Banana leaf sanitary towels keep poor rural girls in school

A project in Uganda and Rwanda is making low cost sanitary pads from banana stalks, assisting thousands of rural women and girls access the hitherto highly priced pads, at a time when research shows that 36 percent of East African women miss  50 days of school or work annually during menstruation because they cannot afford the conventional pads.

Trademarked banana pad, the pads are made with 99 percent local materials with the main raw material being banana stems, cut from the vast, abundant banana wastes all over the country. After banana stem is cut, the green cover is peeled off and the white stem is what is used in the making of the pads.

The inability to afford sanitary napkins during menstruation means that many of the world’s low-income women are forced to use primitive alternatives, such as newspaper, rags of cloth, bark, ashes, banana leaves, hay or mud, which are both ineffective and unhygienic. All to often these alternatives lead to long-term health risks such as Reproductive Tract Infections, Toxic Shock Syndrome or Cervical Cancer. In Kenya for example, an estimated 850,000 girls miss school every month due to lack of the towels, and with 43 percent of Kenyans being under 15 years old, the need has been growing every year.

With the assistance from Sustainable Health Enterprises (S.H.E.), a US based organization, women in Uganda and Rwanda own the project, producing the pads and selling them. The pads are 30 percent cheaper than the conventional ones retailing at between Sh30-50.

Since 2009, S.H.E. has also trained 5,000 Rwandan women to set up their own sanitary-napkin micro-enterprises, creating an industry that is as sustainable as its product. With every woman-led business that S.H.E. invests, about 100,000 women gain access to affordable sanitary products.

Elizabeth Scarp, a Harvard University MBA graduate and the brains behind the banana pad is now working with graduates of Massachusets Institute of Technology to develop Kormea the machine that will be makin that banana pads. The final machine with easily accessible materials like wood and metals is nearing completion and will be accessible in Rwanda for interested women enterpreneurs.

Katie Smyth one of the people involved in the design of the machine estimates that the machines will cost approximately $1,000 and require electricity. For the electricity, they will be placed in on-grid training centers that are located throughout Rwanda.

Women who wish to produce banana sanitary pads with Kormea can buy the machine with the help of micro-loans, and start producing low-cost banana-based sanitary pads. Yet the 'Female Sanitary Revolution' is not only limited to East Africa. As the global poor juggle between spending on female hygiene and placing food on the table, technologies are being birthed to provide cheaper alternatives to the highly priced American sanitary pads.

In India for example Muruganantham, an enterpreneur working with rural women  and his company Jayaashree Industries has changed the phase of female hygiene with low cost sanitary pads. Recognizing that the root cause of sanitary napkin expense is the fixed production cost, he has created a sanitary napkin-making machine to produce quality products at a lower cost to the consumer.

Muruganantham said that his investigation into sanitary napkins began when he realized that his wife used rags during her periods, as buying napkins meant no milk for the family. He tried various techniques for creating a viable sanitary napkin alternative but lacked willing research candidates as neither his wife, nor the girls at the local medical college, would give him honest feedback.

Finally, after using goat’s blood and a plastic bag as an alternative uterus, Muruganatham developed a pilot handmade pad, which he then distributed for free to college students for test subjects. Gathering insights from the pilot, Muruganantham was able to develop a simple machine to make viable sanitary napkins.

Today the Jayaashree Industries sanitary napkin machine is powered by electricity and foot pedals and can make 1,000 napkins a day for as little as Rs 16 per 8-pack. However, rather than selling the sanitary products commercially, Jayaashree Industries helps rural women buy one of the machines, at a cost of approximately Rs 80,000, through NGOs, government loans and rural self-help groups.