When university students Paul Ntikosia and Ivy Etemesi found out school girls and women use soil and leaves as sanitary towels, they decided to do research on how to make affordable pads. With the help of their lecturers from Kabarak University, the two young women came up with a way of making cheap banana-fibre sanitary towels.
“What these girls use is not hygienic and it exposes them to health risks which may require huge amounts of money to treat...and most of them don’t have the money,” says 21-year-old Ms Etemesi.
The two found out that banana stems are commonly used by women in remote areas in Uganda. “We were looking for an invention that was affordable and acceptable to many women in rural and marginalised areas,” says Mr Ntikoisa, 22.
In July, they came up with the pad design and started looking for the raw materials; soft core parts of banana trunks, macintosh paper and adhesive tape.
To make the pads, they pick healthy banana trunks that are free from any pests or diseases. These banana trunks are washed with water to remove any solid impurities attached to the soft stems. They are later placed on a wooden board where they are crushed into fine fibre with a wooden pin and dried in the sun for six hours to harden them and kill any remaining bugs.
The dried fibre is then disinfected by dipping it into Dettol antiseptic liquid after which it is arranged and sandwiched with two soft liners, converting it into a compact pad. The bottom side is sealed with macintosh paper, a waterproof material which is firmly woven into the towel manually. Adhesive tape is used to attach both sides of the pad to ensure it is firm when worn.
Ms Etemesi says girls from Baringo region have tried the pads and they have reported that they work just as well as those from large manufacturers. “One pad can be used for up to seven hours,” she says. A pad goes for Sh7.
The young entrepreneurs are looking to patent their innovation, but their biggest headache is getting money to buy the raw materials to produce more sanitary towels. “Our biggest problem is funds, but we are engaging different individuals and institutions,” says Mr Ntikoisa.
Their focus is ensure more poor and women from marginalised households access affordable sanitary towels and girls go to school. “The more girls remain at home during their monthly periods, the more they lag behind in their studies,” says Ms Etemesi.
The Ministry of Education estimates that at least 2.5 million adolescent girls in primary and secondary schools lack access to sanitary towels and spend three to five days each month away from school.
Studies show that an adolescent girl between class six and eight loses 18 weeks out of 108 weeks of her learning period with most staying home during their monthly periods as they cannot afford the regular sanitary pads manufactured by large companies. For a girl in high school, she stays home for 24 weeks out of 144 weeks of her education calendar while boys attend school throughout.
In 2010, the Education ministry launched a sanitary programme for primary school girls to retain them in school. Statistics from the ministry show that 678,700 needy girls have so far received pads, but more need them.
For Ms Etemesi and Mr Ntikoisa, their aim is to keep more girls in school by engaging the county governments in marketing the pads to ensure they reach as many needy women as possible.