Batteries, I Mean Land Rover, Not Included

July 19, 2008
Kibungo, Rwanda

Let’s play the word association game…so when I say something you respond with whatever pops in your head. So for example, I say “Mickey” and you say “mouse.” I say “karaoke” and you say “Bon Jovi.” I say “industry” and you say “international development organizations”…..huh? What an oxymoron!…like jumbo shrimp or big NYC apartment or healthy cigarette (sorry American Spirits smokers) or chatroom party animal. Yet, there is something to this notion of the international development industry.

Despite its poverty, Kigali is not unlike other African capitals with a few posh neighbors lined with signs such as USAID, GTZ, Oxfam, etc. Locals walk along the roadside carting timber, bananas, and water jugs on their heads with mammoth four wheel drive vehicles blistering by with a logo of some international development agency blazoned across the side. This is the norm. It seems that international development organizations, often one of the biggest vehicles of money flow into a country such as Rwanda takes the place of individual and institutional investors in industries such as textiles, food processing, etc. It creates jobs like program officers and outreach specialists in organizations’ programs. It creates linkages to spark job creation in other arenas as well such as computer printer shops and gas stations (those Land Rovers need to fill up an awful lot!). So when locals, as they often do, suggest that we should “just put the driver on the phone when you need directions” or question, “how much money do you have?” we should not be taken aback, but rather take it in stride and acquiesce. Or should we?

Do we have a responsibility to change the norm? And should we want to?

Should we aim to change the mindset that outside development intervention symbolizes a dollar sign? Should we aim to change the idea that international development organizations are the main vehicle for economic growth? Don’t we increase chances for sustainable Rwandan growth without dependency on international development $$?

And by the way, we are a start-up enterprise, which is quite resourceful, but working on a shoestring budget. We walk or take public transport almost everywhere. Isn’t that how most entrepreneurs do it? If we had a garage, we’d be working in it right now.

Banana Breakthrough

16:45 July 16, 2008
Kigali, Rwanda

If you asked me one month ago if I thought our journey to low-cost pad nirvana would take us to Japan, I think I’d bid you a sianora. But that, is exactly where we have ended up on the map, giving us our best technological lead so far.

A few days ago, we crashed an expert extravaganza (ie conference) on banana wilting—surprisingly a first in my book. The crash ended up to be quite fruitful (bad joke) as the expert we were aiming to meet, Svetlana, recommended we meet Yuri Mato, a Japanese environmental consultant in Rwanda, who was working on making textiles from bananas. Bingo! Kamikaze! Turns out, we have been climbing up the wrong tree (another bad joke) by talking with chemists, botanists and the like. In fact, Yuri relayed to us that it is the Tama ART University in Japan that has developed the technology to make cloth from banana fibers.

A machete and four banana stems later, the SHE team is extracting their very own fibers from freshly harvested banana trees. Once again, our kitchen and front porch have transformed into the SHE laboratories as we aim to process plant into absorbent material given the Tama Art University technique. Stay tuned for more breakthroughs!

National Kite Day

18:35 July 13, 2008
Kibuye, Rwanda

There is not much for Rwanda, and other African countries in the region to celebrate because the change in political status from previously colonized, has not yet brought about release from dependence on former colonial powers and other rich countries.

--Rwandan President Kagame referring to the recent 4th of July Liberation Day celebration which also marked 46 years of Rwanda’s independence

You can see it everywhere…..Landrovers with an international development organization logo plastered on the side, $200 million donation headlines in the local newspaper, reams of 3rd hand US t-shirts filling the markets. All of this is evidence of Kagame’s sentiment. The question is, “Does Rwanda resemble a kite in a strong wind? Or an anchor on the sea floor?”

We’re betting on the kite. Rwandans are about to take off and be independent from other rich countries as long as their approach is market-based. Forget donations. They don’t work long-term. Market-based approaches do, so why leave them just for the business world in Europe or North America? And that’s why we’re in the business of setting up locally-owned businesses. Local women are going to own their own sanitary napkin businesses and as long as they are meeting customer demand, their ventures will be sustainable, mitigating a problem that has huge economic consequences.

