Women, Nature, and Opportunity in Africa
Wednesday, Apr. 23, 2014
BaNaPads demonstrates an inclusive economy
The transformation of a social problem into an opportunity for mutual benefit is the kernel of social entrepreneurship. One need not look further than BaNaPads (GSBI 2012) to illustrate how social entrepreneurs recognize a social need and create a business with a mission to serve their fellow human beings. As he was finishing up his studies at university, Richard Bbaale learned about the significant social and economic problems caused by the lack of access to women’s sanitary products in Uganda. Many teenage girls miss school days during the menstruation cycle, and this becomes a leading cause of girls failing to complete their studies. The inability to complete school has lifelong consequences, keeping women at an economic and social disadvantage. Most Ugandans are quite poor, and no multinational corporation perceived any opportunity to market these products to them.
Where others saw problems, Bbaale perceived economic opportunities. He identified an agricultural waste product, the banana stem (technically, a pseudostem) as a free resource. Uganda grows a lot of bananas, and after the fruit are harvested, the banana stalk is chopped down to decompose in the field. Bbaale identified a process for transforming this into different kinds of fibers that are assembled and sterilized into sanitary napkins.
BaNaPads’ marketing and distribution system is just as innovative and important. Bbaale has recruited BaNaPads Champions: village women – mothers and grandmothers – who sell the sanitary products and foster community education among girls. These micro-entrepreneurs are deeply rooted in village communities, and have the trust of locals. They sell products on consignment, often using local schools as their venue.
Thus, BaNaPads has been able to keep its costs very low and yet is able to reach and benefit customers very far from the beaten path. At the same time, they provide a modest income for African women villagers.
When I saw Bbaale give his business plan presentation at GSBI two years ago, I thought: this is very nice, feel-good project, but unlikely to do very much. Later that year, I had the privilege of visiting the BaNaPads facility in Uganda, and came away impressed with the passion, determination, and entrepreneurial approach of Bbaale and his team. He has a bold vision: to scale up significantly and expand to other East African countries. Recent reports indicate he is gaining traction! They have opened a facility in Tanzania and begun operations there, with plans for more.
In December 2013, Thane Kreiner and Pamela Roussos brought an executive social benefit immersion delegation to visit Bbaale. That night, Thane emailed me and insisted we send Global Social Benefit Fellows to support BaNaPads in their expansion. The enterprise received a grant from the Swedish International Development Agency to scale up their production and expand their networks of BaNaPads Champions. A European investor has expressed interest in funding further expansion.
This summer, three Global Social Benefit Fellows will spend 7 weeks in Uganda with Bbaale, conducting action research to document how BaNaPads is expanding. BanaPads is replacing their hand machines with an integrated set of biogas-powered production system, and this needs to be analyzed and optimized. The enterprise is scaling up its recruitment and training of village-based micro-entrepreneurs and needs to formalize those processes in a manual. They have demonstrated that demand far outstrips their current capacity, but they are seeking a mobile app that can effectively track their distribution activities. Our fellows will conduct a needs assessment and partner with the Frugal Innovation Lab to recruit engineering students to develop this.
Women have made good progress toward equal opportunities in the US and Europe over the past fifty years, but many obstacles clutter the path of African women toward equality. Many media reports reinforce Afro-pessimism, the belief that Africa’s problems are unsolvable. Yet Bbaale and BanaPads show us that with entrepreneurial thinking, women can indeed find their place in an inclusive economy.