Aidex Voices

We spoke to Sophia Grinvalds, co-founder of the social enterprise AFRIpads which supplies reusable sanitary pads that are a cost-effective, feminine hygiene solution which utilises local manufacturers and empowers women. 

About AFRIpads

AFRIpads is a social enterprise that specialises in the local manufacture and global supply of reusable sanitary pads as a cost-effective, feminine hygiene solution. AFRIpads’ unique business model creates empowerment and value-add in both the manufacturing and distribution of the product.  All AFRIpads products are manufactured locally in Uganda, where over 200 people - 96% of whom are women - have gained meaningful employment. The AFRIpads Deluxe Menstrual Kit provides both women and schoolgirls with complete menstrual protection for 12+ months at approximately 30% of the total cost of a one year supply of disposable sanitary pads. AFRIpads has over seven years of experience working with hundreds of NGOS and humanitarian partners around the world and has reached over 1.5 million girls and women to improve their menstrual health.

Sophia Grinvalds

Sophia Grinvalds graduated from McGill University (Montréal, Canada) in 2005 with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Environment & Development, and a minor in Medical Anthropology. In 2009, Sophia moved to Uganda where she saw and experienced firsthand the challenges girls and women faced while on their period. Soon after, Sophia launched AFRIpads Limited, a social enterprise that specialises in the local manufacture and global supply of reusable sanitary pads. Since its inception, AFRIpads Ltd. has sold over 1.5 million AFRIpads Menstrual Kits to more than 30 countries across Africa and the Middle East. Sophia has lived in Uganda full-time since 2008, where she acts as Managing Director of the company, together with her husband. 

What does AFRIpads mean to you?

For me, AFRIpads is about creating opportunity. We feel that was can do business and make an impact at every level of the value chain from the girls who use our product to the women who make it. The product itself enables women and girls to manage their period with dignity, which breaks down barriers that hold women back from opportunities like education and work. By producing the product locally, we have created opportunity for hundreds of women in the small town of Masaka, Uganda to join the formal economy and make meaningful income for themselves and their families to thrive. In recent years, we’ve also seen the potential our business model has to make an impact on the economic development of Uganda. As the largest formal employer in the town of Masaka, we have watched dozens of small shops, vendors and transport companies pop up in town as household purchasing power increases.

We started AFRIpads to enable girls and women to live productive and dignified lives where something as natural and normal as a period doesn’t hold them back. But what we’ve learned along the way is a new approach to doing business that creates opportunity and empowerment at every link in the value-chain today. The task ahead of us today is to show that this way of doing business can be done on a large scale – across countries and entire regions.

Tell us about how AFRIpads have worked with NGOs over the years and who have been particularly strong partners in making a difference?

Since we started AFRIpads in 2009, we have worked with hundreds of NGOs and relief organisations across over 30 countries. Our product has appeal across sectors. We work with many organisations working on education who use our product to support school-aged girls to stay in school. We also work with WASH and health organiations that understand menstrual hygiene management (MHM) as a basic need and have programs aimed at equipping women and girls with the products and education necessary to manage their periods effectively. Perhaps our largest market is with relief and humanitarian agencies that use our product to support women and girls living in stressful and scarce environments like refugee camps to manage their menstrual hygiene with dignity.

We know that addressing the challenges that many girls and women face while on their periods takes more than just a product, which is why we’ve built out a robust MHM tool kit our partners can use to enhance their own programming including a MHM training curriculum for use in schools; Girl Talk, a short story book that addresses period related fears and stigma; and access to Echo Mobile, a data collection mobile app that enables partners to measure the impact AFRIpads has in their programs.

Some of our most impactful partnerships to date have been with large relief organisations like International Rescue Committee and Oxfam who bring our product to girls and women living in refugee camps with virtually no access to menstrual hygiene products. In relief contexts, our product works to not only break down everyday barriers women and girls face in doing work and attending school while on their periods but also enables women to manage their period with dignity.

Where do AFRIpads have the most impact?

