Meet Lucy Odiwa, a winner of the 2018 “SDGs and Her Competition”; and a specialist in health services. She is WomenChoice Industries, co-founder and CEO. The Startup designs, manufactures, and distributes high-quality, reasonably priced menstrual health hygiene management (MHM) care products, including reusable sanitary pads (Salama Pads), reusable tampons, and reusable post-partum maternity towels (Mama Pad). This social enterprise seeks to empower women and girls in Tanzania by promoting safer menstrual health hygiene management (MHHM) by exchanging knowledge and related services.
Establishing Women Choice
Ms. Odiwa says the idea of WomenChoice Industries came from her passion and, of course, a terrible experience she had during her secondary school education; “it was just a good day, and all of a sudden, it turned into a bad day when the teacher asked me to step up and answer a question during one of the classes,” Ms. Odiwa says. She explains that the experience of seeing her skirt covered in blood made her think about many things, and the fact that she was unaware of the dynamics surrounding menstruation added to her sense of confusion. “As I was at boarding school, I had to go to the school dispensary on the second day because I was more soaked than the first, and I did stay there for five days to take care of the problem,” added Ms. Odiwa.
Ms. Odiwa explains that when she was in college, she worked hard to understand menstruation dynamics. When she got a job, she decided to try to help other girls who might be in the same situation as she was. “The gap that I discovered back then was that there were still many taboos about menstruation dynamics, and as medical personnel, I decided to volunteer my expertise first, ensuring that at least people understand what menstruation is and its dynamics, and then help those who could not afford sanitary pads,” Ms. Odiwa explains. She shared the idea with her friends, who decided to contribute some amount, to buy disposable sanitary pads, and distribute them to young girls in need. “However, most girls go through menstruation period from thirty (30) to forty-five (45) years, the sustainability of the idea of contributions and distribution appeared improbable, which prompted me to consider a solution, and that’s when I came up with the idea of reusable sanitary pads,” elaborated Ms. Odiwa.
Establishing Women Choice
“Since it was something new, I had to make sure that I had the necessary knowledge to start the production of the pads that I envisioned having,” explains Ms. Odiwa. She shares that she started the innovation journey using her savings, which she thought of as a life-save and life-changing to girls and women in Tanzania and across the East African region. “Through Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO), we were able to acquire five (5) sewing machines to start, and with time things started to unfold; which despite the small capacity by that time, we still received many inquiries concerning our products. From that moment, we started to distribute the products to different organizations working on menstrual hygiene management,” shares Ms. Odiwa.
“I remember a time when we had a client who traveled from Zanzibar and wanted 500 sanitary pad pieces; considering our capacity at the time, it took us two days to produce that much, and that was when I thought maybe we needed to seek financial assistance to increase our production capacity and be able to meet the demand,” Ms. Odiwa explains. She admits that the experience was a little complicated, particularly with some financial institutions that mistook them for an NGO when all she knew was that it was a socially impacting business and that she had to look for other organizations beyond financial institutions that could help them oversee the challenge.
Thanks to Just Peoples, a global community of people who have two things in common; a passion for eliminating global poverty and the drive to do something about it, and the Rockflower Fund, a global venture philanthropy fund that connects catalytic funding to local initiatives in emerging economies seeking to improve and elevate the lives of women and girls, who provided WomenChoice Industries with recognizable funds that helped them at least buy electric motors for their sewing machines and saw them continue growing and deliver a quality product.
In 2020 WomenChoice Industries secured venture capital from Gray Matters Capital, a US-based venture capital provider. “Through this funding we have transformed from using hand-monitored sewing machines to industrial sewing machines, which has helped us build up and scale up our productions to where.
The business process
Ms. Odiwa shares that they target girls and women in challenging economic conditions and those between the age of ten (10) to twenty-five (25) years who are still in schools and colleges, most of whom need sanitary pads but due to the cost of disposable sanitary pads that typically costs much, then they are unable to have them.
“Having to serve a broad market category, the interaction model differs since we have individual buyers, shop vendors, and organizations who usually buy bulk to deliver during their philanthropy projects. We can reach all those we want to serve through our digital platforms, physical visits, and philanthropy sessions, and we could never be prouder of whom we have reached and what we have accomplished so far.” Ms. Odiwa concurs.
Ms. Odiwa explains that in this era where there are innovations now and then, she has gotten this far through strategic collaborations. She explains that interacting with authorities is pleasant, and as for other players in the innovation ecosystem is a little tricky since motives do differ. Still, finding common ground on which to coexist makes it easier to navigate and deliver impactful solutions to our communities.
Challenges faced and Achievement.
Ms. Odiwa shares that the most difficult challenge they have faced thus far has been the need for more capital to sustain demand during the early stages, which they have now at least solved with funds secured from multiple funders. She also mentions that the COVID-19 era was one of the most difficult, but by being innovative, they could stay afloat and are grateful for what they have now. She also explains that other challenges included a lack of enough support from the ecosystem; “sometimes it is easier to navigate when there is at least little guidance from those precedes you, but since it feels like you are a disruptor, there is very little guidance that you will receive finding yourself navigating through on your own.
“We are proud of being at the intersection of ensuring that young girls get proper MHM knowledge and, of course, help them save menstrual health management costs and helping these girls live freely without the fear of the unknown when it comes to menstrual health. We have also empowered 1,200 socially disadvantaged women by increasing their income between 40,000 to 120,000 TZS who are part of our economic cycle.”
Enhancing operations and the Long-term goal
Ms. Odiwa shares that although they can produce quality products, they are still looking to improve and offer excellent products. One of the ways they are looking at is to utilize the benefits of advanced technology fully; this is by having their workers with the necessary technology. They are also exploring having sanitary pads vending machines placed across schools and colleges to help those who need access to the pads at their convenience.
“We are looking forward to building one of the reputable and respected brands in MHM by producing and distributing quality sanitary pads for our beautiful girls,” explained Ms. Odiwa.
Advice to innovators and Final thoughts
Ms. Odiwa shares that resilience is vital to any upcoming innovator, as not everything will work for you but rather against you, so give yourself due process and have the tenacity and audacity to execute your plans without tiring. To individuals growing out of college, Ms. Odiwa urges them to be active; “you recruit people, but they lack the passion for working to the point that you have to tell them everything that they are supposed to,” elaborates Ms. Odiwa.
To read more about our reports featuring Startups in Tanzania https://bit.ly/ImpactTechTZ2021-Report and http://bit.ly/TECHTZ2022