling back in August 2016, I (with the help of many) have shipped 35 tons of soap to the Philippines. That's almost 900,000 bars or enough to supply 70,000 kids for a year with a life-saving resource. The Philippines, just 1300 km south of Hong Kong, is our number one "export" market for reprocessed soap.
Most of my work revolves around the collecting, processing, and shipment of lightly-used hotel soap to those in need. While we do distribute an increasing amount of sanitation and hygiene amenities to disadvantaged communities in Hong Kong, such as the homeless, refugee, and elderly poor populations, the vast majority is shipped via "balikbayan" boxes to our NGO distribution partners down south. Over the past three years, Soap Cycling, its hardworking student interns, and army of volunteers have shipped 300 of these boxes from Hong Kong to communities lacking sanitation and hygiene resources.
Despite an almost constant connection to the island archipelago, I had never set foot in the Philippines during my three years living in Hong Kong.
Why the Philippines? One reason is the need. According to UNICEF Philippines, poor sanitary conditions are the leading cause of diarrhoea, which is the leading cause of death for children under 5 in the developing world. Water.orgcalculates that over a quarter of Filipinos rely on unsafe water sources and lack access to basic sanitation resources. The National Sewerage and Septage Management Program estimates that 55 people die every day in the Philippines due to diseases caused by lack of proper sanitation facilities.
From Soap Cycling's perspective, the Philippines are also the lowest hanging fruit from a logistics standpoint. Balikbayan boxes, named for the Tagalog word for migrant, are a customs-free way to ship bulk goods across national borders and are often used by foreign domestic workers across Asia to ship needed products back to their families. For us, the lack of customs helps to ease the distribution process, as most Asian countries have very cumbersome (and graft prone) customs regulations.
Jewel of the Philippines
So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I took the plunge and booked a flight to Manila. My mood was somewhat assuaged by the familiar American brands spotted in the arrivals hall - Krispy Kreme, Dunkin Donuts, Burger King.
Like any big city in the developing world, Manila is famous for its hellish traffic. The sugar high from my glazed donut quickly evaporated as I spent almost an hour going to a small hotel in a residential neighbourhood close to the airport. My flight the next morning for Tagbilaran was early (6:00 am), and I just managed to steal a few hours sleep before I headed back to Ninoy Aquino International.
Manila was not my final destination. I was headed to Bohol, also referred to as the 'Jewel of the Philippines.' The capital Tagbilaran has a growing population that currently sits at an official 105,000, or 1/10 of the island's Boholanos. It is an island currently in transition with inbound tourism growing by leaps and bounds each year. A new international airport is set to open on the popular resort island of Panglao that will certainly further accelerate a rapidly changing landscape.
Located in the Central Visayas region west of Cebu and north of Mindanao, the numerous white beaches and friendly inhabitants beckon visitors looking for tropical relaxation. The 'Chocolate Hills' is a popular tourist stop and natural wonder. Not far away is the TarsierReserve, which hosts a number of the world's smallest primates. While growing numbers of foreign tourists provide economic development opportunities for the province, it also brings with it the inevitable rising costs, traffic, and environmental despoliation that threaten so much of the natural beauty of the Philippines.
The current Tagbilaran airport is small and crowded, in a charming way. I was told it was originally a military facility and thus spares little comfort for the sake of efficiency. There is a band of blind musicians who serenade those waiting on (often) delayed flights, providing a glimpse (sorry) into the local social enterprise culture fostered by the government.
Visitors coming to the Philippines from Hong Kong will immediately be shocked by the number of kids. As a "老人社會" with one of the lowest birth rates in the world, Hongkongers are more likely to be surrounded by grey hair and walking canes than toddlers kicking footballs. The average Filipino woman can expect to have a little under three children in her life (down from 8 in 1960), second only to East Timor among Asian countries.
I travelled to Bohol for one reason: International Care Ministries. ICM is Soap Cycling's largest soap distribution partner in the Philippines. Since I got into the soap recycling business in 2016, we have shipped 20,000 kgs or 500,000 bars to ICM to bolster their WASH programs conducted at 10 bases throughout the country. Their target beneficiaries are ultra-poor communities in rural areas. The ultra-poor are defined as those living on less than $.50 USD per day and are estimated to total 7 million or 6% of the overall Filipino population.
