In Uganda, using banana stems to make sanitary towels By JANET OTIENO | Tuesday, November 12   2013 at  09:04

Banapad. PHOTO | JANET OTIENO  

There is silent barrier to educational rights of girls in Africa. This is the menstrual period, which is still a taboo subject that restricts access to education for many girls.

This means the normal biological process has not only turned out to be a huge burden but also another contributor to gender disparity since they lack quality and affordable products to help them cope with the situation.

According to UNESCO, one in ten adolescent girls in Africa miss school during menses and eventually drops out as they cannot afford sanitary towels, which are expensive usually retailing above $1 in local shops and supermarkets. This is more than many families live on daily.

An African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) 2010 report points out that limited access to safe, affordable, convenient and culturally appropriate methods for dealing with menstruation has far reaching implications for rights and physical, social and mental well-being of many women and adolescent girls.

Reports have shown that more than three million girls in Kenya do not have access to sanitary towels forcing them to miss between 3-5 days from school.

They often feel embarrassed due to teasing over stained clothes and hygiene, and also the discomfort that affects their self-esteem.

If we take four days in the normal 28-day cycle per semester, it translates into losing 13 days. In a year, it becomes 39 days of absenteeism from class. This is mirrored in other African countries like Uganda and many others.

Some girls are forced to use leaky materials, leaves, rags and even newspapers, which are not only unhygienic but also detrimental to their health. The materials they use at times result into bodily odour that may lead to discrimination especially in school.

For this reason, a Ugandan has decided to come up with an alternative from a product, which is readily available in the country. Richard Bbaale is making use of banana psuedostem wastes, which are usually left to rot after harvesting, to make sanitary towels.

It is estimated that 16.5 million tonnes of bananas are produced in Uganda each year, resulting in over 30 million tonnes of stems left to rot annually.

He is not only making sanitary towels from banana pulp but also offering job and training opportunity to 60 young women in the production of the pads, sales and collection activities.

The Banapads initiative, which started in 2011, is currently registered in Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi and brings around 3,300 girls in rural areas back to school.

''We decided to come up with an alternative for girls since the washable models some organisations initiated were not environmental friendly and hygienic,'' Mr Bbaale told Africa Review.

“We wanted to give girls something that they can use even when they cannot access water. Rural women also contaminated water upstream whenever they would go to the rivers to clean these washable models,” he added.

Tailored for comfort

Banapads is also tailor made for the comfort of girls since it comes in wings, non-wings and even panty liners.

Mr Bbaale and his colleagues have produced 396,000 packets and have managed to sell around 26,000 packs to 4,380 girls generating $ 19,751.

“We create alternative livelihoods through the distribution model allowing women to create sustainable business that benefits the whole community.”

The young rural women use door-to-door distribution model to help in revenue generation.

The pads are not only cheap since they retail at $0.75 cents for a packet of 10 but also collected to be used as manure.

This means 30 million tonnes of waste that goes to local landfill will be reduced since the banana pseudo-stem is a recyclable product.

“We are actually improving the conservation through recycling and environmental education. Some of the other pads in the market are not recyclable,” he pointed out.

There are already two production centres in Mpigi District and Rakai with a production capacity of 526,700 units per shift.

Robust plan

Mr Bbaale says he plans to scale up Banapad activities by establishing a new production centre and implement a plan to open five new ones in the next five years.

Apart from that, there is also a robust financial plan of developing micro-loan system for young women in the rural areas to help them start up entrepreneurial activities like buying up machines that can produce the sanitary towels even in sub district levels.

"At the moment, the annual cash turnover is $50,000 in one factory that operates in full capacity. We at times realize $90,000 in product sales.

"Menstruation is a major public health issue which needs to be taken seriously by those in authority to ensure girls don’t drop out of school,” Mr Bbaale said.

APHRC points out that lack of sanitary towels not only undermine sexual and reproductive health and well-being of women and adolescent girls but also restrict access to education.

So even as governments do little to address the menstrual burden of poor girls, people like Bbaale have taken it upon themselves to find solutions to this to ensure women in Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania cope with the menstrual flow.