As a company we have the logistical backbone to deliver our product to anywhere in the world and to date have supplied to organisations in over thirty countries. Our largest market is in East Africa – Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Somalia and South Sudan – but we have worked with organisations across the globe from Yemen to India. Our products often have the most impact in countries with large relief operations such as South Sudan, Yemen, Tanzania and Somalia.

What have been the biggest challenges along the way and what challenges lie ahead in the realm of menstrual health for young girls in developing countries?

We’ve faced a number of challenges since starting AFRIpads in both building MHM as a sector and finding our way as a social business operating in Africa.

When we started AFRIpads, menstrual hygiene management (MHM) wasn’t a commonly use term in the development and aid sectors. We worked hard in our first few years to make a case for menstrual hygiene as a basic need that shouldn’t be overlooked in development programming. Significant taboo around menstruation in the regions where our partners work acted as an additional hindrance to organisations wanting to work in the MHM space. In the last five years, there has been a significant shift in the market and MHM has become a core part of many education, health and relief organisations’ mandates.  This is evidenced in the growth in the reusable sanitary product market in the region and is something that we view as a huge success.

In addition to building the market for menstrual hygiene products in the region, we’ve also had to build our own blueprint for how to run a social business in east Africa at the scale that we’ve reached and plan to reach. Normal business decisions – such as where do you build your production facilities to who do you hire – are typically made based on profit and growth. But in a social business you add in the additional factor of social impact which makes decisions that would be simple to a business much more complicated. For instance, we decided to build our new factory in the town of Masaka instead of the industrial zone outside of the capital of Kampala because we believe we can both make a profit and meaningfully contribute to the local economy of rural Uganda.

With MHM now on the radar of many development and relief organisations around the world, the challenge now becomes figuring out how to provide holistic programming that addresses the multitude of challenges girls and women face when on their period. There is no single intervention or product that solves for every challenge girls and women face in managing their menstrual health. Instead, the sector needs meaningful partnerships that yield holistic programs that address health, education, economic access and cultural taboo together. This is why AFRIpads invested in building our MHM toolkit for partners to use in addition to our product. Carving these partnerships and finding holistic solutions is the next big challenge ahead of actors working on menstrual hygiene management.

A core reason why MHM has gained more prominence in the development sector in recent years is because of the focus on girls in school. As there is a growing acceptance of menstrual hygiene as a basic need, organisations in the sector need to broaden their focus to not just school girls but all women. Women have their periods for the majority of their productive work years. When a woman lacks access to basic menstrual hygiene care, she loses up to five days a month of productive work time. This can be detrimental to both her ability to access meaningful work opportunities and also her family’s ability to access basic needs. A challenge ahead of the development sector is to build a broadened understanding of menstrual hygiene management as an issue that is fundamental to gender equality, not just a barrier to girls in school. 

What do you think the biggest challenge to aid and development is at present?

The biggest challenge I see in the development sector at the present is how to turn charity into social and economic development that is sustainable and governed by the people it is for.  In a country like Uganda, you’ll find thousands of NGOs doing incredible work to support people living in poverty to have access to basic needs. You’ll also find a growing portfolio of private investors working to build the GDP and infrastructure of the country. What you won’t find, however, is the bridge in between where rural and low-income Ugandans are able to transition out of development programs into the formal economy. I believe that social business models have the opportunity to act as this bridge by creating employment in the formal economy while also providing similar social benefits to NGOs. 

What does AFRIpads want to achieve and what is its approach?

AFRIpads is committed to ensuring that girls and women across Africa have access to affordable, hygienic and dignified solutions to managing their menstrual health so something as common and normal as a period is not a barrier to their productive life. Over the next three years, we want to be reaching millions of girls and women in Africa and beyond with our product. We also want to continue providing jobs both directly and indirectly to women in the region by expanding our production facilities and working through agent-based organisations like our partners Living Goods and BRAC.

We plan to reach this scale by ensuring that we are providing the highest quality and most affordable product on the market while also making impact-driven business decisions.