Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Water & Sanitation

How Banana Fibers in Rwanda Are Helping Girls With Their Periods

Presented by Johnson & Johnson, proud partner of Global Citizen, helping people live longer, healthier, happier lives. Article contributed by Elizabeth Scharpf, Founder and Chief Instigating Officer/CEO, Sustainable Health Enterprises.


Have you ever gotten so angry about something that you couldn’t let it go? That’s what happened when I worked at the World Bank and listened to a local Mozambican entrepreneur complain that her employees often missed work when they were menstruating. According to her, 30% of her employees were missing work on a regular basis because maxi pads cost more than a day’s worth of wages. This is a global problem, one that has significant costs to girls’ education, women’s productivity, her health, and, most importantly, her dignity.

I was shocked, outraged, and had to do something about it.

While I could’ve gone back to my life working with major health companies after finishing Harvard Business School, I started Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) in 2008 to invest in overlooked (and often times taboo) people and ideas who could have a positive social and economic impact.  I aimed to create an organization that used a different lens—for example, one that looked at continents like Africa as rich (rich in talent and materials), not poor; and environments without much water or electricity as a source of innovation. Our first initiative was SHE28 to help girls and women start up their own businesses to manufacture and distribute affordable, quality, eco-friendly, maxi pads so they could go to school and work confidently.  This, coupled with health education and policy change could move the needle for the long-term.

JNJ SHE innovates2.png

So what was my first step in launching SHE? I headed to Rwanda with two engineering students, a tape recorder, and a hand-held blender. We tested out all different natural fibers and discovered and patented a process to transform banana fiber into absorbent material, built a production site in Eastern Rwanda that generated 600+ jobs and income opportunities, and have made and sold over 100,000 pads and counting. We had our technology validated by one of the world’s largest global health companies, Johnson and Johnson, with a technical partnership.

We aim to create a blueprint that could be replicated all over the world and with partners like Johnson & Johnson, we are reaching our goal of increasing the health and wealth of 250,000 girls and women through production of our go! pad in 2017.

Our vision for SHE28 is bold. We are looking to share our innovations that we have tested in East Africa, and partner with the 300+ entrepreneurs from 25 countries that have reached out to us. What’s more, I founded SHE as an opportunity to build a platform to inspire others to use our innovative business approach and tackle problems that have been ineffectively addressed and/or simply ignored.  As a pioneer in taboo topics, it's our goal to not stop there, but to address other issues that fall through the cracks that we believe can have positive socio-economic impact.  This all started with listening to people like you. So tell us what you want, we're all ears, period. 

JNJ SHE innovates.png

Read More: The Future Belongs to Educated Girls: Stories From the Za’atari Refugee Camp


To learn more about SHE, please visit http://sheinnovates.com/.


Presented by Johnson & Johnson, Major Partner of the 2016 Global Citizen Festival, and supporting partner of SHE.

johnson and johnson logo.png