We first heard about SHE: Sustainable Health Enterprises at the Feast Conference when Elisabeth Scharpf told her amazing story about how she set up this social and sustainable franchise scheme that provides women in developing countries with what should be a basic right: affordable sanitary pads, as well as a sustainable business. The Huffington Post titled their article about her work "When a Period Ends More Than A Sentence". Until Scharpf stepped into the spotlight at the Feast, we had very little idea that for millions of women around the world, having their period is a significant handicap, to their health, their income and their quality of life. And we love what Scharpf came up with to solve this problem in a way that it works so brilliantly for people, planet and profit. But first the problem according to the SHE web site:
Millions of girls and women in developing countries miss up to 50 days of school/work per year because they do not have access to affordable sanitary pads when they menstruate. Currently, girls and women in this setting--if they have an option at all--turn to premium priced international brands which are too costly to sustain (e.g., in Rwanda, of the girls who miss school, 36% of them miss because pads are too expensive). Alternatively, they turn to rags which, in combination with a lack of a clean accessible water supply, are unhygienic and potentially harmful, let alone ineffective to contain leakage.
Reading this, and watching the beautiful video or the she28compaign above, the problem seems clear. Scharpf, who has a MBA from Harvard Business School, an MPA in International Development from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and a BA from the University of Notre Dame, did the math prior to setting up her venture and proved that unaffordable sanitary pads lead to a significant economic loss for nations. SHE estimates that a lack of affordable sanitary pads reduces GDP by $115 million per year in Rwanda alone. It is clear that this is one of the world's most pressing social health problems, which got Elizabeth Scharpf to found SHE: Sustainable Health Enterprises, and win the Echoing Green fellowship, while Harvard Business School recently named Elizabeth as their first Social Enterprise Fellow.
SHE's first spin-out business is sanitary pad franchising to address the significant educational, health, and economic costs of girls and women lacking access to affordable sanitary pads. Rightly, SHE believes that "Donations don't work long-term. Market-based approaches do, so why leave them just for the business world? Let's apply them to some of our biggest social problems in the world, especially in the health arena." The franchise system SHE set up, first in Rwanda, helps local women in developing countries to set up their own business making and selling affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads.
When the SHE team was in Rwanda, they found banana fibre to be a common locally available material of which the tree trunk turned out to be agro waste. So Scharpf stuffed her bag with banana fibre and took some back to the US. Here she walked into a 75-year old chemical engineering professor's office and she said: "Do you know what this is? This is the next sanitary pad!" At first he looked at her like she was crazy, but by the end of the meeting she had this engineer so excited about taking banana fibre and turning it into sanitary pads that they made it happen. Scharpf strongly believes that the common goal to improve life and change the world for a better place excites, as we experienced at the Feast Conference recently.
Based on this product innovation, an affordable, accessible, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pad, SHE developed a financially sustainable business model that can be operated and owned by women in various different communities wherever the need exists. Setting up a franchise also includes ensuring a microfinance loan for women who will share start-up costs, s well as training for the local group in necessary business skills and health and hygiene. If you want to know more about SHE, visit the SHE Innovates blog, and definitely watch Elizabeth Scharpf's speech at the Feast Conference here (third/last speaker). ::SHE: Sustainable Health Enterprises