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Banana Pads in Rwanda: Interview with Elizabeth Scharpf, CEO of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)

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Euromonitor International had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Scharpf, CEO of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). SHE is a social venture whose first initiative, the SHE28 campaign, aims to provide affordable sanitary protection to girls and women in emerging markets where there is a lack of access to affordable products. In impoverished areas, sanitary pads typically cost more than a day’s wage, forcing girls and women to use alternative methods (i.e. rags, bark, mud) and stay at home when menstruating. SHE is helping to solve this problem with its first operation in Rwanda. Local women are hired to work in its production facility, which creates sanitary pads using banana fibre from locally-sourced farmers. The pads are made with no water and very little electricity. This results in a more cost-effective production method, allowing SHE to sell packs of 10 pads for 70 cents, which is 35% less expensive than the next cheapest option.

1) The lack of affordable sanitary protection was brought to your attention while working in Mozambique when you heard that a female entrepreneur was losing 20% of her work force on a regular basis because women were unable to come to work during menstruation. After seeing this problem in Mozambique, what went into the decision to launch SHE28 in Rwanda?

I had a network of people I knew that worked in Rwanda and there was evidence that the problem was there as well. We went to Rwanda and to other east African countries, but there was political violence in Kenya when we were supposed to be headed there. We ended up going to Rwanda, which was a great place to kick things off because it’s a small country, so it was feasible to get a sense of the market and who we want to serve. Also, it was easier to get things done in a smaller country with a smaller population and geographical size. There were two other factors that were going on in Rwanda which made it an appealing place to start. (1) We thought that it would be receptive to what we wanted to do because the majority of Parliament are women. It actually has more women in Parliament than any other country in the world. (2) They were trying to put more business-friendly policies into place in Rwanda as well. For example, it only takes about 48 days to register a company, which is very rare in emerging markets.

2) Who are the typical women involved in working on the production of the sanitary pads?

We have almost 100% Rwandan staff that work in our Rwanda location. In terms of our production team - we partnered with the Ministry of Education in Rwanda, and our production site is right beside a technical vocation school in the eastern province of Rwanda. We recruit graduates from that school directly for our production facility. For many of them, it’s their first job. For recruiting, the head of the technical school actually only gave me male graduates and he was shocked when I told him that I wanted female candidates. However, we ended up hiring 80% women to work in our production site. They are so proud of the work that they do. They didn’t think that they could work at a manufacturing facility before. Now they are very happy in their job and proud of the products that they make.

3) Where are the go! Sanitary pads distributed?

We distribute through three main channels right now, and currently sell them all at the same price (70 cents for a pack of 10). We sell to schools, to NGOs that are working with school-aged girls all around the country, and direct to the consumer (at expos, outside of the school, and kiosks).

Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), http://sheinnovates.com

4) Regarding packaging, how did you decide on the design?

Our packaging is the biggest way we communicate our brand. It is completely designed by the girls and women we serve. They came up with the name of our pad, “go” for the “girl on the go.” They wanted it to be something in English that signalled that it was an international, aspirational product. They wanted the bright colours that we’ve chosen. They didn’t want it to be a pink princess design because they didn’t think that that reflected them. It’s a great example of consumer-driven brand design.

5) What level of growth have you seen in the number of your products purchased and number of women employed since starting operations?

Right now we have a sales base of about 10,000 and next year we are looking to do about 10 times that. We’ve really been constrained by our production capacity and we’ve figured out how to scale that so we can hopefully reach 100,000 next year. We’ve been very happy that we have loyal repeat customers and I think that says a lot about the desire for the product.

Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), http://sheinnovates.com/

6) How has bringing Johnson & Johnson on as a technical advisor helped grow the initiative?

They have been really helpful technically in helping us scale our production, specifically helping to dig out the bottleneck of our production process that was largely based on paper making. The way we initially figured out how to manufacture the go! pads is to just try every sort of thing that you may not typically use. They are taking us up a notch in terms of technical sophistication and scale.

7) What areas do you plan to expand into next? If there are areas lacking an abundance of banana trees, have you considered products that could be found locally in other regions?

Right now we mainly serve eastern Rwanda - that’s where the banana trees are. We will continue to scale within Rwanda, but in 2017 we will be testing our product and manufacturing feasibility in other eastern African countries, Uganda and Kenya, and also in India and Bangladesh. One of the reasons we chose banana fibre is because it passed the criteria of being largely available in countries where girls need affordable pads. Uganda, Kenya, India, and Bangladesh actually have more banana trees than Rwanda does - though we do know our material processing can work with some other fibres, such as pineapple fibre, and we have been testing others as well. We are hopefully going to be agnostic to the type of fibre moving forward. Regarding further expansion, we are actively seeking partners, either in implementation or investment, who can help take this technology into these new markets.

8) Can you talk a little about your initiative working to influence lawmakers to waive taxes on sanitary protection in Rwanda?

We wear many different hats - so we are product development, manufacturers, distributors, sales and marketing, health education, but also advocacy and policy. We have been advocating to decrease the taxes on pads and other essential products for years. We’ve provided an economic argument as to why they shouldn’t be taxed, and have received buy-in from East African Parliament members but it hasn’t become a bill yet. We’d love to see east African countries, and the 40 other countries where this problem exists, fall in line with that. I don’t think it’s a malicious tax – it was just an all-encompassing tax on consumer goods and there should be a little more thought put on each product individually and how it may affect different communities.

Thank you Elizabeth!

Finding low-cost methods to produce affordable sanitary protection in developing markets has been a huge challenge for the disposable hygiene industry. While developed markets in North America and Europe are nearing saturation, the largest unmet growth potential for sanitary protection can be found in Asian, Latin American, and African countries, where many consumers can’t afford to purchase sanitary protection products. Major industry players looking to tap into this unmet potential could gain an advantage by partnering with organizations such as SHE, the on-the-ground work of which to find locally-sourced materials and in-country production methods has minimised manufacturing and shipping costs in order to bring affordable products to the consumers who have previously been unable to purchase them.

Visit http://sheinnovates.com/ to learn more about the work that SHE has been doing.

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