Across the world, women living in poor and marginalized households struggle with limited access to hygiene products that help them manage their monthly period. The lack of affordable and healthy products is a very common challenge. Women often will use whatever they can, including leaves, rags, mud, and bark, which are ineffective and can expose them to health risks. To avoid embarrassment, they are sometimes forced to stay home. This can mean girls missing up to three to five days of school per month, and women missing out on valuable economic activities that support their families. It affects education and livelihoods, keeping millions of women and girls trapped in a cycle of poverty.
In Kenya, two Bachelor of Education students from Kabarak University have come up with a simple, locally-developed idea that has the power to change women’s lives. Ivy Etemesi and Paul Ntikoisa created a sanitary pad made out of fibres from banana trees. The pad is created by isolating the soft inner stems of the banana tree, washing them to remove impurities, and softening them into a fine fibre. The fibre is laid out in the sun for six hours to dry out completely, and is then disinfected and arranged into strips. Finally, the fibres are placed between two soft liners for comfort. On the bottom of the pad, a waterproof material is manually woven in to prevent leakage. The pads have been successfully tested by fellow university students at Kabarak University. The next step for the two students is to patent their innovation, which is produced for a lower price than other manufactured pads available in Kenya.
Etemesi and Ntikoisa first came up with their idea after they had conducted research among women in the Rift Valley and found that many had no idea what pads were. Others who had heard of them were afraid to use them for reasons of superstition. Spurred on by their findings, the students then conducted research into traditional ways that African women manage their period. They found that women in Uganda use dried banana stems, but the raw product was not very effective in stopping leaks. They decided to use the same material that local women were familiar with, but find a way to manufacture a more effective, affordable product. Their next goal is to engage governments and organizations in supporting production of their pad so that they can reach as many women and girls as possible.
Etemesi and Ntikoisa’s invention is similar to work being conducted in Uganda by Godfrey Atuheire, a scientist supported by UNICEF, and in Rwanda by an NGO called Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). In all three cases, these groups are developing a low-cost product that can be made locally and is appropriate to the local cultural context. Its affordable price makes it more accessible to women and girls who often miss school and work because of social taboos surrounding menstruation. This simple product made from banana fibre has the potential to improve the physical, social, and mental well-being of women and girls all over East Africa.