Rwanda-based company solves global problem, with banana fibres

In Rwanda’s capital city, a young woman is challenging the notion that aid and charity is the only way to end socio-economic problems of our time as schoolgirls can now buy locally produced cheaper sanitary towels.

Elizabeth Scharpf an inventor, entrepreneur, and founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE),  is an award-winning social venture producing affordable sanitary pads for women, while creating a sustainable venture that aims to scale across time and geography.

In 2008, Scharpf and three MIT students headed to Rwanda with a blender in their backpacks. What they came away with was a sustainable plan to tackle an urgent, global problem: girls’ and women’s lack of access to affordable menstrual pads.

Somewhere outside Kigali, a production facility with a largely female workforce is bent on proving that banana’s aren’t just good for eating by producing sanitary pads made of waste products from banana plants that are cut down when they are harvested. The pads are Eco friendly, devoid of chemicals and non-biodegradable super-absorbent polymers.

Waste products from nearby banana plantations are spun into a fluff that will become ecofriendly menstrual pads. Credit: Sustainable Health Enterprises

The workshop features over a dozen women in safety goggles and overalls working at stainless steel benches surrounded by pale brownish grey, odourless hay-looking strands. The strands are processed banana fibres, which are a waste product from thousands of banana trees that are cut down when they are harvested.

Normally these stalks of the banana trees would either be fed to animals or left to rot on the ground where they emit greenhouse gases. But in this rural workshop, it is spun into cheap, eco friendly product that competes with sanitary pads that are imported with big brand names.

The journey to establishing SHE began in 2005 when Scharpf interned for the World Bank in Mozambique. She discovered that young girls missed school, and women missed work because they could not afford sanitary pad as a pack of sanitary pads cost more than their daily earning.

A 2008 survey of 500 girls in one area in Rwanda, conducted by the Sustainable Health Enterprises campaign, according to an article by Bhekisisa, showed that close to one in four girls in the country miss between three and four school days a month as a result of menstruation.

Scharpf chose to tackle the problem by making sanitary pads available and affordable for women while creating jobs for women in the process. Having some experience in the field, she went on to conduct some research, contacted and sought advice from scientists, engineers, agriculturalists and then 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 told Global Citizen, from cassava leaves, banana leaves and fibres from banana plant trunks to foam mattresses and textile scraps. They would boil various natural fibres, let them cool overnight and then test them. “We would drop Coke on it to measure absorbency,” Scharpf told the New York Times in 2010.

With the help of experts, Scharpf developed and patented the process to transform banana fibres into an absorbent material in the U.S She also worked with professionals to build a production site in Eastern Rwanda.

Local ambassadors educating fellow women on how to use the locally sourced pads. Credit: Sustainable Health Enterprises

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, setting up a production site in Ngoma, eastern Rwanda where the company’s go! pads are produced.

Close to the end of 2016, SHE had provided over 600 jobs and income opportunities, and sold over 100,000 pads whilst organising a campaign to distribute its locally made, eco-friendly and affordable pads to schools.

Rwanda was an obvious choice to build the blueprint, not only does it produce a lot of bananas – it is a staple crop – but the country is small, which made it feasible to get a sense of the market and who they wanted to serve, Scharpf told Euromonitor International.  However, SHE 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.

Rwanda is also business-friendly; when Sharpf registered her business, it took only 48 days to do so. These days it happens even faster. A business can be registered and ready to operate within six hours, according to the Rwanda Development Board.

In the latest World Bank report on the ease of doing business, Rwanda is ranked second in sub-Saharan Africa and is in 56th position out of 190 countries globally. Women-friendly policies also made Rwanda an attractive option. Not only are most members in Parliament women, it is also the first country in the world where the Parliament is dominated by women. Local women make up the vast majority of the production team at the site.

Women farmers in the new banana co-op started by SHE. Credit: Sustainable Health Entreprise

The pads are ecofriendly: no water is used in making them and also very little electricity. And, unlike pads made by established companies, the banana pads don’t contain any chemicals or non-biodegradable super-absorbent polymers.

Just over 1 000 pads are made each day at the site. They want to increase this tenfold in May, Uwayezu says—and by the end of the year reach 30 000 pads a day.

The project in Rwanda is not the only one making banana fibre pads: there are also small-scale operations in Uganda and a big venture in India.

Banana fibres hung to dry. Credit: Sustainable Health Entreprises

The SHE team focuses on becoming sustainable: in 2015 the consumer giant Johnson & Johnson signed on as technical advisers, which boosted and streamlined production.

“We loved their approach of using locally sourced banana fibres for absorbency,” says Johnson & Johnson’s Michael Moscherosch. The team brought experience in engineering, the making of sanitary pads and knowledge of absorbent products. They also built customised business tools for SHE. The two technical teams are developing equipment that produces the pads semi automatically, according to Moscherosch.

“If we can create a model to profitably manufacture affordable sanitary pads in developing countries, we believe it can be adapted and replicated in many tropical regions where bananas are grown. Scalability for such projects is the Holy Grail.”

SHE sales team sold nearly 10,000 go! pads to stores and kiosks last month. Credit: Sustainable Health Entreprises

Her customers include teenage girls and casual labourers. “Young girls are now more comfortable to ask for sanitary pads. I think they now understand it is okay to buy pads.”

For others, their parents can afford to give the 500 francs needed to buy the banana fibre pads–the first time some can buy any sanitary products. 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.