Feature Article

The Sanitary Pad Project

Minazi Consulting and the Dufatanye Organisation

Designing the next generation of period products:
How the ‘Sanitary Pad Project‘ is addressing period poverty through localised sustainable innovation in Rwanda.

 

According to the World Bank, it is estimated that 500 million women and girls lack access to the facilities they need to adequately manage their period¹. Not only does lack of access to adequate facilities affect health and well-being, it also has an impact on other aspects of life for many young girls. In a study conducted in Rwanda, 20% of girls are estimated to miss school as a result of their period². Dufatanye organisation, a non-profit organisation in Nyanza that delivers livelihood support to impoverished communities, is concerned about the lack of access to sanitary products for many women and girls in Nyanza and surrounding neighbourhoods.

 

The Problem

In 2021, Dufantanye engaged Minazi Consulting in search of a solution. Minazi completed an 8-week research and design study, including a needs and feasibility assessment. It was identified that access to sanitary products is difficult for women in remote Rwandan villages, such as Nyanza. Most pads in the market were expensive (see footnote), meaning that women were unable to purchase the sanitary products they required. If sanitary pads were available, they would often be plastic-based; these made the pads difficult to dispose of safely.  Additionally, women are unable to access reliable information on periods. Further user research on the pain points identified that women often felt a ‘sense of shame’ in case menstrual blood leaked through their clothes when they were on their periods. In these situations, they often went home immediately³.

 

Unlocking the potential of local resources

The sanitary pad project was designed to address the high cost of sanitary pads and increase the access to sanitary products in Nyanza in an environmentally friendly and sustainable manner. With sustainability at the core of the project, it was decided to utilise resources available in the region, which would not only lead to creation of local industry but also increase the local capacity of the region. One of the raw materials that is readily available in Rwanda is banana trees because bananas are a staple crop covering around 23% of all land in Rwanda.

The fibres of the banana tree trunk are highly absorbent and as such, they can be used to create the absorbent cores of sanitary pads. A benefit of this process is that it also makes use of waste banana trees. Banana trees have a single fruiting cycle. After bearing fruit, the banana tree begins to rot and die. This results in a large amount of agricultural waste. The sanitary pad absorbent cores were designed to be made with banana fibre that is extracted and processed on the farm. This would utilise the agricultural waste from the 3,000 banana trees in the nearby banana plantation whilst addressing the key menstrual hygiene needs of the community.

By redirecting the waste into fibre, we’re creating a product stream that is regenerative, locally produced and natural. Additionally, we’re creating robust, reusable sanitary pads that are long lasting. In this way, we’re creating a sustainable alternative to the mass manufactured, single use sanitary pads which often contain several types of plastic and are unsuitable for the rural agricultural communities like Nyanza.

 

 The Designs

We’re designing sanitary pads with Dufatanye organization to match the requirements of the local community, driven by insights obtained during primary research and through iterative prototyping. We’re working with local suppliers to source materials for the different layers of the sanitary pads, ensuring that materials are as natural as possible to minimise the environmental impact. Our pad designs have three layers as per conventional standards: A top-sheet made of 100% cotton, an absorbent core made of banana fibre, and a Base layer which is waterproof and leak-proof. We’re using a combination of approaches to ensure that the final product suits the user requirements. A key aspect of Minazi design methodologies is continuous improvement; whilst our first batch of pads are ready for distribution, we’re continuously improving our designs to ensure that our pads are optimally and as user-friendly as possible, ensuring that the needs of the end user have been med. As we continue to expand and grow, we want to install new production capabilities that will allow us to make fabric on site. We’re also trialing different ideas, such as creating partially compostable sanitary pads because of the specific need of requiring disposable alternatives. This is particularly suitable for school students who may not like to carry their used reusable pads with them at school and back as this can be unhygienic and difficult. If they want to change the pads at school, they can simply replace the ‘disposable’ section.

Developing a local engineering process

In addition to designing sustainable pads from locally sourced banana fibre, we are also building a production facility and creating the engineering processes for production of the sanitary pads in Nyanza. We’re building the production facility in phases, starting with the first installation phase in August 2023. 

A major objective of the first installation phase was to install equipment on the site and create assembly workstations. To do this, new furniture was added such as tables and carpentered storage for the assembly process. The room where sanitary pads were to be produced was cleaned thoroughly and electricity was installed for the processes. Future work will include tiling and painting the walls, reinforcing the window for safety and other improvements. A hand-powered carding machine developed by students at Imperial College London has been safely received and installed on the site. 

