Onyemaobi… Leading fight against period poverty in Nigeria

Olivia Onyemaobi is the founder of PadUp Creations, a social enterprise company with a bias toward the production of washable and reusable pads for women. Just recently, the firm launched

Olivia Onyemaobi is the founder of PadUp Creations, a social enterprise company with a bias toward the production of washable and reusable pads for women. Just recently, the firm launched sanitary pad vending machines in Minna, Niger State, the first of its kind in Nigeria.
In this interview with KEHINDE OLATUNJI, Onyemaobi speaks on how the machines could help up to one million school girls across the country conquer the challenge of menstrual hygiene.

4Why did you decide to go into the production of reusable pads?
TO solve a problem. Initially, I volunteered in 2015 to administer therapy on sexually abused girls and educating them on how to avoid sexual abuse. But after administering therapy to these girls, we discovered that most of them still went back to their abusers. So, when we inquired to know the reason, most of them complained that they didn’t have access to sanitary pads and most of the men provide sanitary pads in exchange for sex.

This was a very common response we got from secondary school girls between ages 12-17. So, I started looking for the most sustainable way of keeping them away from their abusers. I thought of buying and distributing sanitary pads to them, but on second thought, I discovered that I would only solve their problem once in a month. So, I started making research on a more sustainable option, that’s how I came about washable and reusable sanitary pads.
Between July 2015 and June 2016, I did research on how to make reusable sanitary pads that will be sustainable and last these girls for a period of one year. As I discovered this problem, I told myself that nobody could better solve it than myself, which was why I left my job to give full concentration to the business.

PadUp Creations has been commercially producing reusable sanitary pads since 2017, what’s the idea behind the recent launch in Niger State?
We rebranded the product packages. We wanted sanitary pads to have a different look; they don’t need to look like conventional sanitary pads. People are already used to seeing conventional sanitary pads, so anytime you find a girl with sanitary pads, people begin to think that ‘oh, this is about the period.’ We wanted it to wear a new look where people don’t need to feel absurd when they behold sanitary pads. So, we rebranded them and unveiled the new pack to the public today. We also have other new products, like the padded pants and the baby diapers that were also unveiled.

We also unveiled a mobile app that is designed to help girls and women calculate their menstrual cycle and their calendar, so they can easily include their last menstrual date and get to know when their next ovulation will be and when the next period will be. It helps to do that calculation for them. There is also another section on the app that provides for a psychotherapy session where girls and women, and possibly the general public can anonymously meet some psychologists online who can talk to them about matters in real life so that people can become confident to share with someone private issues like ‘I have rashes on my pubic area, how do I handle it?’ These are sensitive and private problems that people have, which they don’t feel free to share with the public.
We wanted to have a forum where people can share their personal problems, and still have to have them in-camera like not having their identity shown. So, when people download this app, they can actually share whatever it is that bothers them on the app, and they can also get someone to also interface with to solve some of the problems that they have.

The third thing that the app will do is that is going to help our sales agents to track their sales, it will help them to place their orders online, it will help them to connect with other sales agents in other locations.

You also unveiled Nigeria’s first-ever sanitary pad vending machine, could you tell me more about that?
The vending machine is not an electronic device; we made the machine work without electricity because we know the challenge that we have here in Africa. The machine will work by dispensing sanitary pads on your second twist of the handle. Before you twist the handle, you unlock the handle with a coin, a regular vending coin. For every place that we install these machines, we will have the exact number of coins also given to the guidance counsellor in the school or whoever is designated to manage the machine. This helps us to track the usage of the sanitary pad.
We designed everything in such a way that when students are in school, and they lack access to sanitary pads or their period starts while they’re in school, they can just go and meet the guidance counsellor and take a coin, go to the machine and get just one sanitary pad to use while in school.

How will they pay for the coins?
They don’t pay for the coins for now; we are footing the bills. We have the machines imported and recently, we realised that the Scientific Equipment Development Institute (SEDI) is located here in Minna and that makes it easier. They’re about 15 minutes drive from my office. We gave the machine to them to empty so they are able to find out how it was developed and how they can develop similar machines for us to buy here in Nigeria. They were able to do that in the first two weeks. We’re waiting and hoping to see that they’re able to produce at least one machine in a day. That will help us to meet the target of 25,000 that we have set.

So, the students are not expected to pay for the sanitary pads. That’s why we give them the vending coins. They are expected to only vend the sanitary pads that will last them while they are in school.
Do you have enough machines to cover the entire country?
Yes, that’s our target. We hope to install that across the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory. Like I said earlier, the students are not going to pay for this. That’s why we want to make this open so that there can be partners like UNICEF, UNFPA; many international and government agencies, international organisations and other government agencies can key into this. We want to see that girls stay in school.

Most times when you go to schools – I am a menstrual hygiene advocate, I go to schools myself – When you go there, you’ll find that when their period starts; you know, nobody can tell when their period will start, you can know that your period will start today, but you cannot tell if it’s going to start in the night, or it’s going to start in the morning. So, most times, these girls assume that maybe their period is going to start today, maybe in the afternoon. What if their period starts and they do not have sanitary pads with them? They will have to cover their school uniform with their sweater, or their hijab or start hanging around behind the classrooms to avoid bullying.

