We talked to Sophia Grinvalds, Co-founder at Director at AFRIpads Ltd, the world’s leading social enterprise manufacturing reusable sanitary pads and here is what she said about it.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Sophia Grinvalds: We are all well and safe, which is a lot to be thankful for in the midst of this global pandemic. My husband Paul (also Co-Founder of AFRIpads), our two daughters, and I reside in Kampala, Uganda. We are making the most of spending more quality time together as a family, alongside looking forward to a time when meeting with friends, travel, schooling, and other activities can safely resume.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded AFRIpads Ltd.
Sophia Grinvalds: I graduated from McGill University (Montréal, Canada) in 2005 with a Bachelor’s of Arts in Environment and Development and a minor in Medical Anthropology.
Shortly after graduating, I traveled to Uganda, where I experienced firsthand the challenges *women and girls were facing during the week of their period. While still in Uganda, we started a pilot project to explore how cloth sanitary pads might solve some of these challenges in a sustainable and affordable way. It was just a year later that, together with my husband, we launched AFRIpads Ltd – a social enterprise that specializes in the local manufacture and global supply of reusable sanitary pads.
AFRIpads has since grown from a 3-person startup to a 150 strong team across East Africa – 86% of whom are women from marginalized backgrounds who work in the AFRIpads Factory in rural Uganda.
To date, we have reached over 3.5 million women and girls in more than 30 countries across Africa and the Middle East with our reusable pads – bringing them one step closer to menstrual and gender equality.
How does AFRIpads Ltd innovate?
Sophia Grinvalds: Innovation is at the heart of what we do. In fact, our mission statement at AFRIpads is to empower women and girls through business, innovation and opportunity.
We began as solely a reusable pad manufacturer, but we’ve evolved into a truly holistic Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) partner in order to better meet the needs of the women and girls we serve. As an impact-driven organization, we learnt quickly that addressing menstrual health holistically means going beyond the provision of menstrual products. Today, in addition to our quality certified reusable pads, we work directly with our partners, including UN agencies and NGOs, to provide them with a range of additional resources, including our MHH Education Toolkit and our Data Collection Toolkit.
We started AFRIpads with a single reusable pad prototype, and today product innovation remains a core priority. We’re constantly developing new prototypes to ensure our menstrual products are accepted and appropriate in varying contexts – whether humanitarian, development or retail. Our user-centered design approach to Research & Design ensures that women’s and girls’ needs, preferences and feedback directly inform our designs and keep us innovating. This approach has also triggered us to develop a new product after recognizing that many women and girls in developing countries lacked access to quality, comfortable underwear that fit their bodies. Designed in collaboration with women and girls in Africa over the past 2 years, we’re thrilled to launch AFRIpads Underwear, which can be worn in combination with AFRIpads reusable pads – or as everyday underwear.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Sophia Grinvalds: Responding to the coronavirus pandemic, in April 2019, the Ugandan government instituted a strict national lockdown but permitted factories to continue operating if workers remained on the premises. This sudden lockdown resulted in a 2-week temporary shut-down of our factory while we determined how to logistically and practically meet this requirement. The first priority was to talk to our employees to ask if they were willing to temporarily move on-site. Ultimately, 60 of our factory workers agreed, and we jumped into action – transforming the ground floor of our 3,000 square meter factory into a dormitory. We organized beds, mattresses, mosquito nets, a TV, set up a netball area and began providing 3 meals a day to our team, in addition to implementing strict health and safety procedures. We manufactured over one million reusable pads during this period, delivered orders to over 13 countries, and reached over 175,000 women and girls.
For me personally, it was a hands-on reminder of how ‘essential’ factory workers around the world are to daily life – ensuring the supply chain of basic commodities like menstrual products. I’m incredibly proud of our team and the challenges we overcame together to continue manufacturing throughout 2020.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety, how do you project yourself and AFRIpads Ltd in the future?
Sophia Grinvalds: There were a lot of stressful moments in 2020 – too many to count. My biggest outlet for stress has always been exercise and sports, and I put more miles on my running shoes than I have in years!
As for AFRIpads, last year, we celebrated our 10th year of business, and I’m incredibly optimistic about the decade ahead. Menstrual equity has more momentum, interest and urgency than ever before – and we are starting 2021 with a renewed sense of purpose, focus and resilience.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Sophia Grinvalds: One of many things I love about working in the Menstrual Health and Hygiene space is that we are all working towards a world where dignified menstruation and menstrual equity exist for all. The beauty is that unlike many’ big challenges,’ this one is achievable in our lifetime, but it requires a wide range of stakeholders and expertise. We all have our role to play, and as interest in period poverty grows, we get smarter, bolder and more innovative as a sector! Our decade of work in menstrual health also shows that the power to drive sustainable change lies in collaboration.
In terms of menstrual products, the most widely available products are single-use disposable pads and tampons. But with growing environmentalism, reusable products like cloth pads, period panties and menstrual cups are gaining traction. This is an important shift! We believe strongly that there is no ‘one size fits all’ menstrual product.
Product choice is an important part of menstrual equity, and as AFRIpads, we will keep doing our part to bring quality reusable pads to the hands of millions of women and girls.
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