ICM's innovative Transform program focuses on creating family behavioral change initiatives to fight the war on poverty on several fronts. ICM's bases create a resilient network of pastors, counsellors, staff, and volunteers to help those who struggle to meet even the most basic needs of shelter, food, education, and healthcare. Soap Cycling sends 5 boxes of soap (550 kgs or 14,000 bars) to each base twice a year. The soap is used to help families both improve their home healthcare as well as save precious income for daily needs, as well as longer-term investments in education and micro-businesses.
The ICM chief in Bohol, Minierva Lahaylahay, very kindly met me along with her team at the airport. As we made our way through central Tagbilaran to the ICM office in Dao district west of the city, I could tell I was no longer in Manila (or Kansas) anymore. The roads were plied by numerous Jeepneys (kitschy converted US military jeeps) instead of the ubiquitous new Toyotas back in the capital. Gone were the Dunkin' Donuts. Now only palm trees, corrugated tin roofs, cebuana (pawn shops) and sari-sari stores stood by the roadside.
While enjoying some much-needed coffee, the ICM team led me through the tools used by the Transform program to create impact among their beneficiaries. Working with local pastors in the targeted rural communities, the ICM team recruits 30 families for 3 Transform programs lasting 15 weeks every calendar year. Working with local pastors, the families are engaged through weekly counselling sessions on the various ways they can improve the well-being of their families, from simple healthcare to more mindful parenting. As for eligibility, a quite complex form is provided with detailed questions on daily life such as transport, house size, access to running water, electricity, etc.
The Transform program includes many home health initiatives that dovetail with Soap Cycling's mission to reduce infant mortality through hand washing to prevent disease. Home healthcare for mother and child is another focus, with 95% of neonatal deaths occurring in the developing world, 50% in the home. The overall program goal is to empower communities to be able to effectively their own individual and family's health care needs.
Regarding soap, the primary means of distribution is through hand washing education sessions with "tippy taps" or makeshift sinks installed in areas without running water. During the graduation ceremonies, families are given 1-2 kilos (25-50 bars) for use as a family over the following year.
Minierva and her ICM Bohol team next led me to Jagna, a beach town 1.5 hours east of Tagbilaran. I met a group of around 30 ladies and children at a local church who had all received soap while participating in the Transform program with ICM.
Apart from using Soap Cycling's donated reprocessed soap to keep families healthy and clean, I received very useful feedback from the ladies on other practical uses for soap in the home:
Can help reduce tropical skin rashes
Makes skin whiter
Can help remove bloodstains from clothes during menstruation
Works as a good fabric softener
Can also be used as an air freshener
The Jagna ladies indicated that 1 bar of soap lasts approximately a week for their families (average family size 6 people). That would mean that Soap Cycling has provided enough soap to clean 3 million families in the Philippines for a week since its founding in 2012.
The Prevailing Mood
While ICM originally focused on providing triage for the most vulnerable, it is now committed to offering multi-step programs for sustainable empowerment.
The next step of the Transform program is called Prevail. It provides qualified participants an option to start a micro business facilitated by community savings. A popular choice is to make banana cakes, which I tried and were very delicious. Other community businesses include gardening, cleaning products, sewing, and making household products from discarded fabric. ICM is providing not a handout, but a hand up to help people escape the brutal cycle of poverty inflicted upon so many in the Philippines.
Through the Transform program, ICM reports a 106% increase in income, a 28% decrease in serious illness, and a 43% increase in self-worth.
While a short adventure, the experiences gained during my inaugural journey to the Philippines will last a lifetime. While I currently manage a small, but growing charity in Hong Kong- elbows-deep in the minutiae of fundraising, marketing, volunteer management, and the day-to-day operations of a small enterprise- seeing the results of my labor firsthand indeed makes it all worthwhile.
The Bohol Team are a close-knit family and know their beneficiaries and partners on the island very well. The chance to interact frequently with those you are helping is something that really provides a refreshing and inspirational counterpoint to the long hours, low pay, and constant stress of trying to make people care about your mission.
Bohol is indeed a jewel of an island. Apart from the natural wonders, the local people were incredibly welcoming and friendly throughout my entire trip. Can't wait for the next opportunity to go back south and explore more.
This article first appeared on Soap Cycling's general manager, Patrick Davis' LinkedIn Pulse.