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!


sahana kukke said...

any chance any of the materials in this flushable diaper (for babies) grow in rwanda?

i look forward to tracking your progress with SHE. what important work you're doing!

love, sahana.

Founder, Elizabeth Scharpf said...

Good thought!

Actually, we talked with head of GDiapers in the spring. The main absorbent material is SAPs (super absorbent polymers) that are actually relatively expensive to make (in the lab). I think a lot of companies are looking for an alternative to them now. Thanks for reading, Sahana!