So, we don’t want them to say, ‘Ah, I didn’t concentrate in school today because I was stained with my period.’ We want a situation where once your period starts; you can access these sanitary pads while in school without paying a dime for it. That’s why we have the coins; these coins will help us to monitor the pads, so that teachers are not going to abuse this privilege, and that the students also are not going to abuse that.
Since the machines are being manufactured abroad, how many of them do you have right now? Is it possible for them to be manufactured in Nigeria?
Currently, we have about 10 of the machines. The Scientific Equipment Development Institute (SEDI) has tried the first prototype. They have been prototyping it for the past three months and they have tried the first prototype, it’s absolutely possible for them to do it. They are also going to devise a technology that will read the sensor on the machines without using the vending coins, because we cannot go manufacturing vending coins. They’re also going to develop another means of creating a sensor for the machine to accept payments other than vending coins.

You mentioned psychotherapy support. Is this in partnership with the Nigerian Psychotherapy Association, for instance, or who are those that will provide the psychotherapy assistance?
In our office, we have a section, a department that takes care of that. It is basically involved in community engagement. We find that a lot of girls really do not have good information about their health, hygiene, and even about life in general. Most times, parents are so busy and they’re not paying attention to their children, and so they (their children) get the wrong information that’s available to them, especially from the Internet.

The solution is to recruit trained psychologists who will be handling these challenges. These people don’t only sit back in the office and you know, wait until you call. We have community engagements in which we have school visits every single week. That’s just their job. Currently, we have about 538,000 girls and women that have been trained in menstrual hygiene and reproductive health. We are working on increasing that number in the next two years. That’s their job; they go to these communities, they go to schools and they are able to talk to the girls there. But after talking to the girls, we cannot stop the information that is available out there. When we leave school, what happens? That’s why we created the app; it can be a private place where people can actually find solace when they have challenges. That’s why we created that app.
You talked about 25,000 machines, what number of girls do you hope will have access to these machines?
Each of the machines is going to take about 40 sanitary pads, which are going to be replaced as soon as the batch is exhausted. We have a system that can help us pull this through. Recently, we started a project that we call the ‘Success Through Empowerment Project’ and it is designed to create 1,503 jobs. The Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs is sponsoring part of it.

What we do is that we recruit these sales agents and they sell this product in micro-units. For every product that people buy, we reinvest about 30 per cent of it back into free distribution. With this free distribution, instead of going to schools to start sharing pads and all that, we look at how we can still get these girls to build more confidence. So, if you’re installing the 25,000 sanitary pads in school, in every two weeks, it’s going to service about a million girls in school, every two weeks. That’s a large number and that’s not what we can do from only one point. That’s why we recruit sales agents, because restocking the machine is basically the maintenance that is involved; there’s no electricity, there is no coding, there’s nothing they’re going to do about the machine but restocking is the major work there.

Our sales agents in different locations that are being recruited are going to be the ones to restock the machines. That makes it easier for the company. We cannot monitor all these machines, but these sales agents who are also being paid by the company are going to do the management of machines.
How are you getting your funding for the project?
For the vending machines, we do not have any funding. We’re still hopeful that we’re going to get partners and sponsors for the project, but it’s a bold step that we have to take. We have been in this business for six years. We are the first company to commercialise reusable sanitary pads and the first to be certified by the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) – if not the only one certified now – but I know that we are the first to be certified by NAFDAC.

We’ve been in this business and what is driving us, our focal point is to see that every girl, irrespective of her economic class or location, finds pride in her period. So, the social aspect is what is driving us, not really the business aspect.

Like I said earlier, we reinvest about 30 per cent of whatever proceeds that we make from the sales back into free distribution and I think that’s what’s really speaking for us, because everywhere people get access to our sanitary pads, we get referrals from them. So, for now, we don’t have funding, but we have already measured what the cost is going to involve for the company, and we know that this is going to accelerate what we do.
How much do you anticipate this project will cost?
It is going to cost us about N2.7billion. That’s a huge amount, but that’s for the acquisition of the machines, not for the maintenance. There’s one good thing that we need to understand. For everything that we do, we look at sustaining the idea; that’s what’s important.

Our products are reusable. If I go and vend one sanitary pad today, and then I vend another sanitary pad, possibly next month, If I do that consecutively for four or five months, I already have sanitary pads that will last me for the next two years. So, you see that repeatedly, if you have 1000 girls who do that, in the next five months, you have invariably been able to solve sanitary pads for about 12,000 times. It means that for the last two or three years that they will be using that sanitary pad, you are actually solving it 24,000 times; do you see the calculation? You are actually solving more than the report will give you.

If I’m able to get five sanitary pads from the machine, and that’s going to last me for one year, I am free for the whole year, I’m not going to look for how to get access to sanitary pads. So, we’re looking at sustaining the idea; that’s why we started this. By the second week of June, we’re installing the first pilot in schools in Niger State. And we’re able to see the feedback that comes from it; that will inform how fast we’re able to go from this.

Last month (May), I was in Canada. I walked into a hotel, I mean into the facility’s restroom, which is a public restroom for over 25 restaurants. In that place, there were sanitary pads. The sanitary pads were not reusable; they were disposable. So, if I get five sanitary pads from the vending machine for the next year, I’m not looking for sanitary pads for the rest of the year. Remember that you use the disposable one for eight hours and it’s gone. So, this is more sustainable.

There are lots of girls who have been exposed to sexual abuse and a whole lot, because they do not have access to sanitary pads, etc. It looks so simple when people hear it, but I know what it was, like, you know, passing through that experience. And that’s why I’m very passionate about this change; we must not look at the cost implications, we have all the money at our disposal, or we can solve the problem. But we have to look at the social impact from the cost perspective.

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