How This Ugandan Startup Uses Sugarcane To Help Girls Stay In School

One Ugandan startup is helping girls stay in school by creating low-cost sanitary products out of a local, inexpensive material: sugarcane.


May 17 2019, Updated 8:57 p.m. ET

A new start-up called Eco Smart Uganda is keeping girls in school by offering them low-cost sanitary products made from sugarcane. It’s the latest news in a series of moves to give young Ugandan women access to sanitary care products. This time though, the personal hygiene items aren’t just accessible—they’re cheap, locally made, and 100 percent eco-friendly.   

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“Our movement as Eco Smart Pads is about making sure that all girls and women have access to clean sanitary products independent of their class,” the company says on its Twitter page. It’s a common-sense concept that is long overdue.

Ten percent of Sub-Saharan African girls miss school during their menstrual cycles. 

As many as one in every 10 percent of girls in Sub-Saharan Africa miss school during their periods, according to a UNESCO report. Depending on a few factors, that can add up to missing 20 percent of school days. Missing school means falling behind, and girls who never graduate experience a number of long-term negative consequences, including childhood marriage.

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And while distributing free pads to girls can curb some of this, the reality is that when those giveaways end, sanitary pads are just too expensive for most families. “Many girls cannot afford the sanitary pads on the market,” Lydia Asimwe, the co-founder of Eco Smart Pads, told Reuters. “When you go to schools you will be surprised to know that some will miss school because they are going through their menstrual periods, the four days of their menstrual periods, they do not have the right materials to use, they are so embarrassed in public because they will stain their dressed and everyone will laugh at them so they choose to stay at home.”

Some academies and organizations have taken matters from here into their own hands by actually helping girls sew their own, reusable sanitary products. But ultimately, those young ladies need something broader that reaches everyone.   

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Eco Smart Pads are local, cheap, and biodegradable. 

Eco Smart Pads has sidestepped an overly expensive market by making affordable and eco-friendly sanitary towels by utilizing by-products of sugarcane, which is the foundation for a thriving industry in Uganda. Besides being accessible locally, sugarcane is cheap, absorbent, and biodegradable.   

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“You have the sugarcane and the water that is already steamed coming in here, so what you are doing is boiling the sugarcane residue, mainly to remove the sugar content and to soften it,” Eco Smart Pads Chief Executive Noel Aryanyijuka told Reuters. “After, you use the sieve to sieve out the paper all together with the fiber, so the water drains through the sieve, and after this process you are taking it for drying.”

Eco Smart was awarded a grant of $10,000 dollars in a competition for entrepreneurs working to solve sexual reproductive health challenges. The company is working with the United Nations and a number of other partners to perfect the product and distribute it throughout the country—and, hopefully, around the world.  

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