Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
It is estimated that 65 percent of girls and women in Kenya and up to four out of every five girls in East Africa are unable to afford sanitary pads available in the market today. School-going girls miss up to eight weeks of school every year because they cannot access affordable pads and drop out at twice the rate of boys. Young women miss valuable working hours every month due to the same problem. In addition, the stigma associated with menstruation alienates the subject from most social spheres, making the arrival of menstruation a particularly confusing, traumatic and embarrassing experience for young girls. With no one to talk to and no affordable products to use, young girls and women resort to the use of unhealthy options like rags and tissue paper while keeping away from public spaces (including school and the workplace). It is estimated that unhygienic alternatives cause untreated reproductive tract infections in at least 10 percent of cases.
This issue is further compounded by a lack of reproductive health education for young girls and women. Parents rarely talk to their daughters about sexuality and reproductive health because they either see it as inappropriate or they simply don’t have the answers. Most parents relegate this responsibility to teachers. Unfortunately, with schools lacking even the most basic infrastructure for purely educational outcomes (books, desks et cetera), reproductive health education is seen as trivial and unimportant in comparison. Girls are therefore left to learn on their own, often making mistakes that they are unable to recover from including early pregnancy, exposure to STDs and AIDS and choosing a life of prostitution.
These seemingly straightforward challenges of providing affordable sanitary pads and safe spaces for reproductive health education for girls have massive implications for their futures but also to the Kenyan economy. Studies show that providing pads and related health education could win back 75 percent of lost learning days and women could regain at least six hours of work per month. In addition, girls who stay in school are more likely to perform well enough to justify their parents’ continued investment to keep them in school. Education has cascading effects over a female’s lifetime – educated women are likely to have 15-25 percent higher incomes, are five times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, are four times less likely to experience domestic violence and are three times less likely to have an early, unwanted pregnancy. Educated girls and young women are more likely to vote, survive childbirth and ensure better health and education outcomes for their own children. The World Bank Human Development Network Children & Youth Unit (2011) showed that if all girls currently dropping out of school completed primary school, Kenyan GPD could rise by 20 percent (increasing to 48 percent if girls completed secondary school).
Although much attention has been cast on the provision of sanitary pads to girls, existing efforts to address this challenge has been unsustainable and are not easily scalable. After a nationwide sanitary pad campaign in 2009, many NGOs stepped in to solicit pads from manufacturers and distribute them to girls. The government also allocated a portion of the national budget for the provision of free sanitary pads to schoolgirls using the same model. Unfortunately, both these approaches have proven inconsistent, expensive and unsustainable, as they are heavily donor-reliant. The effectiveness of these efforts is further reduced by uncoordinated, sporadic and inconsistent distribution amongst these players. As a result, it is impossible to assess the impact of this work or determine whether all girls are receiving sufficient and consistent access to sanitary pads. Moreover, few of these efforts address the need for reproductive health education for young girls and without this knowledge, young girls do not have the information and confidence they need to safely manage the transition to womanhood.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
Megan’s first goal is to make the world’s cheapest sanitary pad that matches the quality and comfort of the most expensive on the market. In order to bring down the cost of sanitary pads, Megan is partnering with Africa Cotton and pursuing innovations in material science to create cheaper and higher quality pads. Her first product, Nia pads, currently sells for 10 cents, almost 40 percent less than the cheapest pads available in the market today and will decrease in price as further innovations in materials and manufacturing occur. In addition, Megan recognizes that underwear is also prohibitively expensive and that without this, girls are less likely to use sanitary pads. By developing specialized underwear with re-usable cloth liners for use during menstruation, Megan has managed to provide the first duty-free underwear in the country and has subsequently reduced their retail price by 26 percent.
Megan understands that a reduction in the price of sanitary products alone is insufficient to ensuring access for all. Thus, Megan’s second goal is to establish a smart, lean distribution system that tracks the extent and consistency of its own delivery but also the impact of products and services on girl child outcomes over time. To this end, she is working with women entrepreneurs and other citizen sector organizations (CSOs). The women entrepreneurs are able to generate extra income by retailing Nia pads and are also equipped with training to deliver reproductive health education to the young girls. CSOs, on the other hand, are able to purchase the pads and offer them free of charge to schoolgirls in areas they work in, also coupled with reproductive health education. The entrepreneurs and CSOs form a part of Zana Africa’s tightly coordinated network. This network is supported by an information management system, called the Nia Network, which uses text messages to relay distribution information as well as information on school attendance and performance of the beneficiaries. In this way, Zana Africa centralizes all distribution information for sanitary products and reproductive health education, making it far easier to ensure consistent and widespread delivery and track impact over time. Thus far, the Nia Network has eight organizations registered (in addition to many individual women entrepreneurs) and has tracked the distribution of 18 million pads and 900 000 pairs of underwear to 260 000 girls in 2500 schools in Kenya. The extent of the distribution represents 30 percent of all girls in schools who need access to sanitary products and reproductive health education.
Megan’s third goal is to ensure that there are safe spaces for girls to obtain reproductive health education so that they can make well-informed decisions and navigate their adolescence with dignity. She has created the EmpowerNet Clubs – an afterschool girls-only club, with an accompanying curriculum - to provide such spaces for girls. In order to make the topics more accessible and kid-friendly, Megan has pushed forth a series of comics to address 12 topics in the four categories of reproductive health and menstrual hygiene, family planning, HIV/AIDS and maternal heath. Thus far, Megan has reached 375 girls in 15 schools in Kenya.
By 2020, Megan plans to have directly served 2.5 million girls and women, winning back 5 million school days and a further 55 million work hours of time that would otherwise have been lost to menstruation and a lack of reproductive health education.
The uniqueness in Megan’s idea is evidenced by her holistic approach to a complex challenge that is on one side market based and on the other policy oriented as well as gender and culturally influenced. She is taking the full market approach to significantly reduce the price of sanitary products without compromising on quality by launching her own production process complete with world class R&D. Similarly, she is working at the policy level to remove barriers such as exercise duty on women’s underwear. She has developed a distribution model that partners with women entrepreneurs in order to tackle the gender and cultural nuances that often interfere with the provision of reproductive health education in conservative societies. All these factors make Megan’s approach not only new but also potentially disruptive.