When “go-local” doesn’t work: sanitary napkins in sub-Saharan Africa   Leave a comment

7 years ago, an enterprising Harvard student, Elizabeth Scharpf, began a project to produce sanitary napkins using local workers and local materials in sub-Saharan Africa. Although difficult to quantify, the amassed evidence has suggested that many women in developing countries– particularly school-age girls — are routinely sequestered and miss multiple days of school each month because of the lack of hygiene products to use during menstruation. This issue has been long ignored largely because of the associated stigma around a woman’s menstrual cycle in conservative societies and the lack of health officials familiar with women’s needs. Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), the company founded by Sharpf, was an attempt to a) address the needs of rural women through a locally available commercial product AND b) provide a self-sufficient business model to entrepreneurial women in these countries.

The basic model has been to first find local entrepreneurs interested in starting a local sanitary napkin production operation. The raw materials for these sanitary napkins are then sourced locally using banana tree fiber, a waste product of banana harvesting, as a substitute super-absorbent material. The cost savings on materials and production help reduce the cost per pad from US$0.11 to US$0.07.Local women are then trained to produce these with small table-top workshops that can be used in their private homes. These are then collected by the local entrepreneur and sold in markets or with door-to-door sales models.

SHE Pad Prototype

First-generation SHE Pad. Not exactly what Rwanda’s women were looking for. (Courtesy Ecouterre)

SHE’s success to date has been mixed. Between 2009 and 2011, Scarpf used funding from Echoing Green and Harvard Business School to setup the first franchise model of banana fiber-based sanitary napkin production and distribution in Rwanda. However, using the available public information on SHE’s website and blog, the latest updates dated August 3, 2012 suggest that company is just now completing its supply chain and brand strategy. The largest hurdle seems to have been that the uniqe selling point SHE pads offer — their attractive lower price — are exactly why consumer demand from Rwandan women has not been strong. In a critical oversight, Rwandan women who cannot afford imported pads would rather use their existing coping mechanisms in a pad-less world than use SHE’s product. Although SHE is actively working through these issues and is currently completing a redesign, SHE has yet to prove its model for a new sanitary napkin for the low-income communities.

A particular concerning trend is that efforts to provide locally-produced sanitary napkins have been increasing even though the existing businesses have yet to identify a succcessful business model. At the the University of Oxford’s 2012 TATA Ideal Idol business plan competition in March, one of the finalist was BaNaPads, a similar sanitary napkin effort being attempted in Uganda. No evidence suggests that these me-too ventures are finding solutions to the problems that racked earlier efforts. Although there is a certain attraction to local production and women’s empowerment through independent income generation, the social entrepreneurship and global health communities should be self-critical to such unproven models.

While the work of the organizations above is commendable, none of these efforts have seem to realistically questioned if multinational corporations are already providing female hygiene products in the most financially sustainable way. Patricia O’Hayer, Unilever’s Vice-President for Communications and CSR, challenged the development community in a recent Oxford-based debate to avoid automatically assuming that there was something intrinsically better about local production versus global mass production when it came to making consumer healthcare products. Procter & Gamble and Unilever may be unapologetically “big business,” but their ability to reach economic scale and provide a safe, reliable product may be unmatched in this product category. Entrepreneurial efforts such as these must be compared to existing ways of doing business if they are meant to contribute to societal value creation.

Disclosure: In early 2012, I informally worked with a team from  Procter & Gamble on shared interests to bring health-related retail products to rural communities in rural Kenya. There was no material remuneration from this engagement.

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