It is a fundamental human right for a girl or woman to have the ability to manage basic biological functions. Yet four in five East African women and girls cannot access sanitary pads due to their lack of affordability.
Girls without access to pads can miss up to six weeks of school annually, putting them at risk of joining the 60 per cent of female students who drop out, and making them four times more likely to become a teen mother or to join the ten per cent of drop-outs who contract HIV. The ensuing effects on the health system and GDP are enormous.
Unhygienic pad alternatives – rags, foam mattresses, grass – can lead to urinary and reproductive tract infections (UTIs/RTIs). Additionally, links have been drawn between untreated RTIs and the incidence of HIV/AIDS, cervical cancer, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility. If RTIs are left untreated in pregnant women, it is estimated that they are responsible for up to 15 per cent of fetal deaths and up to 50 per cent of prenatal infections.
ZanaAfrica may have a solution. It is the first Kenya-based enterprise that couples the production and packaging of both reusable and disposable sanitary pads with the delivery of health education via comics, marketing a range of free health resources to women and girls.
Megan Mukuria is the CEO and founder of ZanaAfrica. "My father treated me very much like a son, taking me fishing and shooting and always said that anything boys could do girls could do better. The idea that girls grow up believing otherwise is unacceptable. Every girl deserves to feel valuable, talented, and free to exercise her own voice, and to forge the future she wants," she says.
Having lived in Kenya since 2001, Ms. Mukuria discovered early on that pads were often girls' number two expense every month. As she learned how girls often missed school or engaged in transactional sex for pads, she saw "how the provision of pads and health education changed what girls deemed possible for themselves."
In 2006, she launched the Kenyan National Sanitary Towels Campaign, which propelled the government to become the first in the world to write pads into budgets, for five years in a row, for over $3.5-million/year to serve over 400,000 girls, making Kenya a global leader in tackling the issue of menstrual hygiene management (MHM).
Policy wasn't enough: value chain inefficiencies continued to keep pads out of reach of women and girls. Megan realized that many factors – quality, affordability, product range, packaging, health education, and distribution channels – needed to be addressed in order to change the current system.
ZanaAfrica offers a range of high quality, low cost and inspirational sanitary products. It is the only supplier in Kenya to offer a two-pack, a discrete on-the-go purchase for those with limited daily budgets. It is also the only producer to offer a 32-pack including underwear, designed with school semesters in mind to offer value to families or sponsorship programs keeping their girls in school. Recognizing that many women use both disposables when possible and reusables when money may be limited, ZanaAfrica also sells combo packs that accommodate such use.
Within each pack, health education connect girls and women to resources they need. The girls themselves recognize the critical role that pads and health education play. Said one girl, "this is going to make us actualize our dreams, to make us go as far as boys can, and to make the country be proud of girls and make us equal!"
ZanaAfrica has developed a tiered distribution model that leverages female social entrepreneurs and community health workers alongside traditional channels into supermarkets to sell its sanitary products so that affordable pads are within walking distance of all women and girls.
The global market for sanitary pads is dominated by a select few, and with the exception of P&G and Kimberly-Clark, most have a limited presence in Africa. Top brands are sold only at major retailers and are out of reach for most families who buy these products on a daily basis. Price point, packaging, tiered distribution and health education are the competitive advantages ZanaAfrica touts vis-à-vis large competitors and other MHM-focused social enterprises operational in East Africa.
Since November 2013, ZanaAfrica's community-based sales have seen 300,000 disposable and reusable pads sold, reaching approximately 13,000 women and 7,000 girls, providing its end-users with up to 70 per cent in savings in out-of-pocket expenses.
Over 50,000 school days have been reclaimed by girls, resulting in significant academic improvement. In one study of 400 girls given pads and underwear for just six months, 25 per cent moved into the top decile of their class. In another case, two in five schools moved from the bottom to near the top of their county ranking. One school, New Adventure Academy, reported 100 per cent female retention in key class levels for the first time in its 13-year history.
ZanaAfrica is one of the organizers of Menstrual Hygiene Day (May 28), a day to help break the silence around MHM and bring together key stakeholders to break taboos and normalize discussions of MHM.
Baseline sales projections for 2015 are $300,000 and could reach just over $500,000. ZanaAfrica could reach up to 60,000 Kenyan women and girls this year.
"ZanaAfrica is a systems change play," states Joy Anderson, founder and president of Criterion Institute and Advisor to ZanaAfrica. In order to succeed, ZanaAfrica has been able to "focus beyond just efficient production and distribution, to attend to cultural dynamics and social structures that keep the current system in place and design strategies that work in tandem with company innovations to achieve durable systems change.
"Through partnering with governments, NGOs and other social enterprises from the very beginning, ZanaAfrica has the potential to create a model capable of serving all East African women and girls who cannot afford to manage their periods with dignity.