The Grassroots Kenyan Startup Addressing ‘Period Racism’ with Safe, Sustainable Menstrual Pads

“Women in the US have beautiful period products, but when it comes to Africa we’re being given the short end of the stick.”

Images via @nyunguafrika on Instagram

Post Growth Fellow, Monicah Muhoya is the founder of Sister Speaks Global, which hosts events to expand women’s dialogue; and Heels4Pads, a linked charity to raise awareness of period poverty. In a podcast called OVAreact, Monicah and her co-hosts Angela Wambui and Lush Angela explore girls’ and womens’ rights from a range of angles and perspectives.

In episode six, the trio talks to Mary Nyaruai, founder of Nyungu Afrika, which produces low-cost, high-quality, biodegradable sanitary pads made from the agricultural waste of pineapple and maize husk. The startup’s aim is to create a positive social and environmental impact by including communities — as entrepreneurs or employees — in every aspect of the business, from production and distribution to education and use.

Listen to the full podcast here ↑

When Mary got her first period at the age of 14, her mother handed her a pack of pads and told her to use them. Mary soon realized that the pads burnt and irritated her — “it’s like having a hot potato between your legs,” as she puts it. Her friends had a similar experience, and so Mary thought it was normal. Then, in 2019, women across Kenya started complaining on Twitter about a popular band of sanitary pads in the country — and that’s when Mary began to understand that, in a global context, her experience was far from normal.

[Since the release of this podcast, more women across Africa took to Twitter to share their negative experience of using pads under the #MyAlwaysExperience hashtag. Many accuse the global brand of “period racism” — selling products in Africa made from materials and chemicals that cause rashes and irritation, while offering a safer version in Europe and the US.]

Mary decided to join the campaign to improve the quality of period products in Kenya, where 65 percent of women and girls still lack access to menstrual products — despite recent tax reductions on menstrual products and a policy that designates menstrual health as a human rights issue. In building her brand on social media, Mary asked a selection of US companies producing period products to send her some samples, which they did. She was shocked at the difference in quality. “I used the products and was like, You mean even period products are racist?” she says. “Why would you have very beautiful period products for women in the US, but when it comes to Africa we’re being given the short end of the stick?”

It’s been over 50 years since the sanitary pad was invented, explains Mary, yet there’s been very limited innovation in the product’s design or manufacture. Billions of trees are felled to make pads, and they also contain the world’s most heavily sprayed crop: cotton. After experiencing US-made period products, Mary decided to invent a better pad for Kenyan women and girls. Having grown up in the agricultural region of Thika, she was inspired to use the waste from pineapple and maize production as the absorbent material — replacing wood pulp and cotton.

Her motivation goes beyond creating comfortable and sustainable period products, however. She is passionate about giving women and girls in Kenya products that are appropriate to their situation and lived experience. In the Chalbi Desert, for example, temperatures regularly top 100 degrees F, and pads produced in and donated by the West are simply not suitable. The company’s business model addresses period poverty by donating a pad (to organizations like Heels4Pads) for each one sold.

“I think the period industry is a cash cow for opportunists and capitalists,” says Mary. It’s also, ironically, a male dominated sector. “But we have organizations that have a fresh perspective. We are the grassroots, so why can’t you invite us to the table…?” And while there is an increasing amount of funding available to women entrepreneurs, the majority of it goes to tech companies. “If we’re really obsessed with sustainable business, then let ‘s walk the talk and find social businesses, especially women-led social businesses, because we are part of the future of business…” she concludes.

Three things you can do right now

  1. Listen to the full OVAreact podcast series, which, according to Monicah, “delves into deep-rooted gender biases through conversations,” by exploring “the truths about being a woman/female, existing as a great mother, colleague, entrepreneur, leader, and a perfect member of the society, and the general chaos that goes with trying to navigate life with ovaries.”
  2. Help promote this article by sharing these posts on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Sign up here for email alerts when articles like this are shared on social media.
  3. Donate to Heels4Pads, a Kenyan charity that works to restore confidence and restore dignity to girls and women in impoverished backgrounds by ensuring they have access to safe menstrual management products and education. “With the trending news on women’s reproductive health, for example abortion rights in the US, it is paramount to support social business like Heels4Pads and Nyungu Afrika to scale. African women are over-mentored — and it’s time to have investment funneled to their businesses, and especially their wellbeing and health,” says Monicah.

Find out more about the Post Growth Institute on our website.

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Post Growth Institute

Post Growth Institute

Writing by team-members, guest contributors, and Fellows of the Post Growth Institute (PGI).