Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) has come up with an eco-friendly way to prevent young women from missing school and work due to the lack of sanitary pads. Elizabeth Scharpf, an inventor, entrepreneur and founder of SHE, is producing a pad using the pulp of banana fibers. A cutting-edge technique, developed in the United States and Rwanda, transforms the fibre into a super-absorbent, environmentally friendly sanitary pad that is also affordable.

Small-scale Rwandan farmers, many of them women, put the pads together at the initiative’s factory, established in 2008. It produces 1 000 pads a day and employs around 10 people full time, with about 800 beneficiaries in co-operatives. The brownish grey, odorless strands that are used to make the pads are processed banana fibre, a waste product from thousands of banana trees that are cut down when they are harvested. Normally, the stalks of banana trees would be fed to animals or left to rot on the ground, contributing to greenhouse gases. But in this rural workshop in Kigali, it is spun into a cheap, eco-friendly product that competes with big brand-name sanitary pads.

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SHE developer Elizabeth Scharpf came up with the idea while in Mozambique, working for the World Bank. She found that 20% of the employees in the country missed work for up to 30 days a year because of the lack of sanitary supplies, and later that Rwandan girls are missing as many as 50 days of the school year for the same reason.

“We make our pads with no water and very little electricity — not because we aim to be the leanest, greenest machine, but because we had to,” says Scharpf. “And we had people from major companies, like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, tell us that it was not possible to create the material for our pads with no chemicals and little electricity. We figured out how to do it because we had to.”

Scharpf chose to tackle the problem by making sanitary pads available and affordable for women while creating jobs in the process. With the help of experts in the U.S, Scharpf developed and patented the process to transform banana fibres into an absorbent material and worked with professionals to build the production site in Eastern Rwanda.