Empowering women through business, innovation and opportunity

Inspirational stories from trip to SEWF 2015, Milan

Sophia Grinvalds, Managing director of AFRIpads: 02-07-2015

During SEWF 2015, Social Enterprise Solutions met up with Sophia, a true social entrepreneur. We were touched by her personality and by her story (full presentation can be downloaded here).. Sophia is no doubt an inspiration for social entrepreneurs worldwide. Her story shows that social enterprise can be solution to development in countries such as Uganda.

Who is AFRIpads?
We are a social enterprise based in Uganda and we manufacture and sell cost-effective cloth sanitary pads for the BoP (Bottom of the Pyramid).  Our products are washable, cloth sanitary pads that provide effective and hygienic menstrual protection for up to one year (12 cycles). This at only a fraction of the cost of an equivalent supply of disposable pads.

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What’s your social mission/ objectives?
Our aim is to empower women and girls through business, innovation and opportunity. With our products, we improve menstrual hygiene for women and girls in East Africa and beyond.

Is this an issue there?
Yes, definitely! In general, too many women and girls in developing countries don’t have access to sanitary products to hygienically manage their menstruation. Particularly in remote areas this is a problem.

Why did you start AFRIpads?
We found that in Uganda and in many places in Africa proper menstrual hygiene was lacking. Girls used old rags, toilet paper, banana fiber and even newspapers and leaves. This not only gave discomfort, but also led to infections, leaks and ultimately shame and indignity. As a result of that many girls skip school when they’re having their periods or drop out of school entirely when they reach puberty. We felt we needed to jump in and provide a solution for this.

Lack of proper menstrual hygiene not only affects physical health, but also social and mental well-being. It prevents girls from reaching their full potential.

Initially I went to Africa with a plan to do volunteering work for a year. I never imagined that after 7 ½ years I would still be here in Uganda running a successful social enterprise. I didn’t have a business background, it was just a matter of ‘saying yes’ and taking action.

What moments in your business do you cherish?
At the early stage of our business, a girl in secondary school came to our little workshop to buy one of our cloth menstrual kits. A short while later, the girl came back and brought 3 friends with her who also wanted to buy an AFRIpads kit. At that time, we realized that this idea (AFRIpads) really might work because girls saw value in the product and importantly, they were willing to pay for it.

What has been your (social) impact to date?
AFRIpads is currently in its 6th year of business.  To date, we have reached over 600,000 girls and women, having provided them with a product that gives them protection, comfort, and dignity. Another very important aspect of our social impact is creating jobs and rural employment in Uganda. Currently we employ 150 young women (18-28 years old), most of whom dropped out primary or secondary school and otherwise would have limited opportunities to engage in the formal economy.  In addition to employment, we provide our employees social benefits including participation in a pension plan and health insurance coverage. Locating our production facility in a rural part of the country has not always been the easiest path, but it is an integral part of our company’s social mission and impact, and it has enabled us to give these young women a brighter future.  Our products are also much more sustainable and eco-friendly due to our reusable design, compared to disposable sanitary pads which contribute enormous amounts of plastic and garbage to the waste stream in developing countries like Uganda with limited waste management infrastructure. Lastly, in Uganda where menstruation is a taboo, we have done considerable work on menstrual hygiene education and outreach to help break the stigma and cultural barriers typically experienced by women and girls during menstruation.

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What would you say has made your business successful?
One of the lynchpins to the success AFRIpads has experienced so far has been focusing on “doing good and doing good business”.   Embedding business principles and market-based approaches into our model has helped us generate significant social impact and financial sustainability in a relatively short time period – including reaching break-even within 3-years.  We’ve also focused on organic growth – a real boot-strap approach that often meant a lot of trial and error to figure out what works and learn from what doesn’t, and then applying those experiences to scale-up effectively.

What advice do you have for (aspiring) social entrepreneurs?
My advice would be to dream big and take risks. The biggest limitation we create is ourselves. There will be a lot of challenges along the way, but you can only stumble if you’re moving, so let’s get moving!

What’s your next move?
We’re currently looking to possibly expand and diversify our product line, where one interesting option is to produce washable diapers.  We are also looking to expand our sales network into new geographies beyond East Africa.

If you’d like to learn more about AFRIpads please visit www.afripads.com or follow us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/afripads.