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Aspen Design Summit Report: UNICEF Menstruation Challenge


The lack of affordable hygienic products and facilities, compounded by negative cultural attitudes, has profoundly and adversely affected the education of puberty-age girls in Africa. According to UNICEF, one in 10 school-age African girls stays home during her period or drops out entirely. As reported in this Project’s briefing papers, “In countries where menstrual hygiene is taboo, girls in puberty are typically absent for 20 percent of the school year.” Nor is this quandary limited to adolescence; working women also lose productive time during their periods. And even women who attend classes and jobs despite a lack of access to sanitary protection often substitute materials such as bark, rags or mud, with detrimental health consequences.

Participants in the Aspen Design Summit’s Menstruation Project addressed this dilemma not as an isolated predicament but as part of a larger system of economic and cultural forces that offered powerful opportunities for change. The group’s principal objective was to assist team member Elizabeth Scharpf, a social entrepreneur setting up a program in Rwanda to produce and distribute low-coast sanitary pads, in considering ways to innovate her venture, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE). “In Rwanda for the last 15 years, it’s only been handout, handout,” Scharpf said. “We’re trying to change that and make it more sustainable.”

Building on Scharpf’s efforts to create businesses in Rwanda through the manufacture and sale of affordable sanitary protection, the team proposed an “eco-system” whereby sanitary pads became a linchpin for local economic growth, for educational programs about health and hygiene and for research into materials that could be adapted to other countries

Combating the Taboo
Scharpf seeks to provide information to maturing girls and women that would help remove the sting of taboo and provide answers to questions as fundamental as “Why am I menstruating?” and “What is going on with my body?” — questions she has heard from women as old as 35.

Such information should be paired with access to affordable sanitary pads and safe, private latrines, Scharpf believes. But how might these initiatives be combined? Scharpf also seeks to jump-start the local economy by opening a factory for the production of low-cost pads and offering them for sale by health workers. But “working in Rwanda, how do we replicate that in other places?” she wondered. “Is there a kit for this? The same issues exist in Madagascar and Tanzania.”

Currently, Scharpf is able to procure generic sanitary pads at a 15 percent reduction simply by buying them wholesale. (The pads, which are packaged in bags of 10, retail for $1.10.) Her organization is training community health workers to distribute the pads door to door, along with information about menstrual hygiene. In turn, the health workers earn 10 percent on the sale of the pads. Sustainable Health Enterprises has recovered some of the expenses for transportation and marketing the pads, but takes no profit.

At the same time, Scharpf is financing a factory in Rwanda that employs men and women from the community to make pads from banana fiber, an absorbent material obtained from the trunk of the banana tree, which is routinely chopped down after each harvest and therefore classified as agro-waste. Combined with local factory production of 5,000 pads a day, this material, Scharpf estimated, will yield a product that costs 75 cents per pack of 10, 35 percent below the lowest price on the market. Manufacturing the pads requires little electricity, Scharpf added, and might even be accomplished through solar power. Recently, she released a video outlining her initiative.

Questions of how to scale this project and extend hygienic knowledge to all sectors of the community so that it reaches the home as well as the classroom, mothers as well as their daughters, and men as well as women led the Project team to propose a number of ways to package and distribute the pads and to cope with the dearth of safe sanitary facilities for changing them. The pads, for instance, could be combined in a two-pack along with a wipe and distributed by individual schools that would in turn be supplied by a Ministry of Education. Related hygiene information or a rewards program for procuring pads could be communicated as text messages. The team even discussed portable or wearable screens that would offer some semblance of privacy in the absence of a latrine. By the same token, it considered the value of researching superabsorbent fibers.

Initially the project team divided the market between schoolgirls and working women. As discussions wore on, however, the team differentiated between girls who have just reached puberty and are most vulnerable to the temptation to drop out, and those who have come to terms with the stresses imposed by menstruation and have chosen to remain in school but would benefit from affordable products.

