Across many cultures and across all five continents, there are still big taboos surrounding menstruation. I do not want to take away from the importance of the issue by pretending to understand the issue of menstruation fully or anything close. I would like to declare that I do not. If I may borrow Carlos Richer’s expression, when he talks about “our colleagues from the other side” when he talks of the organizations and consumers that represent the cloth diapers, I am really writing “from the other side” as a man looking in and as a man from the hygiene industry who has gained a few insights and learning about the category every day, and sharing the lessons, like I always do.
Once when I was doing one of my many presentations in the hygiene business, the PA to the MD of the company that I was presenting to made a most fascinating remark that never left my mind. After a few comments around my insights on the femcare category and so on, she said that if men were the ones who had to deal with menstruation, with all the challenges that it comes with (the migraines, the cramps, the mood changes) I would not be surprised if one of the working world rules was that you can stay at home until it is over. But that is a debate for another day.
The taboos around menstruation are cultural, where they relate to the rites of passage of the girl to becoming a woman. They are also religious. Both reasons run very deep into who and what we are as people. It also signifies the reasons why it is so important to us. Perhaps this is the very reason why it becomes even more difficult to talk about. For a very long time even campaigns for femcare products used blue ink instead of red, until 2017 when Essity broke the mold and used red ink in its sanitary pads’ “Blood Normal” campaign.
And for our gender as men we have Arunachalam Murugantham, the “Menstrual Man,” the social entrepreneur who has taken the femcare battle further than any man before as far as I know. I stand corrected on this but I cannot think of any man who has taken the issue of sanitary pads in poor communities as far and wide and with such a personal commitment. His story is nothing sort of inspiring. Let me not steal his thunder. Listen to the man on Ted Talks here. He invented the low-cost sanitary pad-making machine and is credited for innovating grassroots mechanisms and for generating awareness around traditional unhygienic practices around menstruation in rural India. In short, he is one man who has made a difference in the lives of rural women with regards to feminine hygiene and menstruation in one of the most highly populated regions on the globe.
Speaking for myself, having stumbled my way into the hygiene business, and ending up running my own business in this space, I also had my share of learning and my hoops to go through before I earned my stripes. When I started my own hygiene business, I must have contacted every medium sized to large hygiene company in Europe, Asia and USA, from Abena to Unicharm. I was getting samples from Indonesia to Korea to USA. I learnt a lot about diapers and sanitary pads. When I spoke to consumers I would want to learn about their motivations for purchase, their reasons for preferring this product over that one. Why they like this product for day and that product for night etc. I sat with NGOs and tried to understand where our common passion to help the girl child on the continent could meet. I let the whirlwind carry me. Until one moment when I found myself talking to my mother-in-law, who was one of the greatest supporters of my business I may add. We were discussing sanitary pads. She was a community leader and therefore worked a lot with NGOs and similar organisations. Therefore she had a lot of helpful information to share. It was at that moment I started asking myself whether I had lost my way, so to speak. Was it even okay that as an African man that I should be having this conversation with my mother-in-law? Only very late into that discussion discomfort finally caught up with me, key word being late.
To end this section on a positive, fortunately despite the challenges of the taboos, which if we were all still in school would euphemistically be called “areas of improvement” I think there are several positives around menstruation and its what it means in a girl’s life that is celebrated. In Central Africa there are countries and certain nations that celebrate the time when a girl starts her period. In fact the moment she starts her periods she is made to stop helping out with the chores in the house for a month. In that time she is shown how to take care of her new self well and hygienically, before she can continue to help around the house. There is a celebration and the community is invited to join in the celebrations that announce that this person is no longer a girl but a woman. By that it means she will be respected and referred to as a woman and not a girl no longer. There are rituals that take all girls who would have become women in more or less that same time to the river. Imagine for a femcare manufacturer, if you were to understand a people that well that you could speak to them at that level, can you imagine the level of loyalty and following that you would build if you reached to them at that level. It’s just a thought? I wonder if any femcare manufacturer has ever tried to reach out to the consumer on such a level in any market?
