Starting Block: Innovators in Women’s Health

Global Business

Starting Block looks at startups disrupting business as usual. This segment explores startups that only cater to half the population – women and girls.

For many girls living in rural areas of developing nations, one week out of every month they face a difficult choice: fall behind in school or risk being humiliated in front of classmates.

Menstruation, commonly known as periods, keeps one in 10 African girls out of school every month according to UNICEF.

Sanitary pads and tampons are basic feminine hygiene products most people take for granted in developed regions. People like Sue Barnes.

The former fashion designer grew up in South Africa where she had easy access to such items.

Barnes was in disbelief when she learned girls in rural areas were using sand, leaves, plastic packets, newspapers and even slices of corn as makeshift sanitary pads. And most of them missed school rather than risk the embarrassment of a public accident. That’s when she used her fashion know-how to launch Subz Pads.   LINK: Project Dignity

“Just thinking that these girls are missing so much school and my daughter being dyslexic, just thinking that if she had to miss a week a month of school, every month, she wouldn’t catch up by the next month when she was missing school again,” Barnes said.

Barnes designed reusable sanitary pads and underwear that can last for up to 5 years, a much cheaper alternative to disposable pads from drug stores.

Entrepreneurs across the continent are also taking up the challenge to make feminine hygiene products more affordable.

In Rwanda, Sustainable Health Enterprises wanted to help low-income working women hold onto their jobs by not having to call out sick for a week each month. They designed low-cost pads out of banana tree fibers.

“The idea was to make pads using something that was natural and could be harvested locally. Locally because in addition to making a product that’s friendly for women and girls, we also want to build the economy and create jobs. So we were looking for local materials that could be made in something really absorbent,” Yvonne Krywyi, Business Operations Manager for Sustainable Health Enterprises said.

Startups are finding that it’s easier for people to ignore an issue that only affects half the population – but they hope improving the dignity of the world’s mothers, sisters and daughters is something the whole population can stand behind.