The Lifebuoy Way of Life: Saving Lives with Soap

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The Lifebuoy Way of Life: Saving Lives with Soap

PakistanNairobi, Kenya
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Handwashing with soap is the most cost-effective way of reducing the two biggest causes of child mortality. This programme spreads this simple practice. Our aim to change the behaviour of a billion people will improve health outcomes around the world.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Every day 6,000 children die from diarrhoea and pneumonia. Yet 600,000 lives a year could be saved through the simple act of handwashing with soap: one of the most effective and low cost ways to combat these life-threatening illnesses. Globally, soap penetration is over 90%; yet washing hands with water alone remains common. Only 17% of mothers wash their hands with soap after using the toilet, just 19% after cleaning their child’s faeces, and only 13% before handling food. We therefore need to bring handwashing with soap to the poorest households in Africa and Asia where the mortality is high.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We lobbied Lifebuoy to set the goal of changing hygiene behaviour in one billion consumers across Asia and Africa by promoting the practice of handwashing with soap, thereby helping reduce respiratory infections and diarrhoea. We defined a comprehensive handwashing programme to reach the 1 billion, focusing on three areas: 1. Behaviour change programmes are integrated into marketing - engaging poor mothers and children to ensure that our message makes a difference in keeping people safe and healthy. 2. Working with partners (both public and private sector) to promote the importance of handwashing with soap – a task too big for any single organisation to tackle alone. 3. Driving advocacy to raise the profile of handwashing with soap, creating the right environment for investment in behaviour change.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

We created our behaviour change model to reach under-fives - those most affected by diarrhoea: 1. Creating basic awareness and relevance for why the habit is important 2. Ensuring people commit to practising the Lifebuoy Way 3. Getting people to practise the behaviour for 21 days so the habit takes root 4. Rewarding behaviour to make sure the habit sticks We created the Lifebuoy Way - a comprehensive programme of washing hands with soap at 5 key daily moments: before breakfast, lunch and dinner; when bathing; after using the toilet. The results of a clinical trial showed it was successful in increasing handwashing with soap: • Children showed 25% fewer episodes of diarrhoea, 15% fewer episodes of Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI) and 46% fewer eye infections • Children had 26% fewer days of school absence due to illness • Analysis carried out 5 weeks later also indicated there had been no significant increase in incidences of diarrhoea, ARI and eye infection. In other words, the Lifebuoy Way programme results were extremely positive in showing sustained behaviour change. Diarrhoeal rates have decreased significantly over the last five years - all trends indicate a direct correlation between commercial growth and diarrhoeal disease reduction.

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

In 2008 we co-founded Global Handwashing Day with the Public Private Partnership for Handwashing, which invites private sector organizations and non-profits, including UNICEF, USAID and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to work together with common purpose. Rather than discouraging competitors, such as Safeguard, we understand the value of potential partnerships to help bring resources to reach even more people with a lifesaving message. What makes us unique is that every day, we reach over 2 billion people with our products – more than any government or NGO – which gives us unique scale to help bring about real change.

Founding Story

Lifebuoy has always been a brand built on social purpose - its commitment to saving lives stems from its 19th century heritage, when it was created to tackle cholera outbreaks. I was able to put my academic research into practice in defining a social mission for Lifebuoy that would drive business growth. I always wanted to spread a hygiene message, and my doctoral thesis examined handwashing behaviours in Timor and Senegal. My research highlighted the benefits of good hygiene, and I knew that this could be applied to the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan to improve the health of 1 billion people. Our unique clinical research demonstrated conclusively that lives can be saved by handwashing with soap, forming the basis of our programme.
About You
About You
First Name


Tell us about yourself/your team.

I am a public health professional working in the private sector to bring sustainable solutions to global health issues, and one of only two people in the world with a Doctorate in Public Health, specialising in handwashing and behaviour change, from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Over the last 15 years, I’ve worked with NGOs, UN, academic institutions and the private sector on hygiene promotion. I created and designed this role, and in the past 7 years, have helped take the brand from €300m to €600m, landing the goal of improving hygiene for 1 billion people by 2015.

What makes you an intrapreneur? What are the skills, capabilities, and personality traits that make you an intrapreneur?

I’ve always tried to be a social pioneer, pushing the limits of what conventional wisdom says can be achieved to reach sustainably the poorest of the poor.

