Uganda: Stemming the flow of teenage girl truants

Her tailoring skills help herself and her fellow Ugandan women

22-year-old Annet Naluswata's tailoring skills help herself, and her fellow Ugandan women, achieve more in life

When Irene Nakajima got her period her mother welcomed her to womanhood by taking her best sheets, cutting them in two, and then folding them.

Not some time-worn Ugandan tradition, this was Irene’s mother making the proverbial ‘rags’ which poor women around the world still rely on during menstruation.

Irene happened to be on school vacation and these home-made sanitary napkins, which Irene would wash every night, though bulky and uncomfortable, were fine while her vacation lasted. However, when school recommenced it was a different matter.

Irene lived in a village. High school was in the nearest large town – a two hour walk away every morning.

“By the time I reached school the sheets had burned the sides of my thighs and I smelled and I was embarrassed,” says Irene.

A determined learner she chose to persevere instead of staying home playing truant, as many girls did and still do.

However, she dreaded the moments when she would be called upon to write answers on the board. She would often tie her school sweater around her waist to hide leakages but then get in trouble for not wearing her uniform properly.

It was after one such occasion that Irene finally summoned the courage to ask her father for money to buy disposable pads. He agreed to put aside some money every month but with four girls and three boys in the family he could only afford one packet per month and so the four sisters would have to share – saving the disposables for their heaviest days and using the erstwhile sheets, now rags, for the rest of their cycle.

Afripads managerIrene (left) is telling me this story because now, at 24 years old, she is production manager of a Ugandan company called Afripads.

Based in the very same 5,000 person village she grew up in, Kintengesa in south-western Uganda, Irene helps lead a team of tailors – all 20 women local village girls – as they make washable, material-based but western-style sanitary pads.

These reusable pads are a niche eco-friendly product in the west but in Uganda Afripads aims to create a budget-friendly, quality alternative to rags.


A new partnership blossoms

This is not your average job for a social work graduate but Afripads is not your average company. Neither is the story of its inception, which starts with two young people falling in love in a college in Canada.

Enter 29-year-old American Sophia Klumpp and 28-year-old Canadian Paul Grinvalds, who met while both were studying at McGill University, in Montreal, Canada.

As many young people do after college they travelled. And, not unusually, after eight months they were changed people. They decided not to head back home, putting aside their studies in public health and environmental science, instead seeking work experience in overseas development.

They found an organisation in a village not far from the village where Afripads is based and set about volunteering for six months. They had a one-year ticket and not much money.

Says Sophia: “We didn’t really appreciate the isolation of the small village and we naively thought that in those six months we would meet people and through them secure a paid internship for the second six months.”

That miracle meeting never occurred. Instead what happened was a meeting, in the nearest big town’s internet café, with another Canadian student. Her name was Carrie-Jane, she was doing research with girls in a nearby village, and had an interesting story to tell.

After having been tipped off by a fellow researcher as to how valuable they would be, Carrie-Jane had received sponsorship from a company to bring lots of washable eco-pads as a thank-you for participating in her research.

Her problem was that at the end of the research she still had a few pads left and too many girls clamouring at her door, desperate to get them.

The solution: Sophia and Paul took the pads off her hands, took them to their village instead, and gave them out at the primary school where only a few of the girls had started their periods.


The light-bulb moment

There was a phenomenal reaction – an idea was born.

“The first thing we did was ‘snip, snip’ cut one open to see how it worked,” says Sophia.

Christmas was coming up and both parents had deposited cash in their accounts in lieu of gifts. Not an astronomical amount, together the funds came to $500, but enough to buy a pedal-powered sewing machine, hire some space in the village where Carrie-Jane had been and take on an employee – a local girl and friend who had just finished her tailoring course.

“We told Hamidah we could only guarantee her salary for a month but she took the plunge with us,” says Paul, pride in his voice as he adds: “Now, she’s one of our top managers.”