Cell-phones, Motorbikes, Internet, and…

15:35 July 11, 2008
Kigali, Rwanda

There are some arenas in which developing countries have not followed the typical sequence of technology development. Take cell-phones for example. Instead of perpetuating the use of land-lines, some countries have jumped into cell-phone technology with cell-phones being a more common thing to find in someone’s hand than a Rwandan cup of coffee. Motorbikes are another example and are quite the rage here. It seems that people haven given up on traditional bikes and are either walking along side the road or hopping on the back of a moto to get to the pharmacie or papelerie. With the internet, countries can leap frog old school mail for communication. So, what is the jump in technology for sanitary pads? We’re ready for your suggestions!

The Geek Summit

16:50 July 9, 2008
National University of Rwanda
Butare, Rwanda

You know how you sometimes wish you were a fly on the wall? Well today, we were those flies at the National University of Rwanda. Picture it…five older, esteemed Rwandan men: the Dean of Faculty of Agriculture, the Dean of the Faculty of Science and Technology, the head of chemistry, biochemistry, and organic chemistry departments from the National University of Rwanda, the most highly regarded university in the country, all sitting in a circle and talking about menstruation. It was like a convention of master scientists, there were too many degrees in the room to count. Initially, the SHE Rwanda Team, which includes Hannah Brice of Cambridge University, Bernice Huang of MIT, and me, hopped on a matatu (local bus that resembles more of a carnival ride than safe transport) and journeyed two hours south to meet one professor, but very quickly we found ourselves whisked away to meet the highest academics in the land. One by one, they were beckoned for their expertise and one by one they entered the Dean’s office, were explained the project, had a little giggle and then got down to business. The business I am referring to is making an absorbent material out of bananas, papyrus, cassava, and/or rice.

One of the main components of this stint in Rwanda is to gauge the feasibility of producing a low cost sanitary napkin using local materials as the main input. This, my friends, is the greatest challenge we have addressed so far. Why is that? There are lots of plants around and we have a blender (which I can’t believe made it through security in 4 countries!). But alas, it isn’t as easy as your 6th grade science lab. Most pads (actually all) use cotton as their main material input. Unfortunately, cotton is not readily available in Rwanda and many other places this problem exists so we are looking to alternative raw materials which we’ve narrowed to bananas, papyrus, cassava, and rice with banana leaves and stems being our leading contender.

This trek today was important to us because it gave us insight into the existing research and the needed research to develop the affordable sanitary pad given the suggested raw materials. Unfortunately, despite all that experience and education in that room today, the research on making these raw materials into an absorbent material does not exist (that they know of), certainly not in Rwanda. It turns out WE are on the cutting edge of science.

So I beckon you, banana absorbency experts of the world, please give me a ring at 0369786. I promise, we won't drive you bananas!

Why All the Fuss?

17:45 July 4, 2008
Gitarama, Rwanda

While I like to think that the Scharpf shuffle is an appropriate dance move, there is no place for dancing around the heart of the issue of menstrual management. So, what is the problem we’re trying to address? Who cares that there aren’t any affordable, quality, eco-friendly, sanitary napkins? This has been the case for thousands of years. Why do something about it now?

Today was a serious day. Today is the 4th of July—a day that marks the United States’ independence, but also the Rwandan day of liberation, or the end of the genocide. And today is about choice…choices for Tutsis, Hutus, men, women, girls, and boys. Since 1994, the people of Rwanda have been re-building their country from the genocide that wiped out approximately 1 million people in their country. Let me say that again, 1 million people. And the most recent focus of this reconstruction is on ensuring choice and developing economic opportunities. And that, is exactly what SHE is about.

SHE is about choice. SHE is about sustainable economic development.

