In numerous developing nations, the stigmatization of menstruation and the lack of access to affordable sanitary devices have serious developmental and economic consequences for women. Most will simply stay home from school or work while menstruating, missing up to 50 days of classroom time or wages per year. Elizabeth Scharpf witnessed this phenomenon among factory workers in Mozambique while on an internship for the World Bank. She started Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) with the goals of providing women with greater access to both menstrual products and basic health education.
This interest ultimately led her to Rwanda, a country that possesses both an urgent need for women’s health services and an entrepreneurial spirit favorable to jumpstarting microbusinesses. There, Scharpf and SHE designed a menstrual pad made from banana tree fibers—a local, renewable resource, which SHE sources from two (largely female) farming co-ops in the eastern region of the country. SHE looked to existent women’s groups and community health networks to create a microcapital business model that would allow local manufacture and distribution of the pads. SHE’s return on investment will help fund wider health initiatives like educating men and women alike about the basic aspects of menstrual hygiene management, and advocating the Rwandan government to support access to menstrual products and health services countrywide.
SHE has a full-time operation in Rwanda, with Julian Kayibanda, Chief Operating Officer, leading the Rwandan team, and technical assistance and product development assistance provided by the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, among others. Scharpf describes both SHE’s team and its efforts as a “quilt”—diverse people and talents working towards larger ideals.
SHE has started distributing the pads on small scale and is in the process of replicating manufacturing on an industrial scale to be able to reach about 3,000 girls via in-school distribution programs. Scharpf hopes the model in Rwanda can be expanded to other countries and areas over time. She describes success in Rwanda as the point at which, “I’m driven out of a job.”
Scharpf and SHE have already been recognized on a number of fronts. Echoing Green, a leading seed funder of social enterprise, named SHE one of the 20 most innovative social ventures worldwide. Harvard Business School named Scharpf its first Social Enterprise Fellow, and Scharpf has also received the Presidential Innovation Award from the Global Fund for Children.
Designers is another word for problem solvers and that’s exactly what we are at SHE.
— Elizabeth Scharpf