"When I started menstruating, I used rugs because my father did not afford to buy me pads. I did not have anyone to buy them for me. I was ashamed facing my father, asking him to buy me pads. I stayed at home for a week because I thought it was not normal.” writes Anet Shilaho, 15 years old and a student at St. Johns primary school in Kibera, Nairobi, Kenya, in a letter addressed to Ruby Cup.
Anet belongs to a group of 15 girls who were invited to try the menstrual cup that were developed by three Danish women with grants from Sida’s Innovation Against Poverty initiative. Now, having tried the menstrual cup, Anet is not ashamed anymore:
“Ruby Cup is my number-one choice because it has helped me a lot. It has even helped me saving my dad’s money. All I ask of you is to bring more Ruby Cups to help others".
Lack of funds and a sense of shame keep girls like Anet home from school. In a survey conducted among 76 girls living in Kibera, 48 said they went to their “boyfriends” and “asked” for money to afford pads or tampons.
Research shows that there is a relationship between poor menstrual hygiene and school drop–out rates from higher primary (grade 4 & 5) and secondary education among girls. If not addressed, the reaching of several MDGs will not be achieved due to poor menstrual hygiene.
The idea for the Ruby Cup came from the Copenhagen Business School, where Maxie Mathiessen, a menstrual cup user herself, used her own experience to develop a business plan for producing and selling menstrual cups. Although a menstrual cup is more expensive than a package of pads it can be reused for more than ten years.
Maxie and her friends Veronica D’Souza and Julie Weigaard Kjaer formed a social business company, with the idea of developing and selling menstrual cups to women living in poverty. Before Ruby Cup began marketing the product in Kenya, there were no menstrual cups available in the market for people living in low income countries.
At about the same time as they were developing their idea, Sida opened the challenge fund Innovations Against Poverty (IAP), that supports businesses to develop services, products and processes that will benefit people living in poverty. It is designed for companies that are based or operate in poor countries. One of the focuses is on smaller organisations, which have ideas with great potential, but need the support to develop their business strategy and resources to reach new markets.
The eligibility criteria are that the business ventures must be commercially driven, have positive development effects, contain elements of cost-sharing, is innovative and go beyond what is existing on the market.
“When we learnt about Innovation Against Poverty we were really happy because it’s very difficult to get funded as a for-profit social business. But Innovation Against Poverty is basically designed for business ideas such as ours,” says managing director Julie Weigaar Kjaer.
After the Ruby Cup won a small grant of up to € 20,000 in July 2011, Maxie, Veronica and Julie went to Kenya to survey the needs locally. They were certain that if Ruby Cup were applied on a large scale, it would improve the lives of millions of women, be environmentally friendly, as well as create jobs for local sales agents. But would girls and women change to a silicon cup?
During their first trip, they met with a lot of people and focused on developing educational material that covered questions about the product. The response they got was positive:
“We handed out menstrual cups for free in slums and in remote rural areas to find out if it would be used. The feedback we got was very positive, they said they absolutely loved it,” continues Julie Weigaard Kjaer.
In collaboration with the Red Cross in Uganda they performed a study with women in rural areas who spend up to 12 hours in the fields:
“They say it’s freedom, because they don’t have to worry about buying tampons or pads. They can work in the field all day and with the cup they don’t have to worry about changing tampons or pads,” says Julie Weigaard Kjaer.
While researching the market they contacted menstrual cup producers to see if they could become retail sellers of existing brands. But the wholesale price they would get was too expensive for the market that they would be operating in:
“We designed our own brand, so we could decide about the price level entirely - also with the assumption in the beginning that it couldn't cost that much to produce a small silicone cup - and luckily, we were right,” says Julie Weigaard Kjaer.
Ruby Cup applied and received a large Innovation Against Poverty grant of €128,000, whereby they got the chance to focus on finding the right distribution and marketing for the menstrual cup.
“The biggest challenge is to have people believe and trust the product, especially in developing countries where they are fast in connecting myths to new products. Education and communication about the product is most important for us now,” says Julie Weigaard Kjaer.
Moraa Gichaba is a 28 year old Ruby Cup sales representative in Kibera where she lives with her children and husband. She conducted the survey, that found that more than half of the girls at St John’s School prostituted themselves in order to be able to afford menstrual hygiene products. But while she works with marketing of the permanent solution for girls, Moraa Gichaba has learnt that it is quite challenging:
“I have gone to three women groups and three schools to talk about the Ruby Cup. It’s tricky to explain because they are conservative. And it is very hard to convince them to buy the cup. They want to know more about the cup, for example if it could get lost inside the body. They are not easily convinced.”
To gain greater acceptance, Ruby Cup is working with a wide range of marketing strategies, such as working through media, approaching positive advocates, product give-aways, competitions, education material, door to door sales and women’s groups.
This year Ruby Cup has estimated to reach a hundred women. The target for next year is to reach 20,000 women through direct sales, bulk sales to other organisations, NGOs, refugee camps, schools all over Kenya, and through Chamas – women’s investment groups in Kenya. Their goal is to sell a half a million Ruby Cups in five years.