Somewhere outside Kigali, Rwanda’s capital city, there’s a production facility with a largely female workforce producing sanitary pads made of banana fibres-waste products from banana plants that are cut down when they are harvested. The pads are ecofriendly, devoid of chemicals and non-biodegradable super-absorbent polymers.
The facility is established by the Sustainable Health Enterprise (SHE), a social venture founded by Elizabeth Scharpf in 2008 to produce affordable sanitary pads for women, but to do so via a business approach.
Scharpf’s journey to establishing SHE began in 2005 when as an intern for the World Bank, in Mozambique, she discovered that young girls missed school, and women missed work because they could not afford sanitary pads; a pack of sanitary pads cost more than their daily earning. At the time, Scharpf did nothing and continued to take a mental note of the situation, but when she realised it was a global issue, she decided to act.
She had the option of solving the problem in two ways; short term or long term. Short term would be via charity, which would entail free provision and distribution of sanitary pads. And long term would be to provide something sustainable that will address the socioeconomic and health problems that exist in developing countries.
Scharpf chose long term. She wanted to make sanitary pads available and affordable for women but she wanted to create jobs for them in the process. She did some research, contacted and sought advice from scientists, engineers, agriculturalists and headed to Rwanda from the United States.
“I headed to Rwanda with two engineering students, a tape recorder, and a hand-held blender. We tested out all different natural fibres and discovered and patented a process to transform banana fibre into absorbent material” she wrote for Global Citizen.
Scharpf then set up a production site in Ngoma, eastern Rwanda where the company’s go! pads are produced. But this was only a part of SHE’s objective; soon, the company lobbied the government to reduce its 18 percent tax on a pack of sanitary pad and organized a campaign to distribute its locally made, eco-friendly and affordable pads to schools.
SHE also partnered with the ministry of education, Rwanda, and recruits graduates from a technical vocation school to work in the production facility, many of whom struggled to get a job. As at late 2016, SHE had provided over 600 jobs and income opportunities and sold over 100,000 pads.
In setting up the company, Scharpf said she chose Rwanda for a number of reasons including its population size, banana production rate, ease of doing business and women-friendly policies. Still, the company struggles with production cost and is running at a loss spending a huge chunk of its capital in paying salaries.
According to John Uwayezu, managing director of SHE, the company will break even if they can increase production by tenfold in the next two months with the current amount of employees. Uwayezu hopes that by the end of the year, daily production output would be 30,000.
For Scharpf, her ultimate goal is to create a successful scalable business model that can be adapted and replicated in other countries across Africa and the world.