The arrival of puberty for girls brings with it the monthly cycle of fertility, the promise of procreation and a signal that you are blossoming into womanhood.
All of which are milestones that should be celebrated.
However, for many girls, what should be a cycle of celebration is punctuated by gloom underlined by outdated cultural practices, ignorance and poverty.
This reality hit Florence Kamaitha like a bolt when she attended a charity event at a school in Thika back in 2010.
The number of girls in attendance in one of the classrooms, was much lower than that of boys.
When she enquired, the casual reply from one of the teachers was that the girls were absent due to the arrival of their monthly period. She was shocked to the bone.
“The teacher said the girls were out of school because they could not afford sanitary towels,” she recalls. “Fearing the stigma associated with menstruation, they had opted to stay out until the end of their cycle.”
When a girl is absent from school for four days in a month, she loses 13 learning days which is equivalent to two weeks of learning every school term, this, is according to data from the Ministry of Education. In total, a girl will lose 39 learning days, equivalent to six weeks of learning time in an academic year.
With the reality at hand, Florence decided to face the problem, or at least part of it, head on.
She decided to rally her friends to contribute money and supply girls at the school with sanitary towels for an entire year.
But this good deed was welcomed by another challenge. “Most of the girls did not also have underwear.”
“We had to go back to the drawing board and find a way to supply the girls with innerwear,” she adds.
Florence also realised that there was a lot of ignorance surrounding the subject of menstruation, hence there was a need to educate the girls on this as well as on body hygiene. The more she did this, the more she realised she had found her calling as a social entrepreneur.
“The assumption that girls just know about menses and how to handle it is a misplaced notion. They need to be taught.”
After identifying a gap in the manner information about menstrual hygiene is passed on, she took it upon herself to disseminate it.
“I decided to publish a book, complete with diagrams to address the issue.”
The book explores a range of topics from the moment a girl hits puberty, the menstruation cycle, it teaches boys and girls about puberty and the changes to expect, and how to use sanitary towels.
“I met girls who had never seen a sanitary towel, yet they were well in their teens,” she says, her face a mixture of pained knowledge and incredulity.
When knowledge about her work spread, more schools came calling- seeking her help in provision of the sanitary towels. She then turned to corporate institutions who afforded her grants to purchase them. Safaricom Foundation and Visa International were among those that answered her call.
But on the realisation that her model of relying on donations was not sustainable, she needed to re-strategise.
“I couldn’t rely on corporates, because corporates never support such causes for long. They end up moving to other causes, and the fact I could manufacture them myself made the situation dire. Which corporate invests in manufacturing industry, unless of course it is their produce for sale?” she asks.
When she decided to manufacture renewable sanitary towels, funding was hard to come by, but her persistence saw her clinch a monetary award from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) which she used to get accreditation and hire research facilitators.
Then she had yet another brilliant idea to approach Lang’ata Women’s Prison and proposed to teach the inmates how to make re-usable sanitary towels.
“I told the warden that I would teach the inmates a life skill and also share the income from the sale of the towels, so that when they got out, they would had a fall back plan. They agreed.”
Florence began teaching with a class of 15 inmates in 2014, manufacturing sanitary towels retailing at KES600 for students. The school kit contains six pads, three panties, a bar of soap and a flannel, all re-usable for at least a year and a half. Not content with resting on her laurels, she started toying with the idea of manufacturing cheap and eco-friendly disposable pads.
“I did my research and realised, using bio-degradable and readily available material to manufacture these pads would significantly lower the cost. Actually, costs would fall to as low as KES45 for a pack containing 10 reusable pads, and I knew there had to be a way to explore those options,” she says.
Her first attempt involved using the invasive aquatic plant, water hyacinth. But, despite the plant being readily available, the government put her idea to a screeching halt because it had banned use of the weed. Unfazed, she saw an opportunity to use banana stems.
The economic difficulties associated with manufacturing soon come to an end when she was chosen to attend the Mandela Washington Fellowship. The United States African Development Foundation started funding her factory, which will be up and running in six months. Currently, she says, she has the capacity to manufacture 5,000 pieces of sanitary towels per month, but she intends to scale this up to around 10,000.
Florence has had to surmount numerous challenges.
“The biggest challenge, I think, is involving men in the whole process. Men are the decision makers in most of the places you will go, but making them sit and listen to a flow problem is probably a hurdle that still needs to be worked on,’ she says adding that were it not for her resilience, she would have quit, considering the cold reception she encountered initially.
Her biggest clientele are foundations, NGO’s and organisations such as as World Vision. She also supplies the sanitary towels to school networks as far as South Sudan, who she says are some of her biggest clients.
Sometimes it doesn’t take a whole village to inspire change; all it takes one person to make the first move. Florence is that one person.