Life must not stop: Sketching the future of menstrual hygiene market

9 April 2018
AFRIPads CEO Wilko Brink, Days for Girls Country Director Diana Nampeera and Makapads Director Julie Nakibuule share their experiences on Menstrual Hygiene Management Roundtable at UNFPA offices. Photo: UNFPA/ Rakiya Abby-Farrah.

Most Ugandan girls will get their period when they reach puberty. But not all of them will have adequate access to menstrual health supplies, sanitary facilities and information to enable them deal with it effectively. In Uganda, one in every four adolescent girls that miss school do so because of menstruation-related problems (Adolescent Risk Behavior Study, 2017). 

For many girls access to sanitary ware is through parents who provide old rags to be used as sanitary ware, some can afford sanitary ware on the market both disposable and reusable and for others they get donations from civil society organisations and international organisations. In Uganda, strong cultural taboos around menstruation, lack of sanitation facilities, and challenges in accessing affordable menstrual supplies, are some of the reasons menstruation often stands in the way of girl empowerment. However, as AFRIpads CEO, Wilko Brink put it, “sanitary pads are no less affordable than alcohol or other discretionary expenses, even in rural parts of the country.”

Over the past few years, menstrual hygiene has received increasing attention in Uganda. In 2015, the Speaker of Parliament, Hon. Rebecca Kadaga, launched the Menstrual Hygiene Charter to advance the rights and hygiene of Ugandan young women and girls. Strategies to improve menstrual hygiene management have been varied. Some institutions have focused on making in-kind donations of sanitary ware to very vulnerable girls and some have used the social business model where pads are sold at very low cost. As such the number of social businesses working on menstrual hygiene has expanded significantly. 

However, the idea of menstrual hygiene as a social business is still struggling to find new ways of doing business that bring effective and affordable menstrual hygiene solutions to all corners of the country. With the belief that life does not need to stop every time the period arrives, thought leaders and social entrepreneurs working on menstrual hygiene management convened at UNFPA i-Cafe on February 8, 2018 to discuss the future of the sector.

Creating a consumer-driven market

Many social businesses producing menstrual hygiene products lack sufficient incentives to explore the retail market when donors buy their products directly and in bulk. But donor funding is not something they can reliably count on to grow their businesses. “We need a continuous high volume to be able to minimize production costs and bring our products as cheap as possible to market,” explained Mr. Brink. AFRIpads, the largest reusable pad producer in Uganda, is one of the pioneer social enterprises that have combined a donor-driven philanthropy-based approach and a consumer-driven retail-based approach to their business. They sell AFRIpads to the donor community, and SoSure directly to consumers.

While donations from NGOs and other development partners contribute to creating awareness on the importance of menstrual hygiene management, and indirectly create user awareness for the particular brand, this approach also undermines consumer-based demand. Products that are donated for free to communities are very hard to sell in the retail market, because donation undermines the consumer’s perception of brand quality.

Lack of sufficient market segmentation also results in decreased individual demand, as girls get the products for free instead of having to purchase them.  Social businesses need to build positive brand perception and customer trust to increase consumer demand for their menstrual hygiene products. And truth be told, for many of these social businesses the road to sustainability starts in Kampala. Urban areas provide access to larger and more prosperous retail markets, where brands are able to attract a consumer base and gain greater credibility. The challenge is creating consumer demand in rural areas.

"Distribution and sale of menstrual hygiene products in rural Uganda is sometimes a challenge for us when looking at transportation, sensitization and lack of funds to purchase the products” explained Princess Pads Administrator, Harriet Naisanga.

The first step to change this is to raise community and parental awareness about the importance of investing in girls’ menstrual hygiene. “The question of sustainability will only be solved if more fathers decide to spend part of the family budget on their daughters’ monthly needs” said Mr. Brink. This will help expand rural demand, and therefore the number of girls using menstrual hygiene products.  The second step to ensure social enterprises are able to bring their products to girls in rural areas, is to invest decisively in data generation. The only real national assessment of the menstrual hygiene market was done by SNV years ago. This means social businesses lack basic information about the size of the market.

As a way to strengthen menstrual health data collection, Womena’s Menstrual Cup Market Accessibility Project (MCMAP), is used “to develop sustainable distribution and pricing models, which can reach all population segments in Uganda and incentivize the private sector to step in” explains Hanna Hildenbrand. This data gap limits the ability of social businesses exploring the retail market to calculate the unmet need for MHM products and their impact. 

With the global community focused on achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, it is more relevant than ever to explore the role that private initiative and social entrepreneurship can play in advancing inclusive and equitable quality education, gender equality and girl empowerment in Uganda. Much can be done by the UN and other development partners in de-risking private sector investment through creating a conducive policy, data and partnerships environment that helps the private sector assess market opportunities, reach out beyond traditional markets and clients, and scale up a profitable, sustainable and socially transformative business. 

The Menstrual Hygiene Roundtable was part of UNFPA’s thought leadership on girls and women’s empowerment, which seeks to identify opportunities that can deliver a more sustainable and impactful approach to menstrual hygiene management in Uganda.

Story by Rakiya Abby-Farrah and Raquel Palomino Gonzalez