Increasing Potential, Decreasing Absenteeism

Jennifer Shigoli keeps girls in school. With the distribution of sanitary pads, in three months in rural Tanzania, absenteeism among girls in five schools dropped from 27% to just 5%. Jennifer’s ELEA Reusable Pads ensure affordable menstrual hygiene for teen girls. Now, instead of missing school, girls can learn. Instead of being shamed, girls are proud. With a profound mission of increasing school attendance and the self-esteem of girls, Jennifer is charging ahead and making a difference.

This mission earned Jennifer $150,000 of seed funding in the 2016 African Entrepreneurship Award. Significant funding, coupled with year-long mentoring, ensure Jennifer and ELEA can continue to make an impact on teen girls in Tanzania.

In a few short months, Jennifer’s company, Malkia Investments increased employment from 11 to 25. These 25 employees work on production, marketing, and distribution of ELEA Reusable Pads. The product revolutionizes girls’ health and educational access in Tanzania.

The increase in numbers doesn’t stop there. Before winning the African Entrepreneurship Award in 2016, Jennifer’s business produced 750-1,000 packs of ELEA pads a week. With the injection of Award funding, that number grew to 5,000 packs a week. An upgraded, expanded and fully operational facility by the end of 2017 means Jennifer will produce 20,000 packs a week.

Shattering Taboos, Improving Lives

In the developing world, many girls cannot afford proper menstrual hygiene, leading to ripple effects on their education and health. Absenteeism plagues school-aged girls in much of the developing world. A simple fact of life, menstruation, perpetuates unfortunate consequences for so many. Jennifer believes it does not need to be this way, and pilot results in schools substantiate her belief. And, with more than 5 million adolescent girls in Tanzania alone, Jennifer has a big task. She is up for the challenge.

Jennifer says the enormous decrease in absenteeism from 27% to 5% was driven not only by the distribution of ELEA pads, but also, Jennifer says “with the involvement of male teachers.” This, she continues, “has had a huge impact in the schools. Before it was seen as a taboo, but it helped change the myth and significantly increase the use of sanitary pads.”

The myths and taboos about women’s hygiene are many. Resulting beliefs bring poor treatment to girls and even poorer solutions. Poor hygiene – the use of things like chicken feathers and newspapers as sanitary pads – causes infection. Healthier, disposable alternatives are typically unavailable or unaffordable for the large majority of girls and their families.

From Seed Funding to Substantive Impact

Jennifer believes she has a solution, and, with Award funding, Jennifer is quickly scaling ELEA pads and bringing substance to her solution. On her own, Jennifer possesses great potential and determination. The savvy entrepreneur knows how to network and understands the needs. But, the economic climate was difficult for a seed idea like hers to scale and start production. She says, “Before I received the award, it was difficult to find seed funding to help me scale up the business. I had gone to so many places in efforts to look for support but I couldn’t find it. Winning the Award has completely transformed our business.”

Without seed funding, her product could not get off the ground. She says that “the company had a very small production area hence it didn’t qualify to be regarded as a professional production area for making sanitary pads.” Winning the African Entrepreneurship Award changes all of this.

With the surge of popularity from being an Award Winner, the government even gave Jennifer a piece of land. And now, with Award funding, she is building on this land. Once completed, the structure will house sewing machines and supplies for ELEA to get more products on the market. The problem of a professional production area will soon be a memory. And, she had better build quickly! As word of ELEA spreads, so too does the demand for reusable pads. ELEA pads are sold to girls, in stores, and also to companies who buy them to distribute in low-income areas.

Girls in rural Tanzania receive their Elea pads. The simple product reduces school absenteeism.
Girls in rural Tanzania receive their Elea pads. The simple product reduces school absenteeism.

From School Drop-Out to a Champion

Meeting the demand for ELEA pads means more employees. Mwanahamisi was a college drop-out. An orphan with little opportunity, she could not get a loan to continue her studies. In Mwanahamisi, Jennifer saw a spark. Jennifer says that she “is very smart and a powerful speaker.” After joining Jennifer’s team, Mwanahamisi’s 76 potential quickly became evident and she moved up in the company. Now, Jennifer says, “We call her ‘Champion’!” She is a lead trainer for other employees, and, with a steady salary, “Champion” has resumed her university courses

For the rest of Jennifer’s 25 employees, 80% of whom are women, working with ELEA “has brought a major change in their perspective.” And Jennifer continues, “They are not the same since before they joined my team.” Jennifer anticipates a growing market for ELEA pads. Her team of new employees will soon launch a country-wide marketing campaign, called Binti Huru, a Swahili phrase that means “freedom for girls.” The campaign accomplishes three goals for Jennifer’s business and her customers. The first, educating girls on menstrual hygiene management. This is the first step to freedom. The second, educating women and girls about ELEA pads and where they are available. The third, Jennifer says, “To show an opportunity for more women and girls to join us and become ELEA Ambassadors.” Active and upwardly mobile ambassadors can earn an extra income and educate more women.

Mentoring Helped Elea Take Shape

Funding from the African Entrepreneurship Award helped Jennifer scale her business, and increase her impact. But, funding was not the only difference. Award mentors helped Jennifer fine-tune her idea and increase her business savvy. She says, “the online mentoring I received and the mentors in the Boot Camp changed my perspective on how to conduct an impactful business.” How did over a year of targeted mentoring take Jennifer from good to great? Jennifer describes several things that helped her develop and impactful business that is also set up to earn a profit.

Pricing her products? Jennifer remembers a conversation with a Global Mentor about navigating the delicacies of pricing. Before Award mentoring, Jennifer describes having a narrow view of how to price her products. One mentor pushed her on how she will “make money at current selling prices.” With targeted partnerships and accessible products, Jennifer now understands how to make an impact, and a profit.

And her product? A Global Mentor encouraged Jennifer to develop a clearer idea about the cost of raw materials (cotton and other fabrics), and the sourcing of those materials. Making the changes to her idea she says, “required a lot of sacrifice especially in the manufacturing sector which is still at infancy stage in Tanzania.” Her company’s new, in-house production facility will mitigate these challenges.

Award funding lead to a 5X increase in production.
Award funding lead to a 5X increase in production.

What about the big picture? Jennifer says that since winning the Award, mentors have guided her on “how to set up milestones covering the entire year.” Every entrepreneur needs big picture thinking.

Jennifer never doubted her vision. She says, “I had the idea,” but she admits “it had not taken a clear shape compared to after I received the mentorship.” Mentoring for Jennifer crystalized “how to conceptualize her ideas,” to subsequently grow a strong business. Jennifer says that, “what has kept me going is the clear vision of where we want to go as a business and what impact we want to create in our region.” And now, with a clearer view on pricing, material sourcing, and big picture thinking, Jennifer is poised and ready to scale and begin high volume production of ELEA pads at her new facility.

Jennifer (right) and her employees manufacture reusable pads in Tanzania.
Jennifer (right) and her employees manufacture reusable pads in Tanzania.