I am proudly a New York based nurse and love serving. I am also a women and girls empowerment champion and a menstrual hygiene activist.
But a few years ago during my empowerment travels to different countries in Africa, I figured a disturbing social problem around women and girl's menstrual health issues. The rate of school dropout among school girls and teenage pregnancies was alarming. This was due to the lack of affordable sanitary products for young girls. Adolescent girls in Africa miss school during their menstruation and eventually drop out. Young girls are at a disadvantage in terms of education, preventing their mobility and productivity as they mature. This certainly leads to the continuity of the poverty cycle and the inequity between genders in education opportunities. UNESCO reports that the majority of young girls are unable to afford basic sanitary care due to products costing above US $2, more than an average family lives on.
Also, another major problem associated with menstruation is taboo or traditions. Menstruation is still a stigma in major rural parts of Cameroon. This stems from lack of awareness and education about the basics of menstruation. During menstruation women in some of these areas are kept within their homes owing to certain traditions. Some communities believe that menstruation brings bad luck to the people, farm, business activities and the community at large. And because rural women do not have proper menstrual pad (one that absorbs and keeps the blood from flowing out), menstruating women and girls in rural communities prefer to stay in door 4-5 days a month during menstruation.
In an effort to contribute my own little quota to solving the problem, I started a self-funded project-KujaPads Initiative which was aimed at empowering vulnerable girls in rural communities in the North West region of Cameroon to stay on track in school during their monthly period so as to reach their full potential. However it was not sustainable as many school girls joined the program and I was not strong financially to help all of them.
Then I launched another initiative One million Pad drive with the aim of amassing one million pads by the year 2020 for the girls in my program. Yes of course it was a crazy dream as I was mocked and laughed at by so many friends and family. Well as it is often said to be careful what you wish for, pads started pouring in from different parts of the world like rain. Many schools here in New York and organizations joined me by donating pads or contributing their time to help with pad drives in different places. I was so overwhelmed with joy at how the world was joining me. However, my happiness came to a halt when I discovered that shipping cost to Cameroon from America and Europe was too expensive. I tried taking some home via Brussels Airline who became our partners but on certain conditions. More than 5000 girls and 40 teachers from ten schools benefitted from both initiatives.
When I realized that the above projects were not sustainable, I embarked on a journey to research better and sustainable options. The more I researched on the topic, the more disturbed I got. It became very personal and a huge burden. How could I set up a plan in Cameroon where sanitary pads can be manufactured locally I asked myself? During that time I discovered that mainstream pads are made from rayon and bleached with tons of chlorine. I also learned that fragrances, dyes and harmful chemicals are added. Such pads fill up landfills and take up to 500-800 years to decompose hence a big hazard to the environment. Of course I did not want to bring such to my women and the country either.
When I researched on reusable pads, I discovered that if not well washed and taken care of, they could cause even bigger health problems for women and girls. More than 300 pad kits were donated to me to give girls in my program. When my team and I went back for feedback, most confessed that they didn't like it. They turned them into face wipes, and handkerchiefs and go for the disposable ones.
I was once more left in the middle of the bridge. After much thoughts and prayers, I set up for another journey which took me around the world. I wanted pads that will be natural and healthy for women and the environment. I wanted pads that will be affordable and accessible to all women and girls no matter their financial status. After a few years, bang! I got it. 100% biodegradable sanitary pads was the catch. I took time to learn how they were made and how to set up women led industries. I was ready.
However, with my naive mind, I started applying for funding. But more than 20 funders turned down my proposals. They could not fund my crazy idea of using banana stem fibers to make sanitary napkins. Since am not the type who gives up easily, I rolled my big sister sleeves and got to work on my nursing job which is my blessing. Within a few years, I saved $50,000. When it was time, I took the highest risk and leap of faith I have ever taken in my entire life. I applied for leave of absence without pay from my job and bought a one way ticket to Cameroon. No one knew about this not even a single person except God. I dare not share such an idea with my family.
I prayed so had because I knew it was going to be tough and long setting up an industry alone. I knew living conditions were going to be terrible. I knew even about the political problems and constant internet cuts in Cameroon, but I went anyway. When I got to Cameroon, my pastor assisted me in selecting rural women from the church and around the community which I started by interviewing them. After interview, we planned a day for orientation. But Maa what is this work all about they asked? And I answered that it was about making sanitary pads for women and girls. They further asked, with what? Where are the machines and materials? Then I assured them that the machines already reached Cameroon and were packed in my home but the material will be banana stem fibers. They were shocked and doubted how that was going to be possible.
