The Grassroots Kenyan Startup Addressing ‘Period Racism’ with Safe, Sustainable Menstrual Pads
“Women in the US have beautiful period products, but when it comes to Africa we’re being given the short end of the stick.” Mary Nyaruai, Founder of Nyungu Afrika
When Mary got her first period at the age of 14, her mother handed her a pack of pads and told her to use them. Mary soon realized that the pads burnt and irritated her — “it’s like having a hot potato between your legs,” as she puts it. Her friends had a similar experience, and so Mary thought it was normal. Then, in 2019, women across Kenya started complaining on Twitter about a popular brand of sanitary pads in the country and that’s when Mary began to understand that, in a global context, her experience was far from normal.
Since the release of the #OVAReactPodcast episode featuring Mary, where we have a more in-depth conversation around the issue of quality and how substandard products are sold in Africa, more women across Africa took to Twitter to share their negative experiences of using pads under the #MyAlwaysExperience hashtag. The most recent tweet that has gone viral is of a lady that goes by the name @amorgxn a Nigerian woman who narrated an ordeal experience when an Always pad got stuck to her bottom, after twisting during the night and she was then admitted and diagnosed with necrotising fasciitis and septic shock. Many accuse the global brand of “period racism” — selling products in Africa made from materials and chemicals that cause rashes and irritation while offering a safer version in Europe and the US.
Mary decided to join the campaign to improve the quality of period products in Kenya, where 65 per cent of women and girls still lack access to menstrual products — despite recent tax reductions on menstrual products and a policy that designates menstrual health as a human rights issue. In building her brand on social media, Mary asked a selection of US companies producing period products to send her some samples, which they did. She was shocked at the difference in quality. “I used the products and was like, You mean even period products are racist?” she says. “Why would you have very beautiful period products for women in the US, but when it comes to Africa we’re being given the short end of the stick?”
Image via Nyungu Afrika on Linkedin
It’s been over 50 years since the sanitary pad was invented, explains Mary, yet there’s been very limited innovation in the product’s design or manufacture. Billions of trees are felled to make pads, and they also contain the world’s most heavily sprayed crop: cotton. After experiencing US-made period products, Mary decided to invent a better pad for Kenyan women and girls. Having grown up in the agricultural region of Thika, she was inspired to use the waste from pineapple and maize production as the absorbent material — replacing wood pulp and cotton.
Her motivation goes beyond creating comfortable and sustainable period products, however. She is passionate about giving women and girls in Kenya products that are appropriate to their situation and lived experience. In the Chalbi Desert, for example, temperatures regularly top 100 degrees F, and pads produced in and donated by the West are simply not suitable. The company’s business model addresses period poverty by donating a pad (to organizations like our charity Heels4Pads) for each one sold.
“I think the period industry is a cash cow for opportunists and capitalists,” says Mary. It’s also, ironically, a male-dominated sector. “But we have organizations that have a fresh perspective. We are the grassroots, so why can’t you invite us to the table…?” And while there is an increasing amount of funding available to women entrepreneurs, the majority of it goes to tech companies. “If we’re really obsessed with sustainable business, then let ‘s walk the talk and find social businesses, especially women-led social businesses because we are part of the future of business…” she concludes.
Listen to the exhilarating conversation on episode six of the #OVAReactPodcast, with Mary herself and she discusses her journey of creating pads through Nyungu Afrika, which produces low-cost, high-quality, biodegradable sanitary pads made from the agricultural waste of pineapple and maize husk. The startup’s aim is to create a positive social and environmental impact by including communities as entrepreneurs or employees in every aspect of the business, from production and distribution to education and use.