Pads From Papyrus
KAMPALA, Feb 17 (IPS) - The average income in the Kyenjojo district in western Uganda is less than a dollar a day. Spending twice that on a single sanitary pad is an unaffordable luxury for most women.
Poor women here have traditionally used softened bark cloth for pads. But with this cloth, made from ficus natalensis trees, getting harder to find, women make do re-using a variety of fabric they can spare.
But Congolese refugees in the Kyaka 2 settlement are producing more affordable pads for themselves and the local market as well.
Dust fills the air as women fill white polythene bags with dry powder made from papyrus reeds, ready for weighing. The refugees are engaged in a project run by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to make thousands of refugees in Uganda and beyond producers who are able to at least partially support themselves despite their displacement.
The motivation for UNHCR is practical and urgent.
"Contributions to UNHCR are declining yet the refugee problem is growing and the situation is not being helped by the global economic down turn," says Stephano Svere the Uganda country representative for UNHCR.
Jeannette Bakirabo is one of hundreds of Congolese refugees uprooted by fighting between CNDP rebels and the DR Congo army. When the rebels attacked her home village of Rutshuru in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bakirabo's husband had gone to sell their goat in a nearby market at Kateguru. She has heard nothing from him since and fears the worst could have happened.
Carrying their three-year-old baby on her back and pulling their seven-year-old behind her, Bakirabo joined a group of fellow villagers on the long journey towards the Ugandan border.
After three days of walking, she found herself in southwestern Uganda, at the border town of Kisoro, from where she was moved to Kyaka 2 settlement by the UNHCR.
Today she is one of about 60 Congolese refugees making sanitary pads for refugees and other women in the vicinity of the refugee camp.
"I have been able to buy a new mattress and thank God I can do my hair and look after my children."
The manufacturing process for these innovative pads was developed by Dr Moses Kiiza Musaazi at Makerere University in Kampala. Refugees at Kyaka 2 make around a thousand pads a day using nothing more than reeds harvested from a nearby swamp, waste paper and water, processed with human-powered machinery designed and manufactured by the Faculty of Technology at Makerere.
Jean-Claude Molumba, one of only three men employed by the project, uses one machine to smooth and soften the rough sheets of dried papyrus and paper before they are cut to their final size.
"As you can see, the materials we soften here will be trimmed into pads of 5 by 20 cm by the women in the next room using a paper cutter," says Molumba, pointing at a small room where absorbent pads are being individually wrapped in polythene cases.
On a normal day the refugees make more than enough for their own use and that of the surrounding community. Some of the pads are bought by UNHCR for delivery to other refugee camps across the region.
Juliette Nakibuule, assistant manager of Makapads, the company set up to market this innovative product, says they are still importing some of the components for making the pads because they cannot be sourced anywhere in Uganda or Africa.
Dr Musaazi says he pays the refugees per pad produced. He says each person earns more than 200 dollars a month. Those who prepare papyrus reeds for use are paid roughly !$1.50 per kilogram of dried up "flour" of papyrus.
"UNHCR has been importing 100,000 packets of sanitary pads for refugee women and girls a year at a cost of half a million dollars a year. Makapads are now providing 3,500 pads a year, which reduces on the expense incurred," says Musaazi.
Imported pads cost close to two dollars each on the Ugandan market, but a pack of ten of the locally made pads is sold for 900 Ugandan shillings, working out to roughly 50 US cents a pad.
Rosette Rubaza, another of the refugee women employed at the Kyaka 2 refugee settlement, says with the earnings from her job she is able to buy food for her family of four including her unemployed husband.
"I earn on average 200 US dollars a month and this is plus the food rations I get from UNHCR is enough to cater for our needs."
There are eight million women in need of pads in Uganda and pads made by the Kyaka 2 refugees are feeding into a market with a value estimated at about one million dollars a month.
The Makapads project is also expanding to different parts of the country. There are other manufacturing centres in Kampala - at Kawempe, Nateete, Massajja, Bukoto, Gaba, Kagoma and Makerere University - each employing 30 women each.
Musaazi told IPS that UNHCR has asked him to teach refugees in neighbouring Kenya to make pads and he has fielded inquiries from Ethiopia, Southern Sudan and Rwanda.
He says the project is seeking to avoid becoming capital intensive by investing in any more advanced technology, preferring to focus on locally-sourced materials and machinery that enable refugees and other poor women in Uganda to earn a livelihood.
Affordable sanitary pads go beyond convenience. The Forum for African Women Educationalists, a Ugandan association promoting girls' education, is pushing for the government to supply free sanitary napkins to girls at schools; menstruation is a key factor affecting drop-out rates for girls. FAWE has also held workshops to bring the subject of menstruation and menstrual hygiene into the open.