Sanitary Pad Alternative I: MakaPads and MAKA Incinerators

This simple incinerator may solve disposal problems at schools struggling with latrine backups caused by sanitary pads.

Moses Musaazi, an engineering professor at Makerere University in Kampala, is one of those people whose intelligence is so strong you can see it in their eyes. His brilliance is also observable in the many inventions he has devised for the benefit of Africa. Moses focuses on locally available materials and processes. The thing that impresses me most is how simple many of these inventions are–so simple, you want to shout “Why has no one thought of this?” Elegant solutions from local materials mark Moses’ work.

A little less than ten years ago, the Rockefeller Foundation gave Moses a grant to try and develop a technology that would address the problem of schoolgirls’ sanitary needs. In the background, the Ugandan government was already tuned to the problem and was conducting its own studies of how providing pads would affect the girls’ attendance (the answer, though still unpublished, was that the pads had a dramatic impact).

Moses began by testing natural fibers that were plentiful in Uganda. The most obvious place to start was bananas, a staple in the local diet. However, Moses found that banana fiber, taken from the stems and leaves, is highly absorbent, but does not retain fluid, so is not appropriate for this use. (In other words, in a pad, the fiber was likely to draw in the fluid, but release it quickly, especially with the pressure from the body).

Next, Moses moved on to papyrus, which grows wild and in profusion on public lands in Uganda (and other places in the developing world), so would be an inexpensive and available source. Papyrus grows back very quickly, once cut.

Dr. Musaazi found that papyrus worked beautifully for the purpose, especially after having been pounded and dried, then soaked with shredded, used office paper. The paper-and-papyrus combination could be dried in the sun, cut into rectangles, and sealed in a non-woven covering within a small cottage production setting. Then, the pads are taken to be sanitized with ultra-violet light. The work, which now takes place in several locations around Uganda, is all done by hand, providing employment for otherwise unskilled people.

These “MakaPads” are now produced and sold mostly to UNHCR for refugee camps. Because Moses has to scale up slowly, using his own production as a base, the expansion has not been rapid. Dr. Musaazi has, after all, an academic day job and so must concentrate on teaching and research. But our team found that he has an astute manager in Julie Nakibuule, the young woman who heads up production of MakaPads across Uganda.

Julie explained to us that many places in Uganda could support the production of MakaPads, but not all. You must have a ready source of papyrus, which does not grow everywhere. You must also have a nearby source of used office paper (a key benefit of this process is that it recycles office waste, which is usually donated by companies and NGOs as a social responsibility). You must also have enough available water to soak the mixture, but also enough reliable sunlight to dry it. So a balanced climate is key.

Our own informal trials and independent interviews of MakaPads users have shown, on a preliminary basis, that the pads perform well. They are comfortable and reliable. The only complaint so far is that they are slightly too small, in both width and length. (The newest pads have wings and are thicker, which helps with this problem.)

Moses, as well as other press reports, say that the pads are 3 to 8 times as absorbent as commercial pads and therefore may last up to 12 hours. If true, this level of reliability will be very important in use. While users in the West may feel this is too long to wear an unchanged sanitary pad, I would caution (please read previous post about conditions on the ground) that the girls often have to walk a very long way to and from school—and that there are usually no changing facilities at school. A 12 hour pad would be a boon to these girls.

MakaPads look very much like other commercially available pads, but are significantly cheaper. They sell for about 1,500 Ugandan shillings for a pack of ten (version with wings), which translates to about 63 US cents, compared to imported pads which may be as much as 3,500 Ugandan shillings. Remember that, if the pads last 12 hours, this amount will get a girl through her entire monthly period.

A pack of MakaPads is cheaper than Always, the leading brand made by Procter & Gamble, which retails in Uganda for about a dollar. (There are 34 different brands of sanitary pad on the market in Uganda. They retail for roughly $1 per 10-pack, on average, but the price escalates as you move out from the urban areas.)

Moses believes that well-to-do African women do not wish to buy MakaPads because they think good pads cannot be made in Africa. (In truth, most of the brands we picked up on a recent trip were made in Uganda, though Moses advises us that the raw materials are 100% imported.) The MakaPads, of course, have the advantage of providing employment to the poor, as well as using natural, locally available, and recycled materials. Moses says the production leaves a zero carbon footprint and that the process is free of chemicals. The pads are more than 90% biodegradable.

Meanwhile, the Ugandan government is watching the effects on schoolgirls, remember? And, at the same time, population pressures, coupled with the new emphasis on female education, is putting a strain on infrastructure. The government finds that girls’ latrines in the schools are backing up at an overwhelming pace, requiring that schools seal, drain, or replace latrines at a prohibitive rate.

Hence the need to find another way to dispose of the pads. My team had also come across this problem, as the Western community is very concerned about disposal of the pads. We were advised by experts at Procter & Gamble that the preferable way to dispose of used pads was to incinerate them.

We were struggling over the incineration problem when we first met Moses. Communities in Africa toss rubbish in a common pile and only occasionally burn the refuse. Girls are loathe to put used pads in this rubbish, for fear that someone will see or retrieve their blood–animals will drag out a used pad, children might be curious, malefactors of various stripes might use it for magic. So, if they do not have a latrine to drop used pads in, girls will often furtively bury them in the forest.

Even when the community does burn the rubbish, they burn it in the open, as it lays, and the transformation is incomplete: that is, globs of half-burnt garbage remain in the ash.

However, the obvious alternative–a central incinerator for the village–was unlikely to solve the sanitary pad issue. Girls were simply not going to walk to the center of town with their used pads in hand and put them in a communal incinerator! This was particularly true if, as is often the case, the trash is visible while it awaits burning. We have seen incinerators within less than a hundred yards of a latrine go unused because the girls (a) don’t want their pads seen and (b) won’t walk that far with them.

I was blown away the day I discovered Moses’ MAK I, pictured above. Notice that the incinerator (on the left) is connected to the high window of the latrine by a long tube. This is an individual-level incinerator! When I first saw this, I couldn’t imagine that it would work, but when I visited Uganda, Moses took me out to view one.

The process is extraordinarily straightforward. The girl puts the pad directly into the chute from the window. You never have to know she has done it. The pad falls into the main body of the incinerator, a closed metal container that looks rather like an oil barrel. The pad sits there, unobserved, until someone decides to burn trash. Because the unit is small and easily ignited–and because you can put any other rubbish into a receptacle at the bottom of the barrel to burn–I suspect the burning would happen more often than at the community rubbish pile. No fuel is required–the design creates an air intake that will burn everything, once lit, above medical waste temperatures. (Medical waste requirements are 650 degrees; these machines burn at 850-1010. Normal community waste burns at a much lower heat.) Whatever waste is there will burn completely down to ash. African communities use ash as fertilizer.

This is where I exclaimed “Why has no one thought of this?” It was brilliantly, beautifully simple, requiring little additional trouble for local people (only to empty the ash) and virtually no additional purchases (matches, perhaps). The burning occurs within emission standards.

So, for our upcoming test, we will be installing incinerators at the school and providing, among other alternatives, Makapads for the girls to try.