Good for Girls and Good for the Planet: Eco-Friendly Sanitary Towels

Stephany Musombi and engineers preparing the banana stems for processing at KIRDI. Credit: Wilson Odhiambo/IPS
Stephany Musombi and engineers preparing the banana stems for processing at KIRDI. Credit: Wilson Odhiambo/IPS
  • by Wilson Odhiambo (nairobi)
  • Inter Press Service

Kisato is a lecturer at the Kenyatta University (KU), Fashion Design and Marketing, currently working on a project to develop affordable and eco-friendly sanitary towels while also finding a solution for sustainable packaging materials.

Kisato’s venture started out to help communities get a source of employment through the commercialization of banana stems – products that were considered useless by farmers and would usually be left to rot away on farms.

After the Kenyan government enforced a ban on the use of plastic bags in 2018, there was a need to find immediate alternatives.

Plastic bags were a necessity for grocers and fast-food vendors, an item that made it easy for customers to carry their goods home. Despite their advantage, however, their negative impact on the environment could no longer be overlooked.

‘’I started looking at this project from an entrepreneurship point of view on how I could commercialize banana stem fibers. The government had just banned single-use plastic bags, and market vendors needed alternatives to serve their customers,’’ Kisato told IPS.

‘’Poorly disposed sanitary towels also formed part of the pollution problem since they were composed of plastic,’’ she added.

According to Kisato, however, her need to empower women and young girls through affordable sanitary towels was something that she always had in mind after noticing the struggles that school-going girls went through.

‘’While walking along the hallways one day, a student on campus stopped me and asked if I could help her with a packet of sanitary pads. This incident shocked me as for a long time, I had assumed ‘period poverty’ was only experienced amongst high school children,’’ Kisato said.

Kisato and her research team interviewed 400 high school girls from Gatundi, Kibera, and Kawangware, where they found out that more than 50 percent of the girls in these low-income areas could hardly afford sanitary pads even when at home.

This did not sit well with the don as she felt something needed to be done about it.

It was while researching alternatives to plastic bags that she realized that she could solve two problems at the same time.

Kisato, therefore, applied for the National Research Fund (NRF) in 2018 with the aim of developing eco-friendly plastic bags and sanitary towels. Her wish came through when NRF granted Kenyatta University Ksh.9 million (about US $ 61,623) in 2020, with her taking the lead as the principal investigator in the project.

Her team is made up of scholars from different departments and institutions and also includes Ph.D. and master's students, with each one of them playing a major role in seeing the project through.

‘’I lead a team of engineers from the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), whose task is to reverse engineer machines that can extract fiber from banana stems and use them to create eco-friendly packaging and sanitary towels,’’ she explained. "I also have researchers from Moi University whose work was to turn the extracted fiber into soft materials for use."

Kisato’s aim was to produce quality sanitary towels that could compete with what was already in the market while still being eco-friendly, a fact that led her to seek the expertise of Edwin Madivoli, a chemistry lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

According to Kisato, the towels on the market have a component in them called hydrogel, which enables them to retain fluids for longer, and were also lined with plastic sheets to prevent any leakage. Our intention is to replicate the same but use bioplastic materials, which can degrade as opposed to the normal plastic that is being used.

From her research, Kisato also discovered that Africans, on average, wore sanitary towels for longer as compared to women and girls from developed countries and were thus at risk of getting bacterial infections. This was due to limited access and affordability in Africa.

‘’The recommended period for one to have on a sanitary pad is about three hours, which means that it should be changed at least three times a day to avoid any risk of infections. This is, however, not the case for many girls in Africa due to poverty,’’ Kisato explained to IPS.

‘’We thought adding anti-microbial properties to our product would therefore make it as good or even better than what was in the market,’’ said Kisato.

The research team also found out that there were a lot of myths surrounding menstrual flow among young girls, a fact that led to a lot of stigmatization, which made it difficult for them to understand how to use sanitary towels properly.

Some of the notable ideas that girls told each other concerning menstrual flow included:

  1. It is a curse from God
  2. Girls who had periods were considered dirty and impure
  3. Their faces would become pale from losing blood

‘’These are beliefs that need to be done away with by encouraging parents and the government to speak about monthly periods with young girls openly,’’ Kisato said.

For the second phase of the project, Madivoli’s chemistry expertise came in handy, and the Research Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) was happy to add an additional Ksh.9 million (about USD 59,000) for Kisato to continue what she had started.

‘’My role is to ensure our sanitary pads are of the same quality as what is in the market while at the same time maintaining an eco-friendly nature, which is the main agenda of this whole project,’’ Madivoli told IPS.

‘’I am tasked with the development of hydrogels, production of bioplastics, and finding a way to incorporate anti-microbial properties into our products to protect the users from possible infections,’’ he said.

JKUAT received funding of Ksh.800,000 (about US $ 5477) from the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KENIA) to further help Madivoli with this research.

"As they are left to dry up on the farms, banana stems are known to produce large amounts of methane, which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to the climate change problems that we are trying to tackle, added Madivoli. ‘"Having an alternative use for the stems therefore limits the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere.’’

Madivoli said that most banana farmers usually do not know what to do with the stems once they have done their harvest, and this project gives them a way to earn some extra income as they expect to buy the stems from them at Ksh.35 per stem.

"This project will not only be environmentally friendly but will also create jobs for the people who go to cut the stems from the farms while also finding use for the biomass that the farmers thought was useless,’’ he concluded.

Once it is up and running, they expect to source banana stems from counties such as Kisii, Muranga, Embu, Meru, and parts of western Kenya.

Stephany Musombi is one of Kisato’s students specializing in textiles whose task in the project is to come up with quality packaging materials.

‘’Apart from the banana fiber, I am also experimenting with other biomass such as pineapple and seaweed,’’ Musombi told IPS. If I can find a way to make this work, the project will open up a market for seaweed and pineapple biomass.

Kisato’s project could not have picked a better time there is an international joint push for green solutions to help mitigate climate change. On September 4, 2023, Kenya also played host to the climate summit that attracted leaders from across Africa.

Kenya’s president, William Ruto, drove himself in a tiny electric car to the Kenyatta International Convention Centre (KICC), where he challenged the African leaders and innovators to find sustainable solutions to their daily activities that can help them reduce the carbon print in the continent and globally.

‘’Africa can power all energy needs with renewable resources. The continent has enough potential to be entirely self-sufficient using wind, solar, geothermal, sustainable biomass, and hydropower energy. Africa can be a green industrial hub that helps other regions achieve their net zero strategies by 2050,’’ Ruto said at the summit.

Kisato expects her product to hit the market later this year, where she plans to make it more affordable for all. Her intention is to team up with startups or established companies that deal with toiletries.

‘’The cheapest sanitary packet in the market costs Ksh.140. We expect ours to go as low as Ksh.100, Kisato,’’ concluded.

Kenyatta University’s Vice Chancellor, Paul Wainaina, lauded the project, stating that it will enable the country to meet its industrial needs while conserving the environment.

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© Inter Press Service (2023) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service