Unilever-Lifebuoy Mission: The Intersection of Business and Social Mission

June 4, 2014

I recently interviewed Myriam Sidibe (pictured), global social mission director for Unilever-Lifebuoy. In commemoration of National Handwashing week (December 2 – 8), we talked about Myriam’s work at Unilever-Lifebuoy and the organization’s mission to change the hygiene behavior of 1 billion consumers across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Handwashing with soap helps to reduce respiratory infections and diarrheal disease, which are the two biggest causes of child mortality. Through running handwashing activities, advocacy work, and partnerships with governments, multilateral, and academic organizations, Unilever-Lifebuoy is spreading the simple practice of handwashing with soap – an effective and low cost way to prevent diseases.

The Unilever-Lifebuoy handwashing initiative is an example of how organizations are aligning their business model with their social mission and engaging in partnerships in order to build capacity around their programs.

BCLC: You’ve set a goal with Lifebuoy to change the handwashing habits of 1 billion people by 2015. Why did you identify this goal, and what has your journey entailed in order to make progress toward it?

Myriam Sidibe: At Unilever, we strongly believe business can be a positive force for good in the world.  Every day, we reach over 2 billion people with our products – more than any government or NGO – which gives us the scale to help bring about real change.  Such an approach is in the interests of all our stakeholders – our investors, our consumers, our employees and the communities where we operate.

Lifebuoy’s decision to focus on achieving this target of 1 billion people is very much in keeping with its 19th century heritage, when it was created to improve hygiene and tackle cholera outbreaks.  We strongly believe that if we can change the behavior of 1 billion people then we will make a real difference to public health and make a difference to our bottom line.  More than 1.5 billion people use less than 5 bars of soap per year, by getting to use soap more regularly, not only do we sell more soap but also improve their public health.

 We believe that if we can change the behavior of 1 billion people, we will make a real difference to public health and our bottom line.

As a brand, we’re already present in eight out of the 10 countries with the highest rates of infant mortality from diarrhea (soon to be nine), so we had a good base from which to start. Over the past five years, we’ve learned from and built on experience – we’ve developed a behavior change model and conducted clinical trials, so we know it works.

In 2009, we commissioned one of the largest independent studies ever done, assessing the effect of soap use on diseases such as diarrhea and acute respiratory infections.  The results were good – we showed that the Lifebuoy Way of washing hands at five key times in the day can reduce diarrheal rates by up to 25% and acute respiratory infections by 15%, with a resulting 40% increase in school attendance.

As of 2012 there are now 15 countries implementing programs around the world.  We work closely with NGOs and governments to get the handwashing with soap message across in schools, with new mothers, and in hard-to-reach rural areas. 

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

The best is definitely yet to come.

BCLC: Does Unilever-Lifebouy either have existing business-to-business partnerships, or see the need for these partnerships, and for what purpose?

Myriam Sidibe: In 2008 we co-founded the global Public Private Partnership for Handwashing (PPPHW), which invited NGOs and private organizations alike to come together to work towards a common purpose – handwashing with soap. Through PPPHW, we co-founded Global Handwashing Day, a hugely successful day that aims to raise awareness around the world of the importance of handwashing with soap. This year over 100 countries celebrated Global Handwashing Day (within Unilever 43 of our country operations joined celebrations).

We work very closely, developing expertise, with governments, NGOs and academic institutions around the world, including the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UNICEF, PSI, the Millennium Villages Project to name just a few. Although we don’t currently hold any business-to-business partnerships, we see the value in developing any partnerships that will help bring scale and resource to reach even more people with a lifesaving behavior change message. The public sector has an incredibly important role to play in helping to solve many of the world’s greatest challenges – whether that’s in partnership with other private or public sector organisations.

BCLC: You’ve personally worked in or with every sector – NGOs, governments, businesses, and multilateral agencies. Why have you decided that the private sector, with Unilever as your employer, is the best place for you currently to advance your life’s work?

Unilever is an amazing company with great ethics and has really embedded sustainability at the heart of the business.  I have always known that I wanted to have an impact on public health at scale and I struggled for a long time to find a place that could allow me to get scale yet be sustainable.  Unilever has given me a great platform and also has recognized how to use the diversity that I bring both professionally and personally.  As an engineer, with a doctorate degree in public health to now being a public health marketer, I feel that I am being well utilized and also am surrounded by great talent which continues to be an amazing way to constantly renew myself. 

 I have always known that I wanted to have an impact on public health at scale. Unilever has given me a great platform.

More information about Unilever-Lifebuoy and Myriam’s workhttp://www.myriamsidibe.com and http://www.lifebuoy.com