After graduating from McGill University with undergraduate degrees in biology and environmental science, Paul and Sophia Grinvalds went travelling and ended up in Uganda, where they began volunteering for a charity. During their time in Uganda they discovered a significant social challenge for school girls who did not have access to sanitary pads due to cost or availability. Determined not to miss school, girls would often use newspaper or leaves, resulting in infections and a significant number of days missed from school. Education has been identified as one of the key drivers to poverty reduction, especially for women, so missing multiple days each month is a significant detriment to their future.
The first step for any startup is to find a problem. The Grinvalds had found their problem and were passionate about finding a solution. They knew a company in Canada that had created reusable, washable menstrual products. While the product's market was the eco-conscious- consumer market, they decided to create a similar product, AFRIpads, that could be locally manufactured at low cost in Uganda.
The next obstacle was the startup capital required to buy a few manual sewing machines and the materials to test their minimal viable product. The Grinvalds were able to convince Bert Bolkenstein, a philanthropic investor from the Netherlands, to fund a very small pilot in March, 2009. With an experienced investor to hold them accountable to their social and financial mission, the Grinvalds gained valuable insight from the pilot and expanded their manufacturing, leading to more sales and more school girls positively impacted.
With a successful pilot behind them, they started scaling, bringing in more investors and hiring local women to manufacture the products.
After the success of the pilot project, AFRIpads started to do what every great startup does once it has proven the viability of its business model: start to scale. They became noticed by NGOs that needed an affordable solution to sanitary pads in refugee camps, opening a new customer segment that provided significant sales and further demand for growth.
This has resulted in $1.5-million in sales and 50-per-cent growth year after year since inception. They have sold more than 700,000 kits to date that have been manufactured at multiple facilities.
The power of AFRIpads's business model transcends its margins and growth. Rather, its true power lies in the 150 men and women that it employs. Proudly, 95 per cent of the employees are women, providing a stable and living wage, alongside the health-care benefits that they also receive. Due to the growth of the company, many women have been internally promoted to managers of the manufacturing facilities in Uganda.
Houston Peschl is an entrepreneurship instructor at the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business.