It's not every Harvard Business School grad who puts her degree to use making sanitary pads out of banana trees. But that's exactly what Elizabeth Scharpf is doing, as part of a new push to produce affordable sanitary supplies for women around the world.
"I was on a trip to Mozambique a few years ago when I heard that women were staying home from work because they couldn't afford sanitary pads," says Scharpf. "I was shocked. Then I was kind of outraged." She later learned that the problem spans the globe. Let's face it: Not every town in the world has an entire Walmart aisle devoted to tampons.
So Scharpf started looking for solutions. In 2007, she founded a nonprofit called SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises), then began doing her homework. Recently the group launched its first project: helping women in Rwanda set up their own businesses manufacturing sanitary pads from banana-tree fibers. Why Rwanda? "There's a real need there, and the country has the largest percentage of women in government in the world, so we knew we'd have support," says Scharpf. Why banana trees? "Imported raw materials were driving up the price of pads, so we started looking into cheaper local options," she says. To do so, Scharpf experimented with materials ranging from cassava leaves to cornstalks to potato roots. Banana-tree fibers won the day. An added bonus: Farmers get to turn banana-tree trunks—which usually get chucked in the trash—into a cash crop.
Rwanda is just the beginning, says Scharpf. Eventually, she plans to expand across Africa and into Southeast Asia and Central America. If you'd asked her a few years ago if she'd be helping people make sanitary pads out of banana trees, she says, laughing, "I would have thought, No." But the job has its appeal. "I knew I wanted to find solutions to social problems," she says, "and I'm excited about what I do every day."
Learn more about Sustainable Health Enterprises at SHEinnovates.com (opens in new tab).
Abigail Pesta is an award-winning investigative journalist who writes for major publications around the world. She is the author of The Girls: An All-American Town, a Predatory Doctor, and the Untold Story of the Gymnasts Who Brought Him Down.
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