In Africa, millions of young girls miss school, and women miss work because they cannot afford sanitary pads. In many countries on the continent, a pack of sanitary pads cost more than their daily earning. SHE, an organisation in Rwanda, is working to make a big change - with sanitary pads made of fibre-waste of banana plants. SHE’s annual report defines a strong wish to take things further, across the continent.
SHE stands for Sustainable Health Enterprise (SHE), a social venture founded in 2008 to produce affordable sanitary pads – brand name: Go! pads – for women. In a production facility, located just outside Rwanda’s capital city, a female staff produces the banana fibres-waste pads that are eco-friendly, devoid of chemicals and non-biodegradable super-absorbent polymers. The pads cost three cents apiece. SHE buys the material, which is usually discarded, from two female-led banana cooperatives.
Transform banana fibre
The social venture founded by Harvard Business School graduate Elizabeth Scharpf has come a long way in the past ten years. Scharpf’s quest began after having done some research and after having consulted scientists, engineers and agriculturalists. How did she start? “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.”
Technically, the go! pads were a success from the beginning, but Sharpf realised more had to be done to make the concept a long-term success. The SHE organisation launched a campaign to distribute its locally made, eco-friendly and affordable pads to schools. SHE also managed to establish additional local traction, by partnering with Rwanda’s ministry of education to recruit graduates from a technical vocation school to work in the production facility. A great move, as many of them were struggling to get a job.
Businesswise, the go! pads have a long way to go, as the company struggles with production cost and is running at a loss spending a huge chunk of its capital in paying salaries. Scaling up production is necessary to take SHE and the Go! pads further. SHE will need to build a successful scalable business model that can be adapted and replicated in other countries across Africa and the world.
Looking back at ten years of SHE, there is a lot to be proud of for Scharpf and her team. Over the first ten years, 464,820 Go! pads have been sold to women and girls in Rwanda; 31,305 girls and women now have access to Go! pads, 21,446 people have been educated on menstrual health and hygiene. Go! pads are available in stores and schools in most of the Eastern Province, and SHE will soon reach other parts of the country.
Over the years, Scharpf and her staff have been building a movement. A quote from the annual report underlines the success: “11,500 people participated in SHE educational events for Menstrual Hygiene Day, with 4,000 gathering to celebrate on the day itself. The Ministry of Education was present to support SHE’s work in improving girls’ education. Thanks to coverage from Radio Rwanda, our message traveled across the country, reaching 90% of the population of Rwanda.”
The organisation is eager to cross borders. SHE has begun conducting due diligence on potential partners other countries and is seeking more potential partners. Sharpf: “We are ready to partner with entrepreneurs or organizations outside of Rwanda that seek the impact potential of SHE.”
Scharpf’s has a clear message about this to her staff and partners: “Thanks to all of our believers, we’ll be bringing SHE’s success to new places this year. But the recent explosion of attention and solutions makes us think beyond SHE as well. What are the huge inequities women and girls face right now that we’ll be talking about in a decade? While we move forward in expanding the success of SHE, we’ll keep asking this question and we’ll keep pioneering.