We still remember receiving the handwritten letter that was the first step in our global menstrual health journey. It was early in 2000, and Suzanne and I had just been working together for a few months trying to build up our fledgling washable menstrual pad business.
It was quite the eye-opener to hear from Canadian/Zimbabwean expat Isabella Wright, who had heard about us from a Canadian relative. She shared with us the profound struggle of Zimbabwean menstruators in simply accessing supplies, and the impact that it was having, particularly for youth. Previously, we had had no inkling that our products might have relevance outside a Western-facing, environmentally-minded consumer. That was about to change.
As busy and overwhelmed with our own challenges as we were, we immediately recognized a need far greater than our own, and promptly sent off a box of Lunapads to Zimbabwe. It was to prove to be the first step in a 17 year long journey that continues to this day.
While we started off with a donation model (it just seemed like common sense to give what we could to others in need), ultimately we questioned whether it was really the best approach. Was shipping supplies all the way from Canada really the most efficient and socially impactful way to address the issue? What other options might there be?
Rural Nepalese women and girls receiving donated Lunapads
We didn’t have to wait long before an answer to our question presented itself in the form of an email from Paul and Sonia Grinvalds, a young couple who had happened across Lunapads in Uganda (donated by us to a student from Vancouver working on literacy in the country). Paul and Sonia had already identified the issue of girls missing school due to lack of access to pads, and wanted to start a for-profit padmaking company inspired by Lunapads: how did we feel about it?
Short answer: we felt awesome. We were so excited to be part of a different approach, one that not only provided much-needed pads, but also created employment and offered a more empowered and sustainable alternative to the “we give, you receive” charity model.
We proceeded to build a relationship with them, mentoring their startup and ultimately visiting them in 2012. At that point, we were so excited to meet their team of around 20 women (today AFRIpads employs over 150 people!), that we decided to create a more formal Buy-One-Give-One relationship with them, thus directly involving our customers in the impact and continuing to support AFRIpads’ growth. Our One4Her program proudly continues to this day, and we became shareholders in AFRIpads in 2013.
Girls with their AFRIpads Kits
Having evolved at that stage into self-admitted social entrepreneurship geeks, we kept asking the question: what are other opportunities and models to address the global MH issue? Enter Rachel Starkey. To be fair, we had been talking to Rachel since before we met Paul and Sonia, however it wasn’t until I visited her in Egypt - again, in 2012 - that we came up with a new idea.
Rachel and her husband own a large garment manufacturing company, and she is arguably even geekier than we are! She had been making polar fleece blankets out of factory waste (known as “offcuts”) for some time, when we put our heads together to use “Transformation Textiles” - Rachel term for the process of upcycling waste fabric into something useful - to make an innovative, adjustably-sized underwear design that accommodated simplified pads, as needed.
Here’s how it works: you fill the empty spaces in the marker used to cut the pieces for the t-shirts (or bathrobes or whatever) with pattern pieces for patchwork-style pads and underwear. We raised money to cover the costs of shipping and labour, and next thing you know, we had supplied our first run of 15,000 pad-and-panty kits to girl-focused groups working in Malawi. “Eva Wear” is now an independent social enterprise that has provided over 50,000 girls in 8 countries with menstrual supplies.
All the while, we have continued with donating pads and underwear, both abroad as well as in our own community of Vancouver. Known as the Pads4Girls program, Lunapads donations have reached over 20,000 individuals in 17 countries.
Eva Wear is turning trash into treasure.
Our most recent MH exploration, rather than working from a product angle, is related to education. In 2015 Paul and Sonia asked us if we would support - creatively and financially - the development of a graphic booklet illustrating the use and care of AFRIpads, as well as reproductive anatomy and health information as a companion to the pad kits. We said YES and got busy. Girl Talk! Tips for happier and Healthier Periods tells the story of Sandra, a young Ugandan “city girl” who starts her period. Her Mom is on hand to explain what’s happening, and Sandra’s confusion quickly turns to pride at her body’s new development. Girl Talk is now being published in 7 languages and distributed throughout Southeastern Africa.
Here’s what all of this has taught us:
- There is no single, “perfect” way to address the MH issue: it’s more nuanced and complex that it appears
- Work from user needs and their unique situation, not from a Western perspective
- Keep iterating! Given how huge the issue is, no one group, product or approach is going to “fix” the situation
- Small things can make a big difference!