In Rwanda, commercial pads turned out to be expensive to manufacture largely because the raw materials were pricey, so Scharpf started from scratch.
She recruited a team of like-minded wonks, and they consulted villagers, agriculture experts and professors of textile engineering. What is there that is really absorbent, widely available and cheap?
The team came up with five finalists: cassava leaves, banana leaves, banana-tree trunk fibers, foam mattresses, textile scraps. “We brought a blender to Rwanda and started blending things, boiling leaves from potato and cassava, things like that,” Scharpf said. “We would drop Coke on it to measure absorbency.” That was when they had their eureka moment. “We saw, hey, those banana fibers really slurp up the Coke!”
Scharpf accepted a $60,000 grant from Echoing Green, an organization that works like a venture-capital fund to finance people with great ideas. Later she won a social-entrepreneurship fellowship from Harvard Business School, and now her team has engineered a new sanitary pad that she hopes can transform life for women and girls in the developing world.
It looks like a regular pad but is made chiefly out of banana-tree fibers, so it is sustainable and for the most part biodegradable. Best of all, it’s cheap: a pack of 10 should retail for 75 cents or less.
Scharpf’s organization, Sustainable Health Enterprises (or SHE), will begin manufacturing pads early next year in a tiny factory in Rwanda. It will be a pilot project, producing some 1,200 pads per hour, but once the kinks are worked out she hopes to have women in other countries franchise the system so that it spreads around the world.
SHE has also taken on advocacy, calling on the Rwandan government to lift an 18 percent sales tax on feminine hygiene products so that they become more affordable. Awakened to the issue, the Rwandan Parliament recently appropriated $35,000 to pay for sanitary pads for impoverished girls who otherwise might miss school — a small sum, but an acknowledgment that the problem is important and real. Some Rwandan women Scharpf has interviewed say that the attention has made a difference in their homes: their husbands are now more willing to allow them to spend money on pads.
Will banana-fiber sanitary pads succeed? No one knows. It is entirely possible that Scharpf will find that even if manufacturing goes smoothly — a huge “if” — there is simply not much of a market for sanitary pads in poor countries. Families may consider a 60- or 70-cent pack just as unaffordable as a $1.10 pack. Or suppose for a moment that everything goes perfectly, and pad franchises spread and families buy packets of pads for girls who are now missing school because of difficulties managing menstruation. Will those girls now stay in school? We can’t be sure of that either.
Source: Venture Philanthropy,nytimes.com, sheinnovates.blogspot.com