Extraction of banana fibre using a banana fibre extractor machine has been started and the production of sanitary pads has also begun on the site. The production site has also been improved with the addition of desks, electrical connections and storage facilities. Initial materials for trials have also been procured. The assembly line and assembly procedure has been developed, and procurement of relevant machinery has also been completed where possible. 

Machine extraction of banana fibre has been particularly useful as it reduces the time to extract fibres from 1 week manually to around 30 mins. This proved that the purchase of the banana fibre extractor was a viable addition. Also, due to the quantity of fibres extracted, it was clear that the fibre could serve secondary purposes in addition to being a raw material for the sanitary pads. For example, Dufatanye Organisation have an arts-and-crafts initiative. This initiative helps provide a daily activity for widows, genocide and AIDs survivors, who have no other family in the community. They create artistic produce using bamboo which is purchased externally. However, due to the abundance of banana fibre, crafts such as banana fibre baskets and bags can also be produced here with the excess banana fibre that is extracted.

 

Our Impact 

Over the previous three years, Minazi have dedicated themselves to this issue, and are proud to announce the impact we have made so far. Together with Dufatanye Organization, we’ve produced and distributed around 300 pads to the local community, leading to direct increase in access to period products in the region. We’ve extracted fibre from 100 trees up to now. This means they have been extracted for useful fibre before they are wasted. The additional fibre can also be used in other crafts and products. We have sourced materials and equipment from 8-10 Rwandan suppliers and manufacturers. Additionally, this project has led to the employment of 2 permanent female employees whose roles are directly related to this project. We also regularly engaged with local female skilled workers (tailors/farmers), boosting the local economy.

While providing physical sanitary products is a crucial act to improving women and girls’ quality of life, we also understand the importance of education and that the impact made by our banana fibre pads would be considerably greater alongside the cultivation of an open, communicative environment regarding menstrual health. On this front, Minazi Consulting has teamed up with Dufatanye Organization, our delivery partner for the banana-fibre sanitary pads, to create a menstrual health awareness week in Rwanda. This consists of school visits, interactive presentations, as well as a sanitary pad focus group and a Menstrual Health Awareness Day celebration event.

500+

Pads distributed to date

 

120+

Banana trees utilised before waste 

8-10

Local companies engaged

5

Permanent female employees

 

Project Alignment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals 

All Minazi design and engineering projects are designed to be aligned to the UN sustainable development goals. The sanitary pad project goal is to increase access to and awareness of sanitary practices for women in Nyanza through an environmentally friendly approach. By building a local production facility, creating local manufacturing processes and engaging local manufacturers, the project will also have a positive impact on the local economy and lead to economic growth. Additionally, the sanitary pad project also aims to participate in the global menstrual health campaign and the work is to be supplemented, with the creation and dissemination of information through awareness days and educational programs on safe, sanitary practices for menstrual health management.

This project is aligned to the following UN Sustainable Development Goals.

 

Footnotes

1. https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/water/brief/menstrual-health-and-hygiene/

2. https://rwanda.unfpa.org/en/news/menstrual-health-hygiene-why-there-still-more-be-done/

3. Research conducted during the site visit in 2023 shows that the price of the pads in Nyanza is 1,000 RWF from available brands like Supa. A farmer in Nyanza from a poor area can have a limited take-home income. For reference, the minimum wage in Rwanda is around 100 RWF per day². Comparatively, the Anker living wage for rural Rwanda, which is the estimated wage required for a basic but decent standard of living is around 174,000 RWF per month³, the poorest farmers simply do not earn enough per month, and struggle to afford food or living essentials. Additionally, with the rising inflation rates at Rwandan markets, such as the price of a kg of potatoes rising to 1,500 RWF overnight in September 2023, the decision can come down to the purchase of sanitary pads or food for a subsistence farmer. With that in mind, most women will not purchase sanitary pads if there is no monthly budget to do so. If a family does have the available disposable income for purchase of sanitary pads, another issue arises. Due to the remote village locations, and prevalence of farming communities and lifestyles, most homes are located on farming land. In these locations, waste disposal and collection facilities are limited, even if farmers live close to the roadside, as there are no waste bins.

4. Wherever not explicitly stated, this article uses the terminology ‘Women and girls’ to refer to any person or persons experiencing menstruation. It is worth noting that menstruation can be experienced by all genders, and we intend the use to be interpreted as gender inclusive and hope all key impacted groups experiencing period poverty.

5. https://www.fao.org/rwanda/news/detail-events/en/c/1185123/

 

 

 

 

 

Click the link below to view our previous update on the Dufatanye Project:

DufatanyeCaseStudy

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