Taboos Around Incontinence
When I was preparing to go for my first interview for a job in the hygiene industry, that was the first time that I ever heard of Incontinence (the capital is deliberate). I read about the support groups where consumers shared how they dealt with their first inco incidence, etc. It seems that it strikes without warning. Since then, a lot of people have shared a loved one’s first experience. As a way to show how very inconvenient and completely awkward the first inco experience can be, two examples stand out for me. One of them I read about when I was preparing for that interview into the hygiene sector for the first time. The other one is a real life experience, as told to my late mother by the wife of the person who had a first time experience with incontinence. Both stories share two key things in common. First is the sheer level of the bad timing. Totally wrong time in any person‘s life. The other is the way it robs the person of dignity in the moment. Both examples therefore highlight the importance of the incontinence products as solutions to a critical challenge. Inco products restore dignity to the user. And it is a great thing that our industry is constantly looking for better and more subtle solutions to the challenge every day to this growing segment.
The first inco experience example that I read about relates to a person who was a board member. In the middle of a board meeting, he realized that the front of his trousers was totally wet. He quickly realized why. And in order to find a way to get out of the situation he created a situation whereby he spilled tea onto his lap. Now he could explain away his situation and attend to the problem with more dignity than the situation would have allowed.
The second story relates to a well-respected and well known parliamentarian. His wife was standing behind him at a key official event. Our parliamentarian was standing somewhere very close to his president. His wife realized all of a sudden that his trousers were dripping wet. It was clear at this point that he had not realized it himself, or if he had he was probably in such disbelief about what was happening that he had not yet figured at that point what his next step was going to be. His wife tapped him on the shoulder and told him that they must leave and go home right way and they did. From that moment forth, they realized that they had to deal with a new condition called incontinence in their lives. Inco clearly strikes without warning and at times at the most inconvenient moments imaginable.
My first lessons in inco I got from someone who was very experienced in the sector. She had been seconded to South Africa from Europe. I had watched her make several presentations in the business and off course as part of my induction I had to sit with her. She shared with me a model that shows, based on the law of averages, how in every population there exists an average percentage of incontinence cases at every age band. That was my inco 101. I then figured that based on this concept there must be millions of people out there who are suffering from inco and like me, did not know that this condition is in a sense normal and there are solutions. Again based on the logic that the problem exists in any population rich or poor, it therefore must follow that there is a market for the inco products that we make. It turns out that the company I was working for made one of the best brands for inco in the world. Our brand was actually number one in the world for inco. Looking at the volumes that we were doing in the region for the inco category, it was very clear to me that our partners and distributors were not doing enough to push this category. There was a much bigger upside than the numbers were showing. And I made sure that my regional plan involved a plan to measure the partners on a deliberate and clear strategy to grow the sales of the inco category, and measured separately as it had to have a special focus.
One of my surprises was that in Europe,, generally doctors did not like to talk about incontinence and it in a way made the sales of this category fairly difficult in that channel. It is a difficult subject, but one that is part of our journey through life. To illustrate how difficult the subject is, I am reminded of a telephonic conversation that I had with one customer regarding our brand. Our leading global brand. The gentleman on the line wanted to know whether he could be possibly be the distributor for our global inco brand in South Africa or the region. He knew it was the best in the world and he knew this fact beyond any doubt. He said this point with the conviction of a user of a brand. He was very familiar with the product. But not that he was using it or anything like that, he tried to convince me. If anything, the point that made it clear to me that he was a user of our brand was his desperate attempt to convince me how he was not a user. So the difficulty of inco as a subject matter is undeniable.
The players in incontinence continue to come up with solutions to this problem that are better, more effective and more invisible and more subtle, more convenient and more comfortable. And I am pleased to see that the category continues to gain traction in Africa as more and more people begin to know that solutions exist. According to Euromonitor’s 2017 report, the adult diaper category in South Africa grew by 12% versus previous year. And based on my own observations, over the last seven to 10 years or so, more and more, one is seeing better availability of adult diapers and inco solutions in normal retail. But the shelf space and variety is still constrained. The few brands that are available I find are generally highly priced and the consumer who has to buy generally does not have much of a choice. It is one of those products that when you need it, you really do.