Fast Company

Banana-Based Pad Maker Elizabeth Scharpf Wants Rwandan Women Educated. Period.

Not formally trained in design, her journey from Harvard Business School to social innovation has earned her a Curry Stone Design Prize nomination.

Elizabeth Scharpf, founder of Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), is partnering with networks of women in Rwanda to make and sell sanitary pads made from banana leaves.

Eighteen percent of girls in Rwanda miss, on average, 35 days of school every year (and up to 50 days of school or work each year) due to their periods and ineffective pads and the embarrassment and ridicule that ensues. SHE, in effect, builds confidence, education, and income--and even creates jobs for women in the cheap pad-making franchises.

"Menstruation is one of those things that people don't really want to have anything to do with," Scharpf tells Fast Company. Most of the population is "left hanging after donation supplies run out." 

In all, Scharpf expects to reach a million women with the she28 program.

The idea has earned her a spot as one of 10 designers nominaterd for the Curry Stone Design Prize. Scharpf herself is not a designer, per se, but she does represent that new breed of "systems-design" thinkers, the kind that crop out of RISD, MIT and IDEO and work across disciplinary lines. Last year, she was invited to participate in the Aspen Design Summit, where she discovered that what she and the other participants had in common was that they were all "problem-solvers," Scharpf says.

It was a frustration she felt in graduate school at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the Harvard Business School--that not enough indicators were being improved in the development field--that ultimately drove Sharpf to investigate, on-the-ground, a practical market-driven approach to improving the lives of those at the bottom of the pyramid. "I did a global scan," says Scharpf.

When she and her classmates went to the country, they started digging around for the causes and what could be done about the problem. They experimented with a host of materials to test for their absorbency and, in true human-centered design form, they asked questions. Questions they thought couldn't be asked but were welcomed by local women, such as why a girl's period was getting in the way of her education. What Scharpf and her team found was that a lack of sanitary pads was not the only issue--there was a serious lack of information and education on health and hygiene in general.

After identifying the banana leaf as a viable option, from there SHE was born and has evolved into a hybrid business model that involves health education services and micro-business linkages to distribute the banana leaf pads. "We're not a product company," Scharpf is quick to say. "We're more of a services company."

Rwanda had four specific attributes that made Scharpf want to roll out the SHE product there--evidence of need, organized networks such as community health workers and women's groups, business-friendly policies, and the fact that the country is relatively small.

"We came up with a quilt of people with different skills and experiences," Scharpf says of putting together her team.

Scharpf often shows a slide to her teammates of a line jetting up and down and she asks them to guess what it represents. The answer? Her moods over the past couple of years, which she says is the nature of being an entrepreneur. But what drives Scharpf is the personal side. "Inclusiveness is what drives me."

And her goal has always been to "equalize the playing field in terms of access to opportunity."

Scharpf represents the new cross-disciplinary social innovator--with experience across sectors and in diverse countries--the kind that makes us question what the word "design" means. And to be nominated for a design prize is further testament to just how evolved and expansionary the field--if you can call it a field--has become.