Most sanitary pads available for African women and girls are relatively expensive and classified as single-use plastics, which means some take hundreds of years to decompose. To help tackle this environmental problem, a woman-led Kenyan enterprise has created a low cost, biodegradable pad made from agricultural waste.
From a distance, you might think that Mary Nyaruai is simply disposing of agricultural waste at her home in Thika, on the outskirts of Nairobi.
But what she is actually doing is making biodegradable sanitary pads.
After facing difficulties finding safe-quality pads herself, Nyaruai thought of a solution using readily available raw materials.
“Maize is a staple in Africa and this is waste," said Nyaruai. "So I normally go and collect it from the market. And this is also waste, pineapple leaves are waste, so I also collect them from the farms. So when you combine those two, you make a very beautiful pad that is soft. It delivers in comfort and also absorption and it is also sustainable, which is a brilliant thing.”
Once collected, the agricultural wastes undergo rigorous processes to break down the natural fibers and mold the raw material into biodegradable sanitary pads.
Nyaruai’s company is called Nyungu Afrika, loosely translated to “womb of Africa.”
Her pads are getting good reviews. Nyambura Maina is one of Nyaruai’s customers.
“It felt like I was sitting on clouds because the material is very different. Her pads are very soft, and the absorbency is good," said Maina. "It becomes really a lifesaver for yourself.”
In 2019, there was a widespread outcry on Kenyan social media questioning the quality of some pads on the market.
Kenya’s health ministry says it is attempting to maintain quality standards for the sanitary pads produced and sold in Kenya, to protect consumers as well as the environment.
Dr. Kepha Ombacho was involved in the development of Kenya’s official Environmental, Sanitation and Hygiene Strategic Framework.
“The strategy was broadly looking at sanitation being a person-friendly issue. Now, the bigger thing, or the new thing in that strategy is that we were looking at empowering the individuals to be able to act," Ombacho said.
Nyaruai hopes her innovation can help Kenyan women not only with their health but with their financial well-being.
“Period poverty is a global crisis, but because Africa has a very large population of women who are marginalized and underserved, this is where period poverty really eats our women," Nyaruai said. "This is a makeshift, small industry, so it is possible to be replicated in very many areas. Just to train the women how to, you know, pick the right raw materials and to process them and then to make the pads.”
And best of all, the pads are not made of plastic, which means they do no harm to the environment.