I passionately believe that business can be a force for good. My personal goal is to harness my scientific expertise in order to do good with each bar of soap we sell. I am determined to make a real, long-lasting difference to millions through handwashing as a behavioural solution for disease prevention.

To achieve this, I have to be a catalyst for change inside our organisation, as well as a passionate advocate externally.

About Your Organization
Company Country

, NA, Nairobi

Primary country where this project is creating social impact
Additional countries or regions

We lead programmes in more than 14 countries, with the lead programmes conducted in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.


Consumer Products

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Select the stage that best applies to your solution

Established (past the previous stages and has demonstrated success)

The Solution: Why is this solution innovative for your company and industry?

Behavioural change has to work at a deep level, and is therefore embedded throughout Lifebuoy marketing. We made this bold commitment as the only FMCG brand with such significant reach. Our model is founded on one of the largest independent studies ever undertaken. It showed the Lifebuoy Way of washing hands reduces diarrhoea by up to 25%, acute respiratory infections by 15%, with a resulting 40% increase in school attendance.

What has been the impact of your solution to date?

We’ve made a brilliant start. The Lifebuoy Behaviour Change Programme was launched in 2010, and by the end of 2012, we have reached over 130 million people with our lifesaving message across 14 countries, reducing incidences of diarrhoea and ARIs, and saving thousands of lives.

But we’re not resting on our laurels – there’s a lot more to be done. We plan to scale up the rural footprint of Lifebuoy’s hygiene behavior change programmes, developing bigger, cost-effective partnerships, adapting the model for new Lifebuoy geographies, building evidence of successful deployment and elevating advocacy of handwashing with soap.

What is your projected impact over the next 1 to 3 years?

By 2015, Lifebuoy aims to change the behaviour of one billion consumers across Asia, Africa and Latin America and save hundred of thousands of lives.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project? How do you plan to overcome them?

The scale of the problem can seem daunting - changing deeply-entrenched habits requires a huge cross-sector effort. An African proverb says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.” We plan to go far, and therefore will elevate advocacy, seeking key partners in government and NGOs to go along with us.

There is potential for scepticism from these partners. Key to tackling this is being painfully transparent about our commercial interests. Organisations are reassured we’re in it for the long haul through business motivation, not because we'd spotted an opportunity for publicity.

What is the benefit or value you're creating for your business?

Put simply, growth. We’ve created a very clear link between tackling this critical issue and our business ambitions. The social issue is clear: the business opportunity for us is equally clear. Ideal consumption for handwashing to reduce illness is around 20 bars of soap annually, yet 1.5 billion people consume just eight bars or fewer. This opportunity is more marked because of the rapid pace of change in emerging markets.

How are you leveraging internal resources (funds, time, knowledge, etc.) to support this initiative?

The mission forms an integral part of the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, and being so closely allied to the overall corporate strategy means we can call on colleagues around the world in corporate, public affairs, HR and marketing teams to lend their expertise and time.

We work hand in hand with brand and advocacy teams to reach out to consumers and organisations, while our work with internal communications teams encourages employees to get involved.

Employees around the world have gone into schools to teach children about handwashing. Some have even been part of successful world record attempts!

Expand on your answer, explaining the long-term funding and support plan.

Long term, the success of the Lifebuoy Social Mission in doing good AND increasing sales means it becomes self-sustaining.

Since we launched the programme, we have seen a significant sales uplift, this is set to continue. This allows us to continue to be a positive force for good in the world, in the interests of all our stakeholders – our investors, our consumers, our employees and the communities where we operate. We are also in very advanced discussions with pioneering types of partnership that include fund-matching from private foundations to expand our programmes.

Tell us about your partnerships across your company and externally that are key to your project's success.

If Unilever achieves its sustainability targets but no one follows, we will have failed. Consequently, we’re working with other organisations, such as the Consumer Goods Forum, the World Economic Forum, the Public Private Partnership for Handwashing with Soap, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, NGOs such as UNICEF and USAID and local and national governments, to drive cross-sector change.

What internal support have you gotten for your project? What kind of push-back have you received?

As the programme ties in with the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan, we haven’t faced push-back.
On the contrary, it has created positive energy and momentum inside our business. Many employees want to get involved because they have a genuine desire to give something back – 20,000 employees volunteered in 2012. This in turn builds pride in the company they work for.