According to a UNESCO report, one in 10 students who have periods in Sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle. A major reason behind this is that people in rural communities often lack access to sanitary pads, largely due to their high cost. Earning less than $1.90 per day, 44 percent of the population in Nigeria face extreme poverty, making it difficult to afford pads, which cost around $1.30 a pack. This can lead to unhygienic practices, like using rough newspapers, cloth napkins or even leaves in place of pads. Moreover, a single sanitary pad contains about 90 percent plastic, which can take 500 to 800 years to decompose.
The Enactus Nigeria National Champion team from Tai Solarin University of Education knew there had to be a sustainable solution to the issues faced by people who menstruate in their country and Africa at large. “We [wanted to] change the narrative of how sanitary pads are produced by making them affordable, eco-friendly and plastic-free,” says project manager Abosede Kafilat Adelekan.
Their answer? Banana fiber.
The team’s project, P’pal, produces eco-friendly sanitary pads that cost 40 percent less than conventional ones. Adelekan says banana fiber is “a common agro-waste usually left on the farm to rot.” Using a fiber extraction machine, the team found a way to repurpose the fiber from banana stems into the absorbent layer for the pad. The rest of the pad is made from recycled paper, cotton fabric and bioplastic made from cassava starch, the latter of which creates a waterproof layer. Each batch is then sterilized and tested for absorbency and comfort.
It costs about three cents (USD) to produce one P’pal pad, and a pack of 10 sells for 80 cents — compared to the average price of $1.30 for a pack of eight conventional pads. In addition, the pads created by the team degrade in just four months. The Nigerian National Champions also created a reusable pad, which includes an absorbent flannel cotton material that can be removed and washed after each use.
Period stigma is another factor that contributes to children across Africa missing school. According to a survey the team conducted in 10 junior and senior secondary schools in Ogun State, Nigeria, six in eight students who have periods are not comfortable talking about their period with their peers, while many others don’t know how to calculate their menstrual cycle.
In order to empower these individuals, the team partnered with the Center for Human Rights and Gender Equality, a community-based organization in Ogun, and three gynecology experts from their institution’s medical center. Together, they developed a menstrual hygiene education manual in three local dialects to educate these students on menstrual hygiene practices and reproductive health.
Through the pilot phase of their project, in Ogun State, the team members are producing around 100 sanitary pads a day. Thus far, they’ve distributed them to more than 200 students at the three schools where they conducted menstrual hygiene training.
P’pal has already eradicated 25,000 tons of plastic while reducing the impact of deforestation and employing 30 young people. The project also addresses eight of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
The Nigeria National Champions plan to expand P’pal to empower even more people who have periods across the continent by partnering with two other Enactus teams in Ekiti and Kaduna States and launching production hubs across the eastern and northern regions of Nigeria and across West Africa. Such an expansion would employ more than 300 individuals and generate more than 20 million Nigerian naira annually.
“[We are] breaking the period stigma and demystifying menstruation issues for girls in Nigeria,” says Adelekan.
Tai Solarin University of Education will represent Nigeria at the Enactus World Cup starting 14 October, where the team will present their project alongside 32 other Enactus National Champions. There, they will demonstrate their innovation in business and its impact on the world as they vie for their chance to become the Enactus World Champion.
Learn more and register to attend Enactus World Cup at enactus.org/worldcup.