One of the reasons I went and got an MBA a couple of years ago is that it gives you a whole bunch of skills for solving problems and thinking critically. Elizabeth Sharpf also received her MBA in 2007 and like so many highly trained graduates she could easily be working in a Manhattan or London office with her Harvard Business School classmates, soaring through the ranks as a banker or business executive and aspiring to become a politician or a CEO someday.
While interning for the World Bank in Mozambique, helping local entrepreneurs, Sharpf encountered a business impediment that she had never heard of. It was unmentionable, and thus unmentioned. It was menstruation.
A female boss griped to Scharpf about absenteeism caused by women reluctant to come to work during their menstrual periods. “It was because pads were too expensive,” Scharpf recalls. “I was trying to figure out why I had never heard of this before. This was causing productivity rates to go down.”
Scharpf then started asking friends from Bangladesh, Nicaragua and other countries if they were aware of this problem. Of course, they said. “This spoke to me,” Scharpf recalled. “Hasn’t every girl or woman experienced the inconvenience, the disadvantage and the embarrassment in her life, when her period strikes at the ‘wrong’ time? I think half the world can relate to that. What really struck me was that this was a global issue that seemingly had significant costs. From back-of-the-envelope calculations, it had huge costs. And it could have a simple solution.”
Scharpf recognised that girls were missing school because they couldn’t afford sanitary pads. Women couldn’t go to work for lack of pads. As soon as she finished her MBA, she began harnessing her contacts to create a business that would manufacture inexpensive sanitary pads for Africa and Asia, to be distributed by women themselves on a franchise system. Scharpf found that the cheapest pads commercially available cost $1.10 for a pack of 10. In rural villages, women and girls used rags or sometimes bark or mud instead.
She went on to recruit a team of like-minded people, and they consulted villagers, agriculture experts and professors of textile engineering. What is there that is really absorbent, widely available and cheap? The team came up with five finalists: cassava leaves, banana leaves, banana-tree trunk fibers, foam mattresses, textile scraps. “We brought a blender to Rwanda and started blending things, boiling leaves from potato and cassava, things like that,” Scharpf said. “We would drop Coke on it to measure absorbency.” That was when they had their eureka moment. “We saw, hey, those banana fibers really slurp up the Coke!”
Early next year a small factory in Rwanda will start manufacturing pads made out of banana fibers which will retail at 50pence for a pack of ten. At the same time she has managed to convince the Rwandan government to scrap the 18% sales tax on feminine hygeine products to make them more affordable.
Scharpf is a shining example of what social entrepreneurs are currently achieving. One of the key skills they teach on MBA courses is the ability to question intelligently, to look behind the problems, to have an enquiring mind. Sometimes flashy, expensive fixes are just obscuring better, simpler answers. I’ll leave you with a little video by ad man Rory Sutherland who uses behavioural economics and hilarious examples to show you how we sometimes need to think differently to problems in society.