In Kenya, the banana plant has played an important role in society, including in marriage rituals and for the healing of wounds. In Kisii, a community in the