R4D’s Innovations in WASH talk to Kathy Walkling, co-founder of Eco Femme
Menstrual health is a crucial yet inadequately addressed issue for poor women in developing countries. Religious and socio-cultural factors typically perpetuate a culture of denial and shame associated with the menstrual experience. This causes detrimental effects as unsafe menstrual practices (i.e., using unclean cloth or other makeshift alternatives like sand and paper) can compromise women’s health and diminish participation in school and community.
Eco Femme’s Innovative Start
Kathy Walking started Eco Femme in 2009 in Auroville, South India, to try and address these issues.
The social enterprise works to educate disadvantaged and marginalized women and girls living in rural areas about the benefits of using safe, eco-friendly cloth pads instead of unhygienic cloth pads or heavily polluting disposable pads. Eco Femme has produced its own range of cotton washable pads designed to be comfortable, secure, absorbent and attractive, while being reusable for at least 2 years.
Kathy came up with the idea for Eco Femme after experiencing the disposal difficulties associated with menstrual products first-hand.
She said: “I became an avid cloth pad user when I moved to India, but after trying to dig holes in baked earth to bury menstrual products each month, I figured there must be an easier way."
After learning of cloth menstrual pads, Kathy began experimenting with designs and started producing them for women in Auroville and visiting friends. “Without really trying, I found myself having a small business.”
Photo Caption: Eco Femme's Pad Travel Pouches
Taking an Innovative Approach to Marketing
Eco Femme’s approach is about more than just delivering a better product. Her work with a local NGO (AVAG) serving rural women made her aware of the local realities and challenges of menstruation faced by girls and women, an experience that informed the development of a more integrated approach to menstrual hygiene management. “We want to address the myths, taboos, fears, and the belief systems that lead to lifestyle restrictions among women, so that they experience it [menstruation] not as something to be ashamed of or feel is dirty or impure, but something that they can embrace as part of their healthy self-identity."
To do this, Eco Femme uses a three-pronged approach combining an eco-friendly and culturally-adapted product, a hybrid business model, and an educational program to provide adolescent girls the knowledge, skills and confidence to manage their period in a healthy and dignified manner.
The centerpiece of Eco Femme’s program is their cloth pad, described above. These pads are sold to middle and upper-class women in India and also on the international market, mostly in the UK, US and the Netherlands. But to ensure these pads are also available to poor, rural women and girls, Eco Femme came up with the “Pad for Pad” scheme which builds a donation into each internationally sold pad (about 80 INR per pad) that allows for cross-subsidization of Eco Femme’s menstruation education program and also funds menstrual product kits with four free pads and a travel pouch for Indian girls in rural schools.
Through this hybrid business model, Eco Femme’s staff of 9 people has sold or freely distributed 31,021 pads and has provided menstrual hygiene education to 2,561 adolescent girls. They do this in partnership with community-based organizations and NGOs.
Rounding out their innovative approach, Eco Femme designs and manufactures the pads with rural women’s self-help groups (SHG), providing livelihood opportunities for community women. Ten SHG members from partner NGO Auroville Village Action Group have been trained in advanced tailoring and now use their skills to stitch washable cloth pads of export quality. Eco Femme is currently developing a scalable business model for women’s village-based enterprises, where women are trained in stitching and business management skills.
Photo Caption: Eco Femme's Menstrual Education Classes
But there have been challenges along the way and there will be more to come, especially if the social enterprise is to reach its goal of reaching 10,000 girls across India. One of the major challenges is around changing attitudes, not among the girls and women Eco Femme works with, but with opinion leaders such as doctors and politicians. The team discovered this when they presented their work to officials and doctors from the Government.
She said: “We recently undertook an evaluation and what we found was that girls are open to changing their behavior. They are early on in their menstrual lives and haven’t formed habits yet.”
“Surprisingly it was the doctors we met who needed convincing. They were all female doctors but they had all these assumptions about cloth pads being unhygienic and that girls can’t be expected to wash cloth pads, and would need to get their mothers to do it.”
Discouraged, Kathy and the team have decided to focus their energies on working at the grassroots level. She said: “It could be extremely high impact to get the government on board but finding that opening requires incredible patience." She instead now prefers to work with early adopters rather than spending a lot of effort to convince people about Eco Femme’s approach.
Working with R4D’s Regional Partner
Going forward, Eco Femme is working hard to build up its business skills and grow its international sales, including setting up an online store, growing its rural distribution network, developing partnerships with grassroots organizations, and exploring production models to get the price down. The team is also thinking about recruitment to help with this work. Dasra will be key to helping them build this capacity through its training workshops. Kathy said: “Dasra is a smart, competent Indian organization which is giving us great help as an organization.”
When asked what she needed as a WASH entrepreneur, Kathy pointed to the lack of women leaders from which she could draw inspiration.
She said: “Through Dasra we’ve looked at business case studies on the CEOs of Starbucks, Disney, Microsoft etc. But these are all white males. We need profiles of women!”