Haves and Have Nots

I can’t help but reflect on the day as I settle into my new bed and watch the persistent fly crash into the mosquito net that envelopes my bed. You’d think there was a gigantic hot fudge sundae on my side of the net given the fly’s persistence. Though both the fly and I have come up sans ice cream and disappointed, the net does remind me of the separation of those who have and those who don’t. Now, this is not an exclusively Rwandan characteristic, in fact, my home of the United States is one of the largest culprits of perpetuating inequality. Yet as the SHE Team headed to Nyamata, about an hour outside of Kigali, I couldn’t help but notice the girls and women walking alongside of the road, sometimes with multiple babies on their backs, a giant water jug on their head, with miles of road ahead, only to get home to hours-long tasks of fetching fire wood and cooking. Most men cycled by with no luggage. If they are lucky, they are on their way to a job as a shopkeeper, a driver. With unemployment hovering around 50%, that is highly unlikely.

What does this have to do with SHE and our mission? Perhaps nothing, but I wonder if this simple observation underlines the value (or lack thereof) placed on girls and women as players in education, business, and politics? And their coinciding needs…..like affordable sanitary products and services…..or a bike!

SHE Arrives in Kigali, Finally

22:06 June 24, 2008
Sky Hotel, Kigali, Rwanda

New York, Rome, Paris, Addis Ababa—sound like the answer to a Jeopardy question as to where you can find the best coffee in the world? Maybe so, but in my book, these cities will always remind me of my route to Kigali, Rwanda, on the first, on-the-ground, SHE Team mission. Three days after departing from New York, we finally arrived in the small and welcoming city of Kigali. I say welcoming because, in perfect cue, our bags not only greeted us at the Kigali airport, but so did about a hundred boisterous Rwandans, donning Rwanda national flags, playing horns and cymbals, and chanting. Did they do this for every team addressing menstrual management problems, we wondered? Did the airlines tip them off that we had an excruciating journey imbued with busted complimentary movies, rubber chicken dinners, and flee infested single beds for two and not one? Maybe we needed a little cheering up? How thoughtful. We appreciated it as did the Rwandan national soccer team that also arrived with us in the airport the other day.

Yes, you heard right; the SHE Team is off on their first, on-the ground, mission in Kigali, Rwanda. How much more exciting can that be? If you are not familiar with us, perhaps now is the time to introduce. We, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), aim to address a simple, common, and yet largely ignored problem: girls’ and women’s lack of sustained access to affordable, high-quality sanitary napkins for menstruation. It’s hard to believe, but the problem exists….all over developing countries! It struck me as incredible that the problem is so prevalent and most of the activity to address it has been ad hoc, geographically clustered, and mainly donation based. Nearing the danger zone of being overeducated, I decided to take a step forward and do something about this outrageous problem by creating Sustainable Health Enterprise (SHE). We’d take a different approach and look to help girls and women start their own franchises to make and sell affordable, quality, eco-friendly, sanitary napkins. And since October 2007, I haven’t looked back….drumming up enthusiasm, support, and partnerships from MIT to Echoing Green to __(insert your name here!)___.

So now I am here with the award winning SHE Team from Harvard-MIT (http://web.mit.edu/ideas/www/index.htm) gearing up for a feasibility assessment in Rwanda. Sounds fancy, huh? But what is a feasibility assessment, really? We’re defining it as essential primary research to determine whether or not we’ll be able to pilot our intervention to tackle the menstrual management problem in Rwanda and beyond. We’ll be doing research in a few different “buckets” (in consulting talk); namely:
1. consumer insights which is just a fancy way of saying we’ll be talking to girls and women about what they currently use when they menstruate, if they are happy with it, and if they aren’t, how can it be improved.
2. product development which is a fancy way of saying we’ll be trying to make the darn product cheaply and locally. Well, how are we going to pull that off?
3. community networks which is a fancy way of saying we’ll be looking for local organizations to own the gig once we jump-start it. We want the local women to own the business of making affordable sanitary napkins.

And essentially, we’ll take this information and say “yay” or “nay” by the end of the mission in August.

So with much ado…we’re off to the field! Come on with us!