This Startup is Helping Malawian Women Manage Their Periods ‘With Grace’

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Where sanitary pads mean empowerment.

The topic of menstruation can be awkward. But when Grace Pads co-founders Erin Boutros and Christy Hildyard showed their washable sanitary pads to 200 girls at Malawi’s Home of Hope orphanage, the cohort broke out into song and dance. “It’s a struggle they have faced every single month for years and you can just tell by their reaction that it’s a relief for them,” says Christy. “It’s truly a remarkable experience to witness these girls being empowered to manage their periods.”

“It’s truly a remarkable experience to witness these girls being empowered to manage their periods.”

Grace Pads work exactly like disposable ones, “except they are much more cost effective and practical, lasting up to 18+ months.” And along with the company’s Store, Wash & Dry program – where a set of Grace Pads, small portable wash and drying tub, underwear, soap and a plastic ziplock bag are provided to Malawian women – and their ‘Grow with Grace’ educational workshops, they are truly making a difference in a part of the world where disposable pads cost a woman, on average, 15 per cent of their yearly income.

“There’s this notion that when you solve a problem in the developing world, a new one automatically arises, but we were so determined to make sure we created a system that was conducive to Malawi’s environment and the circumstances of the user,” says Christy. “The reality is that most women living in the villages can’t afford soap or underwear, and they don’t have access to sanitation facilities to safely wash and dry the pads. We created this system to ensure that our product was effective from start to finish – it’s our duty care.”

Inspiration struck the Aussie duo back in 2013, when their pondering, “What do girls actually do in developing countries when they get their period?” led to a couple of Google searches and the shocking discovery that young women all over the world were dropping out of school. “We were even more shocked to find that girls were using unhygienic alternatives, such as dirty rags, newspaper and leaves, which was putting their health at risk,” says Christy. “We decided to investigate for ourselves by starting in [one of] the world’s poorest countries, Malawi. We quickly developed relationships with the local women and the need became so apparent that we just knew we had to do something about it.”

So they looked at reusable sanitary pad designs on the Western market and adapted their structure to incorporate local materials. “The backing of our pads is Malawi’s traditional fabric called ‘Chitenje’,” Erin explains. “It’s 100 per cent cotton and it’s very strong. It comes in the most vibrant and culturally rich patterns, and so we wanted to incorporate this into the product. We then adapted the design to create flexibility, so that it can be produced with or without electricity to ensure we can keep production going during the inevitable power cuts.” They then trialled a couple of designs on those 200 enthusiastic orphans. “The final product [was] based on their feedback.”

“At the same time, we realised there were very limited employment opportunities for women and we needed to find a way to create jobs if we wanted to empower women in Malawi,” says Christy. Grace Pads currently employs five young women from Home of Hope. “Our objective is to increase production and sell to large NGOs so we can offer more jobs,” says Erin. The plan is to employ 20 women by the end of 2018 and expand to local refugee camps and rape rehabilitation centres. “Business in Africa still has a lot of room for growth, and we want to set an example to the community to show that business can be conducted fairly, whilst creating positive social impact and remaining profitable.”

What have they learned about growing a business in Malawi? “Never assume anything will go to plan!” says Erin. “It is quite normal for processes, such as clearing customs or changing car registrations, to take days even weeks of waiting and following up. We had to adapt to working productively, whilst on ‘African time’. We have become masters of backup plans and just consider it a bonus if things go according to our original plan.”

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