Mid-Course Revision
An even more pronounced shift occurred when Scharpf decided that framing the problem in terms of eradicating a taboo and restoring a sense of dignity to female development was less concrete and persuasive than addressing the loss of education, productivity and, consequently, income when girls and women remain at home. Attack the issue of productivity, Scharpf concluded, and dignity would follow.

With the team’s encouragement, Scharpf broke her initiative into three “buckets,” autonomous yet complementary pursuits that might attract different funding partners. A “production bucket” would involve the establishment of a local factory that used indigenous materials with the aim of decreasing the product’s price. A “capacity bucket” would contain efforts to reach girls and women though health workers or local schools. And a “knowledge bucket” would encompass information about local customs, materials and production opportunities with an eye toward creating a scalable model.

Next Steps and Action Plan
After sharing the information gained from the Summit internally, with her colleagues, Scharpf will revise her operational plan, including budgeting, and will get feedback on the new three-bucket structure. At the same time, she will seek to form new partnerships and find new funders that match her revised objectives.

Team Members
Moderator: Manuel Toscano, Principal, Zago
Recorder: Julie Lasky, Editor, Change Observer
Mariana Amatullo, Vice President, Director, Designmatters Department, Art Center College of Design
Nathalie Destandau, Partner and Strategist, Tomorrow Partners; Strategy Chair, AIGA Center for Sustainable Design
Christopher Fabian, Communications Officer, UNICEF
Pornprapha Phatanateacha, Assistant Professor, Graphic Design, School of the Arts, VCU Qatar
Elizabeth Scharpf, Founder, Chief Instigator, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE)

Contributions were also made by members of the UNICEF Early Childhood Development Project team:

Grant Cambridge, Senior Researcher, The Meraka Institute
Vanessa Eckstein, Principal, Bløk Design
Heather Fleming, CEO, Catapult Design
Hanne Bak Pedersen, Deputy Director, UNICEF Supply Division
Edgard Seikaly, Technical Specialist, Education Unit, UNICEF Supply Division
Diana Velasco, Innovation Officer, UNICEF Supply Division
Jocelyn Wyatt, Leader of Social Innovation, IDEO

Significant contributions to the writing of this report were made by Julie Lasky.

A PDF of the briefing book chapter on the UNICEF Menstruation Challenge Project is available here.

The original website for the Aspen Design Summit, as well as a list of all participants, is here.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Health + Safety, Philanthropy, Social Good

Comments [5]

Sanitary napkins produced in a “Small is Beautiful” model can deliver livelihood, hygiene and dignity to poor women, and help them strengthen society.

The invention and the Idea.

National award wining New Invention Mini sanitary Napkin making Machine:

Idea in more depth:

After taking four years painful research, A.Muruganantham (46) has designed, created, tested and implemented a sanitary napkin-making machine that operates on a small scale. Contrary to a large-scale production model which requires Rs.3.5 Crores as initial investment,Muruganantham’s sanitary napkin-making machine can be made available to a buyer for approximately Rs.65,000. This allows smaller players to adopt the business model propagated by him, and thus generates more employment and wealth in the most neglected sections of society.

More specifically, an empowerment forum – such as a Self Help Group or a women’s group – can invest in a sanitary napkin-making unit to create a business that employs up to ten women.
The new invention is capable to make 120 napkins per hour

This new invention mini sanitary napkin making machine awarded the best innovation national award by President of India Prathiba Patil on 18th Nov,09 at New Delhi.

Muruganantham’s model:

1)      Builds a viable and sustainable enterprise that can be run efficiently by the stakeholders at the grassroots.
2)      Delivers an essential commodity – the sanitary napkin – to poor women at affordable rates without compromising on the raw material used (which is not the unviable cotton) or quality of the product as compared to the multinationals. This is an extremely crucial development and can be viewed as a breakthrough in positive social engineering.
3)      Reduces the players involved in the supply chain – the third person to handle the product (from its inception) is the consumer.
4)      Thereby makes optimal use of the micro-credit generated by a community.

