We can guarantee the highest quality diapers at cost effective prices. We can make it possible for an aunt/uncle in the diaspora to pay for a month’s supply of diapers (paid for monthly) for the baby niece/nephew that he has only seen on the phone. It is also a fact that Africans in the diaspora are already doing a lot to uplift the continent with their remittances. For a fraction of the cost and for less than it costs to send the money, the uncle/aunt can pay for a pack of sanitary pads from overseas, and quality sanitary pads will be delivered. In the same way, for the same price of what it costs to buy diapers overseas, they can pay for baby diapers for the newly born niece/nephew in Africa. It is a well-documented fact that teenage girls’ academic performance in Africa and other poor countries is affected by the fact that they have to miss three or four days of school every month due to inadequate sanitary protection. A good quality sanitary pad costs 7p in London.
Leveraging Technology to Level Out the Playing Field
Fact: Malaria is a lot more prevalent in Africa than it is in Europe, yet malaria tablets cost less in the developed world, who can afford it better, than in Africa, who cannot afford it. Just one example of how misaligned the needs and solutions/resources in the world can be.
Fact: With the fast rate of urbanization, municipalities/governments are unable to keep up with the supply of basic urban infrastructural needs like electricity and water. Cloth diapers become cumbersome to use. Keeping a soiled diaper while waiting for water to clean it can be a challenge. Cloth diapers require ironing to kill germs. Sometimes electricity is not available. Load shedding is part of the normal day, adding another layer of inconvenience and stress.
Fact: Many young girls in Africa are disadvantaged academically compared to boys of their age because they are forced to miss several days of school every month due to a small issue (and by no means a small issue to them) of inadequate feminine hygiene protection. We are not proposing donations from the developed world. We are proposing a more permanent solution. We want to learn to fish for ourselves so that we never have to go hungry again, as long as the river is still flowing.
We are saying that we can use technology to allow Africans in the diaspora to assist their relatives back home in Africa. We are saying that more and more Africans are making purchases from their cell phones. With a few clicks they are able to get parcels delivered at their doorstep. Sanitary pads cost 7p each in retail in the UK. It is therefore deplorable that a girl’s future and hence possibly a whole generation’s future, is impacted in such a big way by a solution that could costs so little. Why are we not able to avail quality products in Africa at slightly higher prices or close to those prices in Europe. More and more African governments are aware of the problem and in response they are making sanitary pads VAT exempt. Sanitary pads and tampons travel well, as we say in export, meaning that if you need to ship these products, you can get them to the other side of the globe cost effectively, because you can pack a lot of them in a container and therefore the unit cost on arrival is still significantly low. The opposite though happens with diapers. They are a bit more bulky and yet light, so they take up more space. But the solution is that one can avoid packing in boxes and stick to plastic bags and one can also use high cube 40ft containers that offer additional space.
Africa is the leader in mobile commerce or m-commerce. More and more, manufacturers and consumers are interacting via mobile phone to share the latest promotions, share images, pricing and build trust and increase chances of a final purchase. The momentum is gaining pace fast. According to Quartz Africa online magazine, in April 2018, Safaricom partnered with PayPal to allow e-commerce businesses to seamlessly transfer money between the two services and into their mobile wallets. This will open global marketplaces to Kenyan entrepreneurs and businesses, “effectively allowing M-Pesa’s 22.7 million subscribers to transact online, on mobile, in an app, or in person with PayPal’s 227 million users.” This also allows Africans in the diaspora to make a seamless purchase or transfer to a relative in Kenya, or any of M-pesa’s six African markets. How can hygiene manufacturers capitalize on such an opportunity? I think whatever hygiene brand takes that first step to fill the gap will have the first mover advantage.
Why do we believe this is possible? Over and above the partnership with PayPal, M-pesa has partnered with yet another key conduit for transfer of money between the African diaspora and the African continent. According to Quartz Africa’s online magazine’s article in November 2018, M-pesa and Western Union went into partnership. The coming together of these two giants, Africa’s mobile money transfer giant, and one of Africa’s biggest remittance companies, presents an unparalleled opportunity to make the above dream possible. As an example, M-pesa has over 23 million subscribers in Kenya alone. Western Union has 500,000 global agents. Safaricom, which runs M-pesa, says that transfers through bank accounts to Germany, UAE and the U.K. will also be available, with services to bank accounts in other countries being rolled out in the coming weeks. M-pesa operates in 10 nations across Africa, Asia and Europe. In Kenya alone it has 160,000 agents and did over 580 million transactions between August and October 2018.
