Traveling through Mozambique in 2005, Elizabeth Scharpf had a realization. She was working with the World Bank, after graduating from Harvard Business School, and she noticed a problem. She told PRI's Studio 360:
"I visited one entrepreneur in our portfolio, and she explained to me that 20 percent of her work force 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."
Scharpf decided to get to work creating a new, indigenous and cheap kind of sanitary pad. The project was "a little Macguiver-ish," Scharpf told Studio 360. She began the project with students from MIT by gathering some local materials and throwing them into a pot of boiling water. They tried blending cassava leaves and banana leaves, and testing how absorbent they were by pouring bottles of Coca-Cola on the pads.
By early 2011, Scharpf hopes to have a pilot manufacturing plant rolled out in Rwanda. She expects her products to be 65 percent cheaper than the Proctor and Gamble products, and 35 percent cheaper than generics.
Though she had the idea while working on multi-million dollar projects, Scharpf believes her small-scale manufacturing plants can make a big difference. She said: "A 9-10 cent menstrual pad could have a huge effect on the health and education and actually income level of not only a community, a country, but potentially lots of different continents."
PRI's Peabody Award-winning "Studio 360 with Kurt Andersen" from WNYC is public radio's smart and surprising guide to what's happening in pop culture and the arts. Each week, Kurt Andersen introduces you to the people who are creating and shaping our culture. Life is busy -- so let "Studio 360" steer you to the must-see movie this weekend, the next book for your nightstand, or the song that will change your life.