The technology used is simple and non-chemical. In fact, the machine uses purely mechanical processes such as grinding and de-fibration, pressing and sealing to convert the raw material – high-quality pine wood pulp – into a napkin.

Overall, the sanitary napkin-making machine is Muruganantham’s first
attempt at harnessing technology for the benefit of the underprivileged. Once the organization achieves its current goals to expand and propagate its invention, it would refocus to its core competency – inventing the Next Big Thing.

.One sentence best describes About the idea?

Sanitary napkins produced in a “Small is Beautiful” model can deliver livelihood, hygiene and dignity to poor women, and help them strengthen society.

What problem or issue does the idea address?

1)      Millions of women around the world cannot afford sanitary napkins, mainly because they’re manufactured using expensive machinery and thus priced at a premium. Such women resort to an older and cheaper alternative – a piece of cloth or rag. This is an unhygienic alternative and can cause vaginal infections, skin irritations and embarrassing stains in public. But by reducing the unit price of a napkin, Muruganantham’s model enables women to switch over to napkins – dignity must never be unaffordable.
2)      A light-weight and voluminous product like the sanitary napkin introduces high transportation cost. This model allows local production and thus solves the problem.
3)      Muruganantham’s model addresses the issue of rampant unemployment amongst the poor in rural, urban and semi-urban areas of all developing nations.
4)      Overall, Muruganantham’s model offers livelihood, hygiene, dignity and empowerment to women all over the world. And it does so using a sustainable business framework.

Muruganantham has obtained a patent for his innovation Over 125 such machines have been delivered which are now functioning in 14 states of India also he is getting enquiry by various countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh, but he does not want to make it a commercial affair though only the technology would be passed on to them.

For More Clarification:

A.Muruganantham, 577, KNG Pudur Road, Somayampalaym,
Coimbatore 641018 Cell: 92831 55128, 94422 24069
E-mail: [email protected]

web site: www.newinventions.in






Lakshmi Murthy from India, has also been involved in making sanitary napkins for women in rural India.
The Musuem of Menstruation http://www.mum.org/ has documented her work at http://www.mum.org/indiapad.htm

And her website it www.vikalpdesign.com


Don't know if anyone is still reading this, but Moses Musaazi, engineer and 'appropriate technology' inventor extraordinare at Makerere University in Kampala Uganda, may be another good contact for sharing ideas and best practices. He has been the driving force behind the Makapad, another low-cost, environmentally sustainable sanitary pad developed to help address the school drop-out rate among adolescent girls.

The project has spread social benefits on many different levels, starting with its extensive local, low-cost and labor-intensive production chain which employs women around Kampala to process papyrus, which grows abundantly in nearby swamps, into soft fibers for the pads. The project has also partnered with UNHCR and opened a factory which employs refugee women in producing the Makapads. The only part of the process that requires non-human energy is the sterilization, which uses solar.

The project also draws on Musaazi's other inventions, for example in the construction of latrines and the disposal of the pads using a small ingeniously designed fuelless incinerator. Could be fruitful and interesting to put heads together? The education and advocacy aspects of Elizabeth Scharpf's project also sound really interesting, perhaps an idea for Makapads to incorporate more of...

Let me know if you're interested in talking further.

Megan Lindow

Wonderful fact finding mission and analysis of the same.
Kindly contact us, through the Human Relations Trust (Kenya).
We are also manufacturing reusable sanitary towels and we recently got a conformity certificate from the Kenya Bureau of Standards.
Brenda Isabel

Aspen Design Summit reports are edited by Ernest Beck, William Drenttel and Julie Lasky. The 2009 Aspen Design Summit was organized by William Drenttel of Winterhouse Institute, in partnership with AIGA and with support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

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