One of the best investments in developing countries is education since it prepares young people with skills for their adulthood. However, many women and teenagers in several countries lose school days and work during their menstrual period since they lack sanitary towels. If they exist in their community, they are often not within reach.
That is why many women prefer to stay at home during those days and avoid embarrassing moments in public or use non-hygienic products as an alternative: rags, pieces of bark, or even mud, resulting in potential infections. The shortage of these products in these countries results in labor or school losses of up to 50 days a year, up to five years of a person’s life.
Elizabeth Scharpf decided to do something about it. Instead of creating a charitable organization for its cause, Scharpf decided to address this situation from the perspective of business, a solution that can work in the long term. Scharpf is a social entrepreneur with two Harvard masters and with experience in organizations such as the World Bank and the Clinton Foundation. The 33-year-old entrepreneur started an experiment in Rwanda in 2009.
With a small team of friends Scharpf experimented with different materials to make their own female towels. They tested yucca leaf fibers, pieces of cloth, bark fibers and leaves from the banana tree and placed them in a blender, one material at a time, to test which was more absorbent. Fiber from banana leaf was the best option, also proving to be a cheap, biodegradable and a readily-available material in the region.
The organization she started was called Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), where she continues to develop their health product in collaboration with a team of students and alumni of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) called Komera that seeks to improve the manufacturing process. Part of the challenge is not just to make towels at a low cost. They also work on ways to make it a viable business.
By offering these sanitary-towel-making machines to entrepreneurial women by means of a loan, they can acquire a business that manufactures and distributes this product. For each business, or franchise, SHE estimates that 100 jobs are generated, benefiting 100,000 women and young people. The current price of these towels in Rwanda is between $2 and $ 3 for a pack of 10. SHE hopes to reduce the sale price to 75 cents with this product.
In their first tests in Rwanda, they have received comments from women mentioning that the product appears to be of inferior quality to imported towels. SHE and Komera are working to improve the appearance of the towels, making them more round and adding wings for greater acceptance. Last year, SHE received the CurryStone Design Award for its initiative and innovation potential.