richardbananUse them to change the world. Or at least your part of it. That’s what we saw at another of our visits to Social Entrepreneur alumni of the mentoring program Andy’s involved with. This company was Bana Pads and the issue they are tackling is something you might not think about, but which has great impact in the lives of girls in East Africa. Countries in this region are making great strides in Primary School education. Most kids are getting to a school and staying in school. Until the girls reach the age of menstruation. The only available pads are rags and banana leaves, so most girls of that age end up staying home up to one week a month. Which has them falling further and further behind until a percentage of them drop out before High School. Girls who drop out are more likely to marry and begin childbearing earlier — which has health ramifications as well, with the high infant and maternity mortality rates. Richard Bbaale, our Social Entrepreneur, saw this first-hand with his sisters. Although he was able to complete his schooling and go on to University, he wanted to come back to his village and create similar opportunities for the girls there. He decided to tackle the fundamental issue — removing menstruation as a barrier to the schooling of girls. There was one thing the village had in abundance — banana trees. So Richard developed Bana Pads — highly absorbent sanitary pads made from banana plant fibers, manufactured by local women and sold by a network of village women and girls. (Oh, and they are 75% cheaper than Western type pads, which are out of reach for nearly everyone, assuming you could even get them in a remote village.) The result: girls in school the full month, factory jobs for villagers and money-making opportunities for local saleswomen and girls.

Here’s how it works:

The banana plant is cut down at the stem. This is something that is done by villagers anyway, as a new banana plant sprouts from the stump. Usually the cut plant is thrown in piles as waste, but Richard harvests the tough, fibrous stem which he points to in the picture above. Meanwhile, the banana plant sprout will grow as big as the cut plant in about nine months — the ultimate renewable resource.

Beating

That stem fiber is then beaten until it separates into strings. Obviously, this part of the “factory floor” is under the trees.

Dryingfiber

Next the fiber is dried of any sap.

Cutting

Then cut into small pieces. And yes, that “technology” you see is a paper cutter!

Slurry

Those pieces are then made into a slurry.

Disinfect

Which can be sanitized one of two ways — in plastic containers with a UV light or quickly in a pressure canner on a propane stove.

Trays

The sanitized slurry is formed into square molds.

Dryingtrays

And dried until they are thick cotton-like pads.

Pads

These are the core of the Bana Pad — highly absorbent and completely biodegradable.

Finishedpad

Stamp on a locally made cellulose covering and you’ve got your pad. Women roughly need three per day, so they are packaged in packs of ten, which is roughly a monthly supply.

Okay, the “factory” is completely low-tech and off the grid. It runs on women, water and propane. But Richard’s still managed to be profitable. Now, here’s the great news: the mentoring program helped Richard focus his business and financial plan and his pitch. Which he leveraged into a $250,000 grant from a Swedish charity. He’s planning to plow that money into a proper factory building and machinery to automate much of the process. In addition, he’s expanding in two new locations in Uganda and one in Tanzania. But I love the fact that, in an area where the grid is sparse and up time is spotty, he could always bring back women, water and propane and keep the factory producing.

Champions

Richard’s assembled a sales force largely composed of school girls and women. We met three of his best — he calls them Champions — who are selling to their friends and using their commissions toward their school fees and supplies.

Then we met Silvia who started selling Bana Pads from her living room.

Silviasstore

And parlayed the profits into rent and inventory for this store.

Now she sells everything from kerosene to washing powder to eggs from a flock of chickens she was able to buy. As she told us, “I am doing well and I’m looking good.”

Silvia

Yes, you are, Silvia! And you are inspiring.

Meanwhile, Richard’s operation is already profitable We asked him how he saw Bana Pads growing and he said he wants to scale with small factories throughout banana growing regions in East and Central Africa. Because he wants small, local factories doesn’t mean he isn’t thinking big. When Andy asked what a great success would look like for him in the next few years, he answered without hesitation: “I want to produce 3.5 million packs per month”. Which happens to be the number of girls between 10 and 19 in Uganda — his target market.

In his home village, Richard is also channeling his customers into a women’s clinic that he established, where they are given much needed exams, treatment and advice on menstrual hygiene. He sees Bana Pads continuing to be a conduit to better women’s health and hopes to keep clinics a part of the Bana Pad program.

Schoolgirl

Let’s take another look at the face of Uganda’s future.

Richardandfiber

And the man and the banana plant that will help make that future bright.

 

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