Monday, March 08, 2010

A market-based solution to keep girls in school

One of the many things that prevents girls from attending school in the under-developed world is embarrassment over menstruation. Pads are often unaffordable for those who live in poverty, so girls have to use whatever they can find and hope that an accident doesn't happen. Many girls will skip school all-together instead of facing the embarrassment.

The social enterprise Sustainable Health Enterprises is trying to find a market based solution to this problem. From their Toronto Star column, Craig and Marc Kielburger talk to Elizabeth Scharpf of S.H.E. on her efforts to free the girls from this social stigma.

Scharpf explains international brands are widely sold in stores but usually at inflated costs after passing through the hands of middlemen. In Rwanda, the cheapest brand sells at about $1.10 for a pack of 10 - inexpensive by Western standards but costly in a country where 60 per cent of people live in poverty.

Unable to afford these brands, girls instead miss school. Scharpf estimates their earning potential is decreased by 10 to 20 per cent with every year of schooling lost.

In the past, corporations and development groups have tried to hand out pads for free. But, stigmas usually prevent them from doing so in the open. Most find it’s not a sustainable.

"There was this realization that there is a strong need for different approaches," she Scharpf. "We need less of a donation-only approach and something more market-based."

In conjunction with MIT, they created a sanitary pad made of banana fibres. The material is abundant in Rwanda, eco-friendly and can be made locally by groups of community health workers. This helps lower production costs and existing networks help with distribution.

"Existing networks of community health workers actually have their own little distribution companies," says Scharpf. "That means we can cut out the middle people."

This allows the product to be sold at 30 per cent less cost.

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