With all three working together they could produce one or two kits per day and each morning there would be two girls waiting on their doorstep to buy the pads.

Naturally their ambition, and staff, grew but there was a snag – they were finding it difficult to source high quality material appropriate for the pads.

It was after a day fruitlessly searching for material in Kampala’s chaotic taxi-park markets “A day when you really feel Kampala,” remembers Paul with an affectionate grimace, that their second chance encounter occurred.

In a Dutch backpackers hostel that night two young women were determined to talk to Sophia and Paul and learn their story.

It turns out that the father of one of these girls was a retired businessman turned philanthropist who loved the idea of a business that would also make a positive social contribution by helping girls attend school.

Before they knew it Sophia and Paul were writing their first-ever request for a grant.

“We thought of everything we could possibly need, including a trip for one of us to Kenya to source material, and it came to less than €1700 – the girls literally hysterically laughed and said they were sure it wouldn’t be a problem,” says Sophia.

It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship and the philanthropist Bert Bolkenstein is providing continued support to help Afripads grow faster but, of course, challenges remain.


Inflated challenges

Getting quality material is still a problem so they import from Kenya, paying in US dollars, and with Uganda’s runaway inflation this is hurting their bottom line.

They have had mentoring from Canadian reusable pad company Lunapads and the pads look great but they are not yet making enough of them to sell them as cheaply as they would like to.

They have sold 40,000 kits in a year-and-a-half and they estimate they need to sell 100-200,000 kits per year (depending on inflation) to be a self-sustaining business and bring down the price.

“We would love our product to be as accessible as the yellow jerry cans of cooking oil,” says Paul.

While no longer sharing a room with a sewing machine and their tailors, they are still pretty stereotypical start-up entrepreneurs, living and breathing their business and making plenty of personal sacrifices.

Widening distribution is a big challenge so they have moved to Kampala, forsaking an apartment for an office, sleeping out the back and eating dinner in their work chairs.

The move has paid off with Afripads now selling in bulk to, charities, NGOs and organisations like UNICEF. Ten thousand Ugandan shillings (US$3.70) for a kit which lasts a year works out cheaper than a year’s worth of disposables, but is still too expensive for many poor Ugandan girls.

Not so for NGOs who have actually found Afripads to be good value for money.

This is because in the NGO world there is no doubt about the importance of pads to girls’ school attendance so it is a not uncommon practice to hand them out. The same NGO will often improve school latrines – but there is a snag.

The girls throw the plastic-based disposable pads into the pit-latrines, reducing the lifetime of the facilities. Afripads is the perfect solution.


Ding, dong, Afripads calling Sophia and Paul

Meanwhile, a partnership with another NGO, Living Goods, means Afripads are being sold door-to-door by women specialising in affordable health product sales. These Avon-style sales generate income for both Afripads and for the saleslady and ultimately Paul says they would like to expand this sales technique.

Paul also says they have plans for if (“when”) the company hits profitability to make all their employees shareholders.

However, unlike the fashion in many NGO projects, they have no plans to hand over control of the business completely. Both say they would only do that if there was a clear business case. It’s also quite obvious that they’re having far too much fun to walk away.

They get to challenge themselves to the limit as entrepreneurs and then Sophia gets to go to schools and see the reaction of girls to the product and Paul, barred from the school talks because of his sex, gets to see their village-based employment model, and the self-esteem of the individual employees, grow before his eyes.

They tell me they have had several requests from NGOs to expand the product to other African countries, and although they are determined to get Afripads standing on its own two feet in Uganda first, you can see they are ruling nothing out.

As for Irene she has big plans too.

“It would make a big difference if we could multiply the number of girls we reach. If Afripads could be gotten to women everywhere in the world, that’s my dream,” she says. Perhaps thinking back to her days at school she adds: “In Uganda boys are always the best at school but now in some places that is starting to change and at least with Afripads, if the girls are smart, menstruation will not be a problem holding them back.”

Chrisanthi Giotis