Retired teacher restoring menstrual dignity one pad at a time
What you need to know:
- Bethsheba Otuga's vision is driven by her own experiences as a student and as a teacher handling girls from different backgrounds.
- As a student, she had serious challenges managing her heavy menstrual flow with ordinary sanitary towels and nearly dropped out of school.
When she started going through menopause, Bethsheba Otuga, 63, says she had serious challenges managing her heavy menstrual flow with ordinary sanitary towels, an experience that affected her normal outdoor activities due to fear of leakage.
This was a flashback to her high school days when she almost dropped out because of lack of sanitary towels, an experience that would traumatise her thereafter, until she completed her education.
“One day during my periods, I was in the study room in high school going on with my class assignments. But then when I stood up, I realised that some blood had leaked to the back of my dress because what I wore as a sanitary pad wasn’t absorbent enough.”
This was an embarrassment and she had to stay away from her preps for quite some time. This affected her performance. Luckily for her, she soon moved beyond what had happened and gathered back her confidence.
Unfortunately, history would repeat itself years later when she realised that though time had passed, not much had changed for many girls during their menstruation.
“During my years as a high school teacher, I realised that many girls often skipped school every month, because they couldn’t afford sanitary towels.”
Kept her eyes on the ball
She swore to herself to one day bring the desperately needed change to the lives of many girls and women struggling during that period of the month. She would have to wait for many years to achieve this, after she retired from her teaching job.
Ms Otuga retired in 2016 and saw this as a chance to start the journey to her long-term vision. It officially began in 2018 with a 12-week training programme at Somo Africa, a business incubating organisation.
“I applied to participate in the training and qualified. Afterwards, I came up with a prototype, then started experimenting until the final product was born.”
The training came with a Sh180,000 grant. “I used the money to buy an industrial sewing machine. I already had two domestic ones. I also bought an industrial over-locking machine and enough fabrics and other materials to start a company called Ahadi Reusable Pads.”
During this period, she had also read widely and perfected her sanitary towel-making skills. “I sharpened my knowledge of fabrics used, and together with the grasp on textiles I had acquired in school, I was able to source locally available absorbent materials.”
In 2019, armed with the knowledge she had gathered and the basic tailoring skills she had acquired as a girl from her mother, Ms Otuga officially launched the organisation.
It specialises in making reusable sanitary towels that provide an affordable alternative for girls from low-income, disadvantaged communities in Kenya.
“The sanitary towels are made from cotton, flannel, fleece fabrics, and towels, which are very absorbent and comfortable, and, if well taken care of, the washable pads can be reused for 12 months,” she adds.
According to Ms Otuga, the final product is designed in such a way that it doubles up as a wet pad to carry used wet sanitary towels while outdoors.
Currently, she has five permanent employees, and a few other casuals. In a month, they can make up to 4,000 packs, each containing four wet bags, four sanitary towels and an email instructions leaflet.
Because most needy girls and women cannot afford them, the organisation partners with well-wishers and stakeholders who sponsor girls’ education and empowerment. “We also sell our sanitary towels through partners, individuals and corporates.”
So far, they’ve reached almost 8,000 girls from across the country, delivering the much needed products to schools in various informal settlements within Nairobi, as well as in the rural areas in different parts of Kenya.
“We have distributed these sanitary towels to institutions in Kibera, Machakos, Kakamega, Mombasa, Kisumu, among other areas, and to non-schooled girls and women.”
Besides distributing the pads, they conduct broader menstrual discussions revolving around hygiene and other topics that are otherwise considered taboo and embarrassing.
“We talk about breaking the cultural silence on the subject, which has led to stigma and shame on menstrual issues. We learn about the reproductive system, demystifying the issue of menstruation. We also tackle issues to do with early pregnancies and marriages, as well as basic self-defence skills.”
In September 2021, Ms Otuga became a finalist of the GreenBiz programme, a five-year project implemented by Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, which seeks to increase the commercialisation and scale-up of climate-related companies.
Under the programme, her company received practical training and business coaching to prove the concept in the market and progress towards commercialisation. But even with this, her company has continued to face numerous challenges.
“I’ve met so many girls and women in need of this product but lack the financial means. That’s why we hope to raise funds to purchase the materials we need so that we are able to distribute sanitary towels to needy girls across the country,” she adds.
But her biggest hurdle, for a long time, has been getting certification from the Kenya Bureau of Standards (Kebs). “I am finding it difficult to comply with Kebs standards. What they recommend is not locally available, yet what I use is very affordable and available for our product.”
She, however, says her company has tested the end product with a number of consumers and the feedback they get is promising. Currently, she is looking forward to testing if their fabrics meet the required parameters like absorbency and hygiene.
“But this needs more research, which a small and medium enterprise proprietor can't afford to do.”