October 03, 2011
Elizabeth Scharpf on Empowering Women in Africa One Banana Leaf at a Time
I just had an opportunity to see Elizabeth Scharpf speak…in Kentucky of all places. She was there with hundreds of others who showed up at annual Idea Festival for inspiration, and because they’re “curious about life and innovation,” this year’s conference theme.
Elizabeth is an entrepreneur, designer and founder of SHE: Sustainable Health Enterprises, which has a mission to improve the quality of life for people in developing countries. She is most known for her work in Rwanda that involves partnering with networks of women to make and sell sanitary pads made from banana leaves. Yes, you heard me right. Sanitary pads. You probably don't know the issue that women have "getting them" in Africa; I certainly didn't and I've lived there and traveled to a host of countries in southern and east Africa.
She started out her career working with the World Bank in Mozambique. When she visited a bag factory and learned that about 20% of women were missing 2-3 days of work per month because they couldn't afford sanitary pads, she wanted to learn more. Huh? Incredulous for women living in the west.
Many of the women use rags which aren’t always effective and the more she started digging, the more she realized that not only was it a global problem and a loss of productivity, but also a loss of dignity for women.
After learning that the cost of a sanitary napkin is only ten cents, she put a proposal together to raise $2 million. The result was a job from Nike. Yes Nike, the "shoe company." :-) They're supporting this initiative and Elizabeth is leading the charge.
She started in Rwanda and discovered that banana leaves were actually absorbant, so they started using these materials, which are cheap and readily available.
Her longer term vision is to go after low cost sanitation and low cost toilets which is the result of a lot of deaths in Africa. Additionally, there are a significant number of motor vehicle accidents in Africa, so what about bringing driving schools into help with that?
She says to the audience, "if you want to get involved in social enterprise, I had a great education at Harvard but the best education I ever had was riding around in buses in Rwanda. When you see a misison that needs help, ask yourself, how are YOU going to help it?" she adds, "remember that its about them and about serving them.
The things that stick are what we can collectively do to serve the people we’re trying to help. Put your feet in their shoes and think, “what would help them out?”
This attitude and statement certainly is an empowering one and extends to every aspect of our lives, not just social enterprise. Hear hear Elizabeth for being so bold and diving into something so controversial and hard, yet so important and rewarding, not to mention "freeing" and empowering for women around the world.
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