Richard Bbaale was upset that his younger sister could not attend school during her monthly period so he decided to do something about it. After pondering the situation through completing his MBA at Uganda Martyrs University, he launched Bana, a nonprofit social venture to make and sell affordable pads to keep girls in school.
Richard wasn’t content to sell affordable pads to keep girls in school, however. He wanted to use the pads to empower women in every way possible.
Starting with highly absorbent banana tree fibers, he conceived of an environmentally friendly pad that would be completely biodegradable, especially in Uganda’s ubiquitous pit toilets. Traditionally, the banana tree trunks are simply discarded.
He also wanted to create a distribution channel that would empower women so he’s created an Avon-like sales force of “Champions” who sell the pads to their friends and neighbors. The five-year-old s company is changing the lives of these women in dramatic ways.
All this was not enough for Richard. He recognized that women could help him with the supply of banana tree fibers. He hires groups of women in villages to harvest the banana tree trunks, break them down and pound them to release the fibers. They then dry them in the sun and sell them to Bana. Most women work part time for about $15 per month, but some work nearly full time and earn about $45.
Richard says he’s about to provide the women with equipment that will do much of the hard work of preparing the fiber, allowing them to more than double their production—and their potential incomes. This could allow women who have traditionally earned less than $1 per day to earn $3 or $5 per day.
Most of the employees in the production facility are also women. He’s making every effort to see the production and distribution of the pads change the world for as many women as possible.
To that end, Richard has established a community health clinic that provides a variety of basic health care functions, including labor and delivery, HIV and STD screening, and immunizations. The clinic also provides health education, helping women to understand their reproductive options.
Richard is excited. He is prepared to scale up the production substantially with an infusion of capital. One donor has committed about $750,000 subject to finding another to match that. The capital would principally be used to “industrialize” the production processes in the plant.
Richard introduced us to three of the women who provide Bana with banana fibers.
Maria Nantubwe is a young-looking grandmother who is a painful reminder of the childhood mortality statistics in Uganda, having lost two of her three children. Today, she makes two kinds of soap to sell to her neighbors and occasionally weaves baskets to sell as well. She also works in the garden, growing food for her family. He devotes about six hours per day pounding banana tree stalks into fibers for Bana. She says, “It is hard work but you get used to it.” She says she likes the work because she gets paid immediately when she delivers a 70-kilo bag of fiber and can produce three per month.
Richard also introduced us to three of the more successful “champions.”
Grace Nalubowa is a 21-year-old mother of one daughter who has been selling Banapads since she was 16 years old. She learned enough about retail sales that she has opened a small retail shop on her family’s property and says she now generates a profit approaching $100 per month.
Fausta Cibe is a mother of six who sports dyed bright red hair. She too sells other products along with the pads. She sells cosmetics along with the pads to her young women customers. She sells some of the pads to women who resell them, agents who help her increase her volume. Asked how the business changes her life, she says with a cheeky grin, “I feed [my family] well and I look beautiful, as you can see.”
Sylvia Naluyage has been selling for Bana since the company was launched in 2012 and was involved even before that. We visited with her outside of her big new home, about twice the size of the small home where she used to live across the street with her ten children. She practiced her pitch for us, explaining how she always involves a wife’s husband in the sales pitch. She takes credit for the initial sales but notes that the product itself if responsible for resales. Like Fausta, she has built a small network of women from other neighborhoods who act as agents for her.
This week, I’m traveling in Africa as a guest of Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s Executive Director Thane Kreiner and namesakes Karen and Jeff Miller. Read all my reports.