Many Harvard Business School classmates went to hedge funds or Wall Street, but Elizabeth Scharpf works in Africa… with sanitary pads.
In 2007, Scharpf started Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) to manufacture and distribute menstrual pads from banana leaf fiber. The idea came about because, while working in Mozambique in grad school, she learned many women in factories were missing work because of their periods.
Tampons and pads are an economic issue in the developing world. Girls miss school for lack of menstrual products. Even working women often don’t have access to or can’t afford them. All told, women the developing world lose nearly five years of learning or earning because of this issue. Sharpf says, “It shocked me. I have an outrage about lack of equity and justice. In the for-profit world as well, I have outrage for the market opportunity that was missed.”
Working with the market is part of her plan. Although SHE is a nonprofit in the U.S., the African arm is run as a business. “I started SHE with the ideology that this was not going to be another aid project, it was going to be about creating businesses,” says Scharpf, who once even handed a pad to Bill Clinton.
To create the pads, the company uses banana fiber, which is absorbent, found locally, and often treated as waste. She consulted with MIT and the University of North Carolina on ways to work with the fluff efficiently. This year, the group has been developing a better manufacturing process and is doing a pilot on an industrial scale. The idea is to produce the fluff in a central location, and a decentralized network will assemble the pads.
SHE has devised an effective distribution system by training community health workers to be distributors and sole proprietors who earn extra income by selling pads. This cuts out two or three layers of middlemen who might each take a 20% markup, and it also cuts out those margins. So the banana fiber products cost 30% less than available imports. Her system is working. Scharpf says, “At the end of the day, when you’re working with communities in emerging markets, people want jobs, they don’t want handouts.”
Next, SHE hopes to sign up schools to sell directly to consumers. Meanwhile, some factories are starting to buy pads for their workers. So this issue that had been shrouded in embarrassment is now being solved. It’s being disrupted with a market-based solution.
In 2004, Scharpf was working in the pharmaceutical industry and consulting pro bono for the Clinton Foundation. At the time, HIV drugs cost $15,000 per year per patient, and 45 million people needed the drugs. Generic companies could produce a higher volume at a lower price and sold the drugs for $300 year; big pharma could have either matched that price, or given it away. “The generic companies could not have disrupted the market unless they had a business approach,” she says.
So SHE is both a 501(c)(3) and a for-profit company. Scharpf says, “There has been aid for the last 50 years, but it has been business as usual. There has a lot of wasting of funds — there have been too many 4x4s. Being for-profit signals to the community that you have a different approach.” If SHE does make a lot of money, Scharpf says, it’ll be able to replicate the model in other countries.
Scharpf is amazed that what she was researching years ago in emerging markets has now taken places in this country. “Even in the United States, people want jobs, they don’t want handouts. They want to work hard, make money, and to be able to provide for their families,” she says. Whether in emerging markets or here, she adds, “It just takes an entrepreneurial approach to catapult communities ahead.”
So far Scharpf has had good support, receiving everything from $20 donations up to six-figure gifts. Her supporters fall into two camps: “Other entrepreneurs who share the passion that entrepreneurship is going to disrupt and change the ways things work, and people who have passion that girls and women are the most underutilized economic and social capital asset.”
Elizabeth Scharpf believes in both.
This interview is cross-posted from vitaminw.co a platform for women’s news, business and philanthropy which profiles social entrepreneurs regularly.