Blind spots and business models

Marjorie, age 23, has created a project for women in her village to make and sell pads

Mention reusable sanitary pads, and most people in this country react with confusion, if not outright disgust.

Not in other parts of the world. A year ago while in Uganda I kept coming across community organisations or women’s groups who were making their own, both as a solution to the lack of affordable sanitary products and as a source of income to the women and girls making and selling them.

It turns out Uganda’s the home of one of Africa’s largest manufacturers of washable pads, AfriPads, which might be one of the things inspiring others to make their own versions. (Interestingly, the AfriPads product itself was actually inspired by a North American brand that found a market among health- and environment-conscious Canadians).

AfriPads’ cofounder Sophie Grinvalds told me they estimate that only 30% of Ugandan women and girls use disposable products, mostly imported, which leaves a lot of people using homemade alternatives — things like bits of foam mattress — that are usually ineffective and often unhygienic.

But incredibly, poor countries like Uganda aren’t the only places where girls are struggling. A few months ago the Guardian reported that many schoolgirls in New Zealand can’t afford sanitary products. Emily Wilson-Smith, a health researcher and the cofounder of Irise, told me this issue has long been a “massive blind spot” partly because decision-makers (rich men and women, usually men) are so far-removed from the daily experience of managing your period with no money. Emily was talking about Uganda, where she works — but it sounds like that blind spot extends to New Zealand, and presumably, to many other parts of the world. Teenage girls from poor families everywhere don’t exactly get the chance to tell powerful people what’s going wrong in their lives — and in this case, they probably don’t want to. Because almost everywhere, talking about your periods is taboo.

Irise materials like this helps educate girls and tackle common myths

It’s getting a bit better, but only just. The EU has only just this year agreed that member states can stop charging VAT on sanitary products (Uganda did this a few years ago). We are still fighting for recognition that severe menstrual cramps deserve sick leave, with only a few pioneering employers starting to buck the trend. We still shove tampons up our sleeves to go to the loo so people don’t realise why we’re going.

Maybe one positive thing is that — among the bubble of those of us who can afford it — there are signs of demand for ethically and environmentally better products for women. (I remember laughing at a girl back in university days who only used organic cotton tampons; now that seems perfectly reasonable.) While researching periods I came across all sorts of stuff. This amusing video, How much do men know about periods?, for one (the answer’s not surprising). But also some interesting new business models: Cora delivers organic tampons — and donates a supply of pads to girls who need them for every monthly delivery they make. Thinkx sells “period-proof” underwear that incredibly removes the need for pads or tampons. Sanitary Owl delivers you a monthly package of stuff including reusables if you want them, donating similar products to homeless women. So if you’re not ready to start washing your own pads — and I confess I still haven’t been brave enough my AfriPads sample — you can still do your bit for the planet and for other girls.

Read my feature on the surge of interest in menstrual hygiene in Uganda on Devex, here.

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