Jacqueline Kisato had no idea period poverty was a problem at institutions of higher learning until a Kenyatta University student borrowed a sanitary towel from her.
Dr Kisato’s head went into a spin even as she handed the student a packet of pads. A study the don would later conduct on the state of menstrual hygiene among students shed light on the problem.
That is how she embarked on a journey to make Bespoke sanitary towels. The pads are affordable and environmentally friendly as they are made from banana fibre and seaweed.
“I assumed period poverty was only in secondary school. That is what the government says. This changed after 120 respondents said university students from poor backgrounds struggle to get sanitary towels,” the don, who once taught in high school, says.
“The study also showed many users of the towels discard them in rubbish bins. This means sanitary towels contribute to pollution as they are made of plastic. We are on a journey to address these twin problems.”
The fashion designer, who teaches entrepreneurship, leads a team of scholars and students to make sanitary towels.
“We are developing a towel that will compete with the ones in the market. Farmers will a market for banana fibre and seaweed. The enhanced sanitary towels project is about improving the material that is used in making the towels,” she says.
“In the first project financed by the National Research Fund, we made a super absorbent core of the towel from banana fibre. When a banana grows, we cut the fruit and discard the stem. We thought of converting the biomass into something useful. That is the biomass we have converted into the absorbent core which is like cotton for the sanitary towel. From that step, we will enhance the material.”
Dr Kisato’s team, which includes Dr Edwin Madivoli – a chemistry lecturer at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology – is on the second part of the project.
It is to boost its ability to absorb fluids, add antibacterial properties, and seal it with a bio-plastic sheeting.
The team secured financing from the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) – a project of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (Icipe).
“We are enhancing the amount of fluid it can absorb. Because seaweed is biodegradable, it can be used to make materials that are harmless to the environment. The project will unlock a market for seaweed, which is grown in the Coast,” Dr Madivoli said.
The sanitary towel comes with added value. Dr Kisato says some people tend to wear the towels longer than usual.
“It can lead to infections. With the anti-microbial properties, we hope our sanitary towel will perform well in the African environment,” she told Higher Education on the sidelines of a meeting with an RSIF team evaluating the impact of the money the organisation has given Kenyan scholars in the last five years.
An initiative of 10 African governments in partnership with the World Bank, RSIF offers grants to doctorate students. It also supports scientific research and the capacity of universities.
Dr Kisato has received a Sh1 million grant from RSIF. This has added to Sh19,830,000 the amount the project has attracted to date.
“We expect the final product to hit the market in September,” she told the RSIF team.
Once the product is ready for the market, Dr Kisato and her team plan to partner with an established company and launch it. The plan is to team up with a start-up or a company that makes toilet paper or sanitary pads.
She expects the sanitary towel to be the cheapest in Kenya.
“The cheapest pad in the market is Sh5. We hope ours will cost less,” she says.
Kenyatta University Vice-Chancellor, Paul Wainaina, says the innovation is a step towards industrialisation and climate change mitigation.
“We look forward to the day Kenyan scholars translate their research to address societal problems,” he says.