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New Study of Sustainable Sanitary Technologies Announced


Jim photographed these girls near the site where the larger RCT is taking place.


Today, we are announcing the results of a five-month study of alternative sanitary technologies. The findings of the study and links to details of the technology can be found here. In sum, we found that while well-designed cloth pads offer an advantage over customary methods where disposables are not available, poor rural girls will choose disposables most of the time, even when given free cloth pads. Keeping materials clean in remote areas remains a challenge that agencies need to take seriously. A papyrus pad tested very well, assessed as being “as good” or “better” than commercially-available pads.  But girls resisted using an incinerator because of local taboos.

The ground research was done by Paul Montgomery, Laurel Steinfield, and me, as part of the larger team doing a randomized controlled trial elsewhere in Uganda (led by Catherine Dolan).

I learned lessons about leadership on this study, some of them humbling.  I understood the realities of material choice and production in Uganda in a way I had not understood before. And there were many of those moments of fieldwork we have come to refer to as “rubber research” (because it bounces around in a way very unlike the textbook descriptions from which we all learned how things are supposed to go). I want to share that stuff here, since the findings of the study are available elsewhere on the site.

Paul Montgomery and I went to Uganda on the scouting trip with Julian Tetlow (and, of course, Jim).  Julian is an educator with long experience and high credibility in the developing world, especially in Uganda. He had heard me talking about sanitary pads on BBC radio when he was visiting in Abingdon, which is just down the way from Oxford.  He emailed me to see if he could come up and talk.  I said “Why not?”  In a claustrophobic little conference room at the Said School, he told me he wanted to give back to an area in the mountains of Uganda where he had spent his early career.  He intrigued me with his description of the various subcultures that lived at different heights, and of the dedicated teachers and schools there.  Between us, we also knew of several people developing interesting technologies around the sanitary care issue in Uganda.  And we were both interested in women’s economic empowerment.  So we decided, on the spot, to work together.  It was one of those spontaneous decisions that changes your life.


I like it when the school picks bright colors for the uniforms, but a dark color is best for girls who are worried about sanitary issues.


So we end up in Uganda, courtesy of a grant from Green Templeton College.  I was wanting to visit the Nyaka Orphan School to see how they had gotten along with a pattern we had sent them for making their own cloth pads.  Then we also wanted to get to know Moses Musaazi, a professor we had met only through email, who had invented a papyrus-based pad and an individual level incinerator.  Julian had made contact with the KMET people and I had a UK student who had organized a thing called “Project Mwezi” to make an innovatively-designed pad.  These two organizations were in Kisumu, which meant we were going to drive across the border into Kenya, something I will avoid doing again (ground immigration across African borders being a dodgy business). Then, there were Paul Grinvalds and Sophia Klumpff, a couple (yes, a cute couple) working closely with girls to develop their pads, following a process that I could recognize as real consumer research (which nobody does in development work, but they should because they would make fewer mistakes if they did).

We had a great trip.  We learned, courtesy of the Nyaka School experience, that the materials you use to make pads are very important:  they had chosen terry cloth, which dries hard and rough in the sun and so is no good for use in such a delicate place on the body.  We saw Moses’ MakaPads operation from cutting the papyrus to grinding and drying it, then the whole hand-crafted process of mulching office paper and rainwater to add to the papyrus, spreading it out on ordinary window screens to dry, and finally cutting and assembling the pads. Julian introduced us to some fabulous people in the place of his early career, including a charismatic headmaster and two dedicated headmistresses, who agreed to let us conduct a study among their students.  We worked it out that, if we were very careful, we would have enough money left from the initial grant to do a trial with all the products we had identified.


Agnes was with us throughout the study and has continued in the larger trial. Here she is interviewing a girl, which must be done privately and gently, because of the sensitive topic.


Two months later, I went to set up everything at the schools and train a team of research assistants recruited by Plan Uganda, our partner in the larger trial we were also setting up (that trial is still ongoing).  We got the pads shipped in, but the ones coming from KMET in Kisumu were put on the wrong bus and when they finally arrived there weren’t enough of them.  I was lucky that I now had a local friend in the owner of the driving company, Sam Mugisha, who could help me figure out how to retrieve them–including driving several hours himself!  Especially in Africa, things often don’t go as planned. You need to be flexible and you need to be cognizant of your own need for help. No sense in going in all high-handed and full of yourself, because you can count on it that you will eventually need to beg for assistance.


Here we are sorting the pads into treatment groups. It took forever and I was frantic because the KMET shipment got lost somewhere between Kampala and the Kenya border.


With cheerful help from a great group of ladies in the town where the secondary school is located, we sorted and bagged the pads according to treatment group.  We got all the rosters ready.  Then I went back to Oxford, expecting Julian Tetlow to return to execute the study three weeks later.  But Julian’s retina suddenly got detached and he couldn’t go.

So, the local team, led by Edison Nsubuga of Plan Uganda and Rita Nabuzale, a recent graduate of Makerere University (who I had met purely by chance in the cantina where I was staying), pulled together and went back to the field, bringing with them a team of six research assistants.  The teachers and the headmaster, along with the same group of ladies who helped prepare the materials, worked with this research team to execute the first round of work.  That included the distribution of all the materials to the right girls, instruction in how to use and wash the pads, demonstration of the incinerator, and the collection of demographic data from the entire sample at the secondary school (n=402). They did it all without a single error. And without me!