Challenging the Status Quo
I believe that by leveraging the right partners/suppliers and using the power of reach that M-pesa and Western Union offer, PayPal and other significant e-commerce players in the region like Jumia, one can give a rural girl the opportunity for her aunt/uncle to send her a pack of quality sanitary pads at the price that one can buy in the U.K., by the press of a button. The win-win is that in time, the supplier partner brands can also be so strong in the market that opportunities will be created for micro-franchising, creating even more employment opportunities to young people who can run these micro franchises. I believe that micro-franchising fully leverages the community spirit that is already strong in Africa.
One of the biggest challenges that e-commerce has faced on the continent is the whole issue of addresses. It has become clear that even in South Africa, where the address system is a lot more accurate, delivery challenges exist. Interestingly though, in South Africa, the non-delivery situation is caused by a totally different situation. South Africa has a high prevalence of gated communities. As a result, the delivery service is unable to make a delivery if the receiver is not at home. A fairly new but upcoming and fast growing delivery service that is fast gaining market share in South Africa is called Pargo. Pargo has come up with an effective and very workable solution. They have developed a nationwide network of pick up points, with other retailers, service stations, etc. To date they have 2000 such collections in the country. And the buyer gets to nominate the closest pick up point to them at the time they confirm their purchase, by using their postal code. Then they will have eight days to collect their parcel from the pick-up point, after which it will be returned. The return policy also works via the same system. The buyer returns the product to the pick up point and the supplier will arrange to take back the product.
I believe that mobile tech is a possible solution to solve some of Africa’s hygiene issues. Mobile tech would allow young girls and mothers to access quality diapers and femcare products.
The challenges facing African girls’ sanitary protection are not new and indeed there are current solutions in place and new ones are coming online all the time. We are aware there are some NGOs involved with reusable sanitary pads in countries like Uganda and others. Existing literature and information from our networks indicate that challenges exist with reusable sanitary pads because their use is limited to areas were water is available. An organization called Femwash, which was co-founded by two young African women, has done a lot of work on these issues. They point out that there is a link between feminine hygiene, reproductive health and access to clean and safe water. As a result they have developed a product called Femwash, which addresses feminine hygiene issues in areas where water is scarce including a number rural settings where limited access to water has led to significant resultant reproductive health issues. Also, available literature from Femwash points out that reusable sanitary pads require private space to store them and also a discreet space to dry them in the sun, both of which may not be readily available. As a result, the reusable pad could be effectively made ready for re-use after being dried in the sun for a few hours. The sun would also effectively kill germs so this is a better alternative than underbed storage, where it takes longer to dry and may retain or develop potential germs that may cause infection or re-infection.
We are not saying that reusable pads are not a solution. We are merely highlighting their limitations. Having said that, there are amazingly well-researched new innovations that are coming up in the reusable sanitary pads space that have amazing usability and benefits.
The governments of Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe and several others have made sanitary pads VAT free, which is a positive move that should benefit the fight for the African girl’s right to dignity and sanitary protection. In some cases, governments have gone even further and requested companies to make cost effectively priced sanitary pads that would be given free of charge to girls in schools. The same has been requested for diapers, so that governments can distribute them to new mothers in hospitals. In many cases, these situations have had disastrous ends. The government personnel are sometimes not well equipped to handle such a project and sometimes they choose a supplier with no clue as to what properties make a decent sanitary pad or baby diaper. The result is a product that does not effectively do what it is supposed to do, which can be worse than no product at all.
The products need to be effective. Effective is the key word. Ending up with a diaper that leaks is frustrating for the mother and a poor sanitary pad that does not effectively do what it is supposed to do can easily ruin a teenager’s life and rob it of all self-esteem. In conclusion, what a mother or a girl needs is not a baby diaper or sanitary pad, but rather an effective baby diaper or an effective sanitary pad.
I earnestly look forward to seeing tech being used to disrupt the hygiene space and provide solutions to some of Africa’s long-standing hygiene challenges.