The next day, we set up carpenter tables and I started teaching them how to extract fibers from banana stems. We all had laughing fits. What? How will this work maa? Amazingly out of the 20 women I interviewed and started with, many quitted and I was left with eight doubting Thomases. They were determined to see before believing. Training took us time. During this time, we were laughed and mocked at. People in the community said I was a crazy woman has come from America with some crazy dream and other women have left their farms and joined me and we were Wheeling banana stems all over the village. In all we were quiet and determined. Meanwhile work was going on at the center, a very old building we rented. Machines were set up and for many months of training we finally got to the production phase where we made our first sanitary pads. There were laughers and cries of joy. The women all hugged me and couldn't let go. I cried nonstop. Due to much excitement we closed from work that day at 11am instead of our regular closing time of 4pm.
After a month of production, we were ready to introduce our product to the very anxious community. But first we went to Church for Thanksgiving and dedication of our first product. It was God who did it for me and all of us. The community literally went crazy. Women dropped the other brand of pads for our own. The joy in my heart was immense. I finally innovated Cameroon's first 100% biodegradable sanitary napkins made from abandoned banana stem fibers, a product that is affordable and accessible to all women.
If I had wings I could fly. I created employment for women who've never worked in companies nor earned a salary in their lives. Women are involved in their entire value chain. We currently have five units: extraction, processing, production and quality assurance, distribution and sales. But wait! The best day was the day I first paid my women. I called them to prepare their ID cards and come into the office one after another. Their reactions got me hard. My son had to jump in and continue paying them. Tears had covered my eyes as women went down on their knees to receive their first salaries. After that we bought drinks and celebrated. It was the first time for them to receive salaries and my first time to pay my staff.
Back in the community, there was joy as the sales force were there selling and earning commissions per each packet of pad sold. Soon I was invited by the minister of women empowerment of Cameroon who heard about the innovation and was impressed. Media houses (radio, TV and prints) rushed to our center to cover the story.
While I am still awed by the resilience, persistence, determination and faith that God blessed me with till date, I am grateful that I listened to that still small voice which called and encouraged me to create wealth and a source of economic empowerment for women. Today women in my community are proud contributing members of their families and communities thereby enhancing the economy of the country. Together with my sisters who proudly call themselves Kuja Women, we have created a breakthrough in womens health and wellness as they no longer have to use chemicalized western pads or other makeshift options that are detrimental to their health. My sisters not only feel confident about themselves but also feel worthy and wealthy . Besides we have created programs that raise awareness and break myths and taboos about menstruation in schools, women's groups and churches too.
So may I share with you all my sisters some little principles that you MUST adhere to in order to give birth to your dream.
1) Believe you have what it takes
2) Don't let naysayers and put- me- downers (family, friends, coworkers etc.) to discourage you.
3) Don't be discouraged by the lack of funding. Instead, just like the hummingbird do the little you can do with the little you have where you are.
4) Have faith and pray believing that the God who gave you the dream will bless you by positioning the right people on your path who will help to nurture your vision to fruition.
5) Be patient and persistence in your quest to give birth to your dreams. Do not set out to build a wall. Rome was not built in a day. Lay one brick at a time and soon you will build a wall.
6) Believe in yourself and in your abilities to change the world. Do your little best. It is those little quotas that creates ripple impact in the world.
7) Don't give up and never quit no matter what.
8) There is immense joy and fulfillment in empowering others as you too get empowered.
9) Be passionate and purposeful. I love what I do so much. I wake up and look forward to rushing to work to meet my sisters. We Cook together at the center, eat together, laugh and cry together. We have created a very strong sisterhood in menstrual solidarity which is priceless.
10) They will mock and laugh at you, call you crazy and stupid and even abandon you. But listen! Stand firm and work on your vision and dreams and that same crowd who turned their backs on you will use their very hands to clap for you and their mouths to congratulate you. Prove them wrong by your works.
11) Beware of Time-Wasters such as jealousy, hate, envy ,gossip ,backbitting and comparison. These are the highest time Wasters so instead of wasting precious time on any of the above,invest in making yourself a better version of you.We all have unique talents so spend time to build on what you have. Improve on your current skills and learn more. Don't kill yourself trying to copy and paste just to be like Mary or Jane because truthfully you will never be.
12) Appreciate ,admire and ask for help from sisters who know a little more than you do. It's ok. We are all gifted differently. Just be humble enough to ask,learn and grow. Success is not achieved through sabotaging others. When you water others,you water yourself. When you empower others, you empower yourself.
#Stand up,own your voice and your rights and believe you can create wealth for women.
Yours truly in menstrual solidarity