Sustainable, affordable, sanitary pads for the world

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Kurt Andersen: This is Studio 360, I'm Kurt Andersen. The fall is prime time for big prizes. There's the MacArthur Genius Fellowship and the Nobels, and a new prize called the Curry Stone. It's a no strings attached grant of $100,000. The Curry Stone is given to the creator of some visionary design project, a breakthrough concept that improves people's lives. This week, Elizabeth Scharpf won the 2010 Curry Stone and she is here with me now. Welcome and congratulations.

Elizabeth Scharpf: Thank you for having me.

Andersen: So, you graduate from Harvard Business School with an MBA in 2007 and while the rest of your classmates go off to earn their fortunes doing whatever they do, you head to Rwanda to make sanitary pads. Was there some kind of eureka moment where you saw hey, this is something that needs doing and I'm the person to figure out how to do it?

Scharpf: Absolutely. When I was in Mozambique in 2005 working with the World Bank on a technical skill and micro finance project, I visited one entrepreneur in our portfolio and she explained to me that 20% of her workforce was missing something like 30 days of work per year because menstrual pads were too expensive, and the alternative wasn't effective. And so women would stay home for fear of embarrassment. And I thought to myself, okay, here I am working on this $40 million project and here a nine or ten cent menstrual pad could actually have a huge effect on the health and education and actually income level of not only community, a country, but potentially lots of different continents.

Andersen: And now you're a developing world menstrual pad mogul, I guess.

Scharpf: Not quite...I'm not sure that's on my Facebook.

Andersen: Then the next step was to figure out how to make a new indigenous cheap kind. How did you do that?

Scharpf: Yeah, it was a little MacGyver'ish to be honest.

Andersen: The whole thing seems a little MacGyver'ish.

Scharpf: So when I first went to Rwanda I went with a few students from MIT, and that was not a coincidence, so I thought it was a MacGyver like school. And I thought in my head there might be some technological innovation that we look into to try and lower the price of pads, and what we ended up doing was gathering some local materials. And we filled a pot full of boiling water and we'd throw some things in there, like banana leaves, and we'd throw cassava leaves in the blender and we'd start blending them. And we would make these rudimentary, almost circular pads. And we took a bottle of Coca-cola and then we would just do our fifth grade science project.

Andersen: To see if it absorbed?

Scharpf: To see if it absorbed it, yeah.

Andersen: Did banana leaves work?

Scharpf: It's actually the stem, the trunk of the banana tree.

Andersen: And of course they're made to be absorbent and drink water.

Scharpf: Exactly, so I guess our audience can't see the prototype I have,

Andersen: But show me, yes.

Scharpf: so it's like a fluff material.

Andersen: Looks like a sanitary napkin to me.

Scharpf: I'm sure you've seen a lot of them...or not.

Andersen: Over the years, yeah, I have two daughters and a wife. And no longer costs eleven cents a piece?

Scharpf: No, exactly, so right now our forecast is that compared to the Procter & Gamble product, we'll be about 65% cheaper, and looking at about 35% cheaper than the generic. And that's the starting point.

Andersen: When will women be able to start buying these things?

Scharpf: Well, that is our next step and I'm glad you asked. We're gonna be rolling out the pilot manufacturing plant in Rwanda and that is our next step, to essentially replicate what we've been doing in the US. So that's looking at end of year, early 2011.

Andersen: Excellent, Elizabeth Scharpf, really congratulations in every way I can imagine and thanks for coming in.

Scharpf: Well, thank you, Kurt.

Andersen: Elizabeth Scharpf is the winner of the Curry Stone Design Prize for 2010 and you can see exactly what a banana stalk sanitary pad looks like a