Without affordable, quality sanitary napkins, girls and women lose their opportunity to choose. Girls cannot choose whether or not they go to school 4-5 days per month, up to 50 days in a year. They are absent from school on these days. And without consistent school attendance, girls may lag in school performance, ultimately leading to more limited economic potential. Women cannot choose whether or not they go to work 4-5 days per month, up to 50 days in a year. They are absent from work on these days. And absenteeism may thwart their ability to secure well paying jobs. This phenomenon not only severely limits their income-generating potential, but also harms entire communities as females’ economic success improves familial welfare overall with 80 cents of every dollar earned going to the family.

By the way, we're not talking about this problem existing in one country or two. If you haven't noticed, girls and women are everywhere! There are 3.3 billion of us! And there is evidence of this problem all over the world. Think about the power of that human capital which could drive economic growth!

So, as you can see, the problem is about females’ limited choice and untapped economic growth. Why allow a simple issue like sanitary napkins be one of the obstacles to addressing these problems?

We Are All The Same

22:10 June 30, 2008
Orphans of Rwanda Office
Kigali, Rwanda

While Bill Clinton may not be my favorite president and I may not be his favorite intern, one of his statements has stuck with me…..“Despite all of our differences around the world, we, as humans, are 99% the same.” I think the context of the speech was “so why don’t we put down our guns and have peace on earth.” But tonight, after an intense focus group with twenty-somethings who are part of the organization Orphans From Rwanda, I’m going to apply the statement to menstruation. After all, I’m sure that’s what Bill was really getting at in that commencement speech, right?

One of the gals, LaJalia said today, “Sometimes I end up menstruating 6 or 7 days and because the sanitary pads are so expensive I end up using a pad for longer than I probably should. I end up just staying home from school or activities because I don’t want to stamp.” For those of us unfamiliar with menstrual lingo, “stamping” is the strain you might get on your clothes and other things if it bleeds through and you sit on a chair for example, and leave a mark when you get up. While the terms might be unfamiliar to some of us, the gist of the statement sounds all too familiar—the potential embarrassment of situations when we are menstruating. I found it incredible. There I was….5,000 miles away from home, sitting across from strong women who have overcome adversity of having their parents killed in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and I am nodding my head in agreement thinking, “You bet, sister, I’ve been there.” I remember wearing that white home game basketball uniform, subtly patting the back of my shorts to check if I was “stamping.”

There were only 12 people in the room on this Monday, but almost 3.3 billion other girls and women around the world who would’ve probably nodded their head in agreement with us today.

Girl Stuff 101

22:35 June 28, 2008
Maryundo Girl’s School
Nyamata, Rwanda

“Why do I bleed once a month?”

I thought I had at least fifteen years til I had to answer that question from a young girl, but a quick trip to Rwanda has proved to provide more life milestones than a record number of French fries consumed. Today we had our first focus groups with girls, sixty in fact, and it was eye-opening, from the candor to the liveliness to the curiosity. These girls were yearning for answers, and the questions kept on coming. Why didn’t they know about menstruation? Why haven’t they talked about this before? Ahhh, it must be because of the struggling health and education system here. Well, if that was the case, then we could just work on improving upon those systems. But, in fact, it’s more than that.

Who’s ever bought sanitary napkins or tampons and put them in an opaque bag on the way out of the store? Who’s ever apologized in front of boys and/or men for bringing up the subject of menstruating? And what about those pretty plastic cases we’re supposed to use to hold our tampons in our bag? Why are we trying to hide this natural function that is our body preparing for giving birth? Why are we so apologetic?

I think it comes down to the taboo around menstruation. And this manifests itself with a lack of communication about girls’ and women’s bodies and how they change, how naturally and healthily they change.

Why didn’t they know this? Why haven’t they talked about this before? Before I can answer that question, I think I’ll have to answer another one…..“Why did I spend more time in high school health class learning how to drive a car than about my bodily health and hygiene?”