Banapads, producing affordable, eco-friendly sanitary pads

Seed Africa Symposium Series 2014
Sub-Saharan Africa
26. Sep 2014

Hundreds of thousands of young girls in Uganda miss school on a regular basis because they don’t have access to safe and affordable sanitary pads. Having seen his own sister suffer because of this, Richard Bbaale took matters into his own hands and developed a low-cost pad using residue from banana leaves and stems. His social enterprise, Banapads, is now distributing these pads to low-income women and girls through an all-women sales force. 

What is the core value proposition of your business? 

Banapads is a social enterprise that is aiming to use locally available raw materials and technology to produce affordable, eco friendly sanitary pads. Once we manufacture these pads, we distribute them using a women to women sales force whom we provide with what we call a ‘business in a bag’. This is effectively a toolkit for women entrepreneurs to distribute our product. We also provide them with training and marketing support. The Banapads micro-franchise model aims to harness the power of these micro entrepreneurs who sell our sanitary pads door to door to help women at the BoP improve their health and their productivity.

What inspired you to start Banapads?

This is actually a very personal story for me that involves me and my elder sister. I always looked up to my sister and we were very close. As we grew older, I realised that she would skip school for a number of days every month. I also noticed that she would use mud and leaves to try and keep herself clean during this time because our grandmother couldn’t afford to buy the sanitary pads that were available in the market. And because it’s a taboo, they would not talk about it and she would miss a lot of school and get infections as well. This haunted me and I felt helpless seeing my sister stay at home when she should have been in school.

Many years later in college, when we were volunteering in the local community I noticed a similar problem with girls and women having to just stay at home when they had their period. Once when I was visiting a village, there were number of discarded banana stems scattered around the area. And that is where it struck me that this ‘waste product’ could actually be used to make useful products. I learnt about its properties and realised that it had very good absorption qualities. At the same time I learnt that approximately 800,000 girls in Uganda alone were missing school because of limited access to sanitary products and low awareness and social barriers.

Keeping all of this in mind, I started doing extensive research into using the banana fibre to make a low cost sanitary pad. I created a product with four layers that had good absorption as well as prevented leakage. In 2012, I was able to go to Santa Clara University’s Global Social Benefit Incubator programme where I presented my idea and I was able to refine my business model and start rolling out the product.

Preparing the banana residue
Preparing the banana residue

How is your business progressing?

We have developed and tested the product within a restricted market and have found it to be viable. We are now getting ready to commercialise the product. We’ve piloted the project in Uganda and Tanzania in areas where the raw material is readily available. We are upgrading our processing technology and packaging design as well as developing training and sales manuals and menstruation and hygiene manuals for our distributors who we call our ‘champions’.

Tell us about your beneficiaries. It sounds like you are benefiting women across the value chain.

We’re focusing on reaching menstruating, school-going girls from 10 to 19 years old in rural and urban areas as well as women from 20 to 50 years old. We’re looking to provide employment opportunities to women in villages who are heads of households but often have no income earning opportunities. We give them training and coaching on reproductive health and hygiene as well as the area of business. We ensure that these women learn essential business skills that will allow them to run their own businesses beyond just promoting our own product.

What feedback have you received from your beneficiaries?

Most of these women had to use cloth rags and leaves when they had their period which led to rashes and infection. So the feedback we got for our product was that these women were excited to have an alternative. Latest data is that women and girls don’t want to be frustrated, and through our menstrual health camps we are breaking the silence and exciting the community. But we also realised that our packaging needed to be improved and we had to be flexible with quantity. So we are re-engineering the product to give women what they want. We are also learning that other products are needed alongside the pads. We are now looking at producing eco-friendly underwear as well as herbal soap to improve hygiene. We want to be able to provide the whole package.

What factors have helped you form the foundations of a successful inclusive business?

External support has been so important to the success of the business. The incubator programme at Santa Clara University helped me refine the business model and continues to help with students and experts helping at very steps along the way. I’ve also met a number of impact investors in Sweden and applied to programmes such as IAP and SEED. The SEED award in 2013 allowed us to get partners, and fund essential equipment. We continue to use these opportunities to move forward and we are pitching to as many potential partners as possible.

What is your projected social impact?

By 2014 we believe we should be able to ensure 20,000 girls stay in school and provide 81 jobs to women in our manufacturing units as well as working as our ‘champions’. In 2015, we aim to keep 60,000 girls in school and provide 200 jobs. By 2017, we are targeting helping 180,000 girls and employing 600 women. Our champions will be earning between 40-50$ which is an amazing source of income for women living below the poverty line.

Teaching schoolgirls about health & hygiene
Teaching schoolgirls about health & hygiene
Founder Richard Bbaale 
Founder Richard Bbaale 
Banapads employs women in their manufacturing units
Banapads employs women in their manufacturing units