Forget the BIG brands, ‘Made in Rwanda’ Sanitary Pads way to go
Eugenie Muhawenimana 42, is a banana farmer who lives deep in a village in Kirehe District, Eastern Rwanda.
However, she claims that her plantation has not been productive since she practices subsistence farming.
During harvest, she told News of Rwanda, â€œI sell and get genuine income that can help me send my four children to school and feed them.â€
Despite struggling with her production, in 2013, Muhawenimana realized her worry was almost over. Her banana plantation started yielding returns from different sources.
It was in 2013 that Muhawenimana realized banana fibres from her plantation had a big market.
At the time, she was approached by officials from the â€˜Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)â€™ a company that produces first ever low-cost and eco-friendly sanitary pads in Rwanda.
â€œThese people shocked me,â€ she told News of Rwanda. â€œThey told me to start selling them banana fibre for using in manufacturing of sanitary pads. This was a surprise. I didnâ€™t know these banana fibres are of this value,â€ added Muhawenimana.
Today, Muhawenimana and other banana farmers in Kirehe district are a living example and beneficiaries of the SHE products.
Sometime back, Elizabeth Scharpf, an American management consultant went to work for World Bank in Mozambique. While there, she discovered that 20% of factory workers in the country were regularly missing work- up to 30 days a year, because of menstruation.
When Elizabeth approached some women about the issue, some whispered to her â€˜buying sanitary pads was costly more than dayâ€™s wages.â€™
In 2008, Elizabeth, a graduate from Havard University, took tools aside at the World Bank and left US with students from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and headed to Rwanda-their preferred destination.
Their mission was to draw a sustainable plan to deal with a global issue of lack of access to menstrual pads among women and girls.
In collaboration with the former Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), their mission was successful.
Elizabeth connected with one Julienne Ingabire, a Rwandan businesswoman and agreed to start a factory that would produce affordable menstrual pads to save vulnerable girls and women access.
Girls missing school over expensive pads
Available data from World Bank indicate that in Rwanda, at least 20 per cent of schoolgirls, mostly in rural areas school up to 50 days per year due to lack of sanitary pads during menstrual period.
Indeed, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), one in 10 African teenage girls in remote areas miss school during their menstruation cycle and eventually drop out because of menstruation related issues.
Jeanine Murebwayire 15, is a student at Karembo secondary school in Ngoma district, Eastern Province. She admitted to KT Press how she missed school due to same issues.
â€œMy mother could not afford sanitary pads for me to take to school. This made me feel humiliated going to school during my periods. Same issue happened to my classmates,â€ she said.
Itâ€™s from here that through Rwanda Association of University Women network, that Elizabeth connected with Ingabire to launch the SHE industry in Rwanda.
â€œIn developing countries like Rwanda, the lack of affordable sanitary pads puts girls at a distinct gender disadvantage; when they canâ€™t afford pads they stay at home during their period to avoid embarrassment, missing days of school every month,â€ says Elizabeth.
Rwandaâ€™s Education Ministry drew a 5-year strategic plan (2010-2015) which involves a plan to support girlsâ€™ access to sanitary pads while at school.
Through the plan, a Girls Only Room programme was established at every school, where a room is reserved with pads and other facilities to help vulnerable female students who canâ€™t afford pads.
The Ministry says over 670,000 disadvantaged girls have so far benefited from the programme.
However, Gilbert Munyeshaka, who teaches at Cyuve primary school in Rwamagana District, told News of Rwanda that sometimes these rooms are empty.
â€œIt is a good initiative by the Ministry but at times these materials run short of supply. In most cases you find when a school has no immediate budget to buy them,â€ he said.
Low cost pads
In an exclusive interview with News of Rwanda, Daniel Karemera, the factoryâ€™s production manager, said the plan has been put in place to produce low-cost pads that vulnerable women and girls can afford in the country.
â€œA pack of pads costs Rwf500 ($0.67) which is less than other brands. This is affordable and our mission is to pull the price down to Rwf300,â€ he said.
Other brands on the market cost between Rwf800 and Rwf2000, depending on oneâ€™s choice and pocket.
The companyâ€™s mission is to ensure its products are 35% cheaper than locally produced products and 70% less than the international brands.
Besides, Karemera noted that the company runs entrepreneurial projects that support women.
â€œFirst, we buy banana fibre from them after training and providing extractor machines that make threads out of banana fibre. We buy a kilogramme of these threads at Rwf1200,â€ he told News of Rwanda.
Low production capacity
According to the factoryâ€™s production manager, their products have been welcomed on the market, and remains with a challenge of satisfying demand.
â€œOur factory has a capacity to only produce 500 packs every day. This is a drop in the ocean depending on demand on the market,â€ Karemera said.
For instance, he added, the factory has already signed memorandum of understanding with more than 10 schools in Kayonza district, with many more pending requests to supply pads in different refugee camps across the country.
However, a solution is underway. According to Karemera, a deal has been reached between the factory and US-based Johnsons & Johnsons firm, which with provide high-tech machines to increase production. â€œThese machines will be available next year. With them, we will be able to produce 5000 packs a day,â€ Karemera said.
With the new production plans, it is a matter of just growing bananas. According to Muhawenimana, one banana stem can produce 5 kilograms of threads. â€œWith these extractor machines, I can make 30 kilograms a week,â€ she revealed.