Two MHM programs in the WASH Impact Network teamed up to imagine a better way of working together.
While the development sector and private sector may be perceived as operating under two different sets of rules, the “markets” that exist within the development sector create competition similar to that found in the private sector. Development organizations have revenues in the form of incoming funding, and expenses for running an organization and implementing programs. Just like a business, a development organization must have a greater or equal amount of revenue than expenses to stay afloat. Two organizations offering a similar “product”—for example, water filter distribution, behavior change communication programs, or technical assistance services—must compete for limited resources to fund operations and growth. And while “collaboration” will likely be cited as a core value by program managers and funders alike, in reality this can be challenging in such a highly competitive environment. Organizations, therefore, are incentivized to protect their intellectual property in order to maintain a competitive edge.
Two visionary leaders of innovative WASH programs in the WASH Impact Network are calling for a different way of working together in menstrual hygiene management (MHM). Rachel Starkey is the Founder and Chief Visionary Officer of Transformation Textiles, an organization that produces reusable menstrual products and trains women entrepreneurs to sell their products, and Megan White Mukuria is the Founder of ZanaAfrica, an organization that works with community-based organizations to educate young girls and women on reproductive and sexual health and ensures access to disposable menstrual products. Together, they wrote the Global Alliance of MHM Enterprises (GAME) Manifesto. The GAME Manifesto is a call to action for MHM enterprises to partner and share information in order to give women and girls access to a robust market of MHM products where they can choose the option that works best for their unique needs.
Rachel Starkey of Transformation Textiles spoke to us and explained how the GAME Manifesto was created and the problem that Starkey and Mukuria aim to solve.
Results for Development Institute (R4D): How did the conversation between you and ZanaAfrica begin?
Transformation Textiles (TT): Do you know that Dr. Seuss story about the Star-Belly Sneetches and the Plain-Belly Sneetches? That’s how it is with MHM programs. Either you are in the reusable camp, where you think disposables are evil because they’re bad for the environment; or you’re in the disposable camp, where you think reusables are evil because they’re unhygienic or they require access to water. And while this “good guy/bad buy” debate is going on, there are lots of women out there without access to the products they need.
ZanaAfrica is in the disposable camp and Transformation Textiles is in the reusable camp. But we started talking because we realized we both want to help these same girls and women.
We started asking ourselves, why does it have to be one or the other? Women should have choices. Why are we choosing to stay in our separate camps? Why don’t we build a bridge? Why don’t we band together and create a spectrum of choice? I like to go to the supermarket and choose what I want, but can you imagine if you didn’t have that choice? If someone told you what your choice was? We might not be able to offer them everything, but we can offer them some options. That’s dignity.
R4D: What do you want to see change in the MHM sector?
TT: As recently as 2013 and 2014, nobody was really talking about periods. But in 2008—well before it was ‘in vogue’—ZanaAfrica was working with the government of Kenya to write MHM programs into their budget. I learned about ZanaAfrica, and was really impressed with their vision, and the fact that they were on a long-term path. They’re saying, let’s not just give them pads, but let’s talk about communication and education and measuring impact and writing policy and advocacy. It’s about more than just pads.
Transformation Textiles is also on a long path after we realized that underwear is a real unmet need. Everyone is talking about “pads, pads, pads,” but no one is talking about underwear. How do they strap these things to their legs without underwear? We wanted to do it sustainably and affordably, but underwear is taxed at 30% as a luxury item. So they looked for loopholes and found that menstrual items aren’t taxed.
We’re currently writing national standards for reusables for Kenya. They’re not ratified yet, but they talk about the need for undergarments that would be classified as sanitary towels. That will set a precedent so that period underwear will be able to come into the country duty free.
R4D: What were your goals for the GAME Manifesto? What do you want to accomplish?
TT: Let’s say I live in a village and I go to my local store to buy some pads. There are two brands to choose from: A and B. Product A has great branding and marketing, but the product itself is poor. Because I have a choice, it can spur product A to improve their product instead of saying, “this is good enough for them.”
So by building that bridge between the silos, it can help us make better products. We have to start working like an actual market. Like a real market. We can’t just keep our corners of poverty to ourselves. I want ZanaAfrica to sell my products and I want to sell their products. Let’s all offer a lot of different options. Let’s all grow up a little.
In addition, we hope that we can start creating standards for reusable products together. People have been trying to create a standard since 1985, but they always go it alone for their one product—never together. When I went to my first meeting, reusable companies guarded their IP and lab reports. But this is a new day. 2015 did a lot in bridging gaps between silos. In Uganda, on Menstrual Hygiene Day, the different enterprises came together to create a charter. It’s not a standard yet, but it acknowledged the need to work together. I reached out to manufacturers in Uganda and they shared a draft of what they were writing to form the basis of a standard, which we then took and blended with other standards (Canada and the US shared what they did with the Federal Drug Administration in setting standards for reusable menstrual hygiene products). So with all of these shared resources, we have created a draft standard that is being considered in Kenya.
R4D: Who else was involved in the creation of the GAME Manifesto?
TT: When I tried to reach out to other textile manufacturers, I was surprised at how siloed it was. There wasn’t a lot of sharing; there wasn’t a lot of collaboration because we’re all competing for money from the same funders and impact investors. But if you think about how many girls are in need, we need each other. We need the small rural manufacturer to reach those rural women, and the urban manufacturers to reach urban women, and we need people that are thinking about all those other women in between.
R4D: How did the GAME Manifesto spread?
TT: At first, the GAME Manifesto was just an internal document to say that Transformation Textiles and ZanaAfrica want to work together. ZanaAfrica does disposable pad giveaways and uses Transformation Textile’s tie-on underwear in the schools where they provide MHM education for girls. We also shared market research between our two organizations.
Then we then made the GAME manifesto more general and shared it with others to get feedback. It was immediately shared on WASH United’s global website. WASH United has over 300 partners and is a neutral body, so it becomes a powerful platform to create further buy-in.
R4D: What are your hopes for the future of the MHM sector?
TT: We hope that this spurs the recreation of the industry. I hope it will make us more intentional in our collaboration and allow us to create industry standards. It’s not just about products; it’s about education and overcoming taboos and having an industry of shared resources. By having a common watering hole that we all come to, we can share the resources that we create. That’s what an industry can do. We’ve started doing this on EVA Wear as a way to cross-advocate and open up our resources for anyone to use.
The Game Manifesto is a stepping stone that opened the door to say let’s work together.
Find out more and connect with the trailblazing teams at Transformation Textiles and ZanaAfrica by visiting their profiles. For more insights into the innovators in the MHM sector, read our blog here.