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Women, periods, menstrual hygiene, Cameroon.
Just one item can change the lives of millions of women. That’s the message conveyed by Olivia Mvondo, co-founder of KmerPad, a Cameroonian company that makes sanitary pads with the support of Agence Française de Développement and FDEV (Investment Funds of Africa). The company won a prize this week in Paris for its mix of solidarity and entrepreneurialism.

We meet Olivia Mvondo, who is also behind “educational chats”, where Cameroonians are invited to talk about sensitive – even taboo topics - with an eye to improving women's health.

“In Cameroon, still today, a young girl may be told not to cook when she has her period because the dishes would be ruined,” says Olivia Mvondo, one of the co-founders of KmerPad, a company manufacturing reusable sanitary pads and winner of the Grands prix de la finance solidaire 2019, a prize for solidarity-based entrepreneurial initiatives. 

She decries the many taboos that continue to hang over menstruation in Central and West Africa and in many other parts of the world.

Widely stigmatized, especially during puberty, menstruation is seldom a topic of open discussion. Indeed, it can be shrouded in mystery and misconceptions, not least among young people, who are most in need of information and advice from family or medical and school staff.

A Sanitary and Social Curse

Such silence poses real health risks to young women, as Olivia Mvondo has seen: “Some girls and women use pieces of fabric, polystyrene or fleece—all totally inappropriate,” she says. “They often don’t realize the need to change several times a day. The subject is so taboo that bad practices are rife.” 

For many girls and young women, proper sanitary protection continues to be too costly, making safe menstruation difficult. 

In the poorest families, the budget that should be allocated to sanitary protection is still too often overlooked in favor of higher priority purchases. 

In this way, women’s health can be put in jeopardy. “As long as menstrual hygiene is not considered a social issue and a real public health problem, it will be difficult to bring about change within the family structure,” says Olivia Mvondo. 

As well as undermining the health of millions of teenage girls, this  discrimination can have direct consequences on their schooling. It is estimated that one in ten young women in Africa miss school during their menstruation period, mainly because they lack the means to obtain disposable sanitary pads. These repeated absences can have serious ramifications for their academic career and ultimately on access to the labor market.

The KmerPad Adventure

To combat the health risks and the scourge of girls dropping out of school, Olivia Mvondo and three friends founded the KmerPad Joint Initiative Group (GIC) in 2012. (The name is a contraction of Kmer, slang for Cameroon, and pad.)

The company produces and markets cotton sanitary pads that can be washed and reused: “The idea at the outset was that young Cameroonian women should no longer need to worry about access to sanitary protection,” says Olivia Mvondo. “For this we designed kits, each containing three sanitary pads and offering at least 18 months of self-sufficiency.” 

In addition to being practical and environmentally friendly, the product is more affordable. In Cameroon, a pack of disposable sanitary pads costs 600 CFA francs (€0.90) compared to 3,000 CFA francs (€4.50) for a washable sanitary protection kit that can last a long time. The investment is therefore cost effective in the long term.

Since its launch, this small business has flourished: it now employs 20 people in the capital Yaoundé and is selling around two thousand kits each month. While its customers were initially mainly NGOs (UNICEF, UNFPA and UN Women), its distribution channels have now expanded: since 2017, the kits are available in pharmacies and Cameroon supermarkets.

Educational Chats on Menstrual Hygiene

Its action does not stop there: the company also organizes “educational chats” whose main objective is to raise awareness among the population —both female and male — of the importance of good menstrual hygiene practices. “We have worked in refugee camps, prisons, schools, in rural and urban communities,” says Olivia Mvondo.

For each audience there is a personalized approach: “When we meet little girls in the schools, we favor a very playful approach. We use pictures and gadgets. For older girls, we organize discussions and workshops. Each participant begins by telling a story. Once the contact has been established and the taboo lifted, when the participants feel more confident, we broaden the teaching, we go right to the heart of the matter.” 

This is an opportunity to talk about good practices, both in terms of the use of sanitary pads and the disposal of waste. It is also a chance to encourage people to spread the word so that harmful stigmas are lifted in West Africa, and women’s health becomes a higher priority. 

KmerPad hopes to distribute its products throughout West Africa and Central Africa. To speed up its development, the company has, since June 2019, been able to count on financial support from FADEV, an investment company supporting small and medium-sized companies with a social impact in Mali, Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire.

For its part, FADEV is receiving an operating grant from Agence Française de Développement through to 2022. This is an effective way for AFD to promote the initiatives of local entrepreneurs to reduce gender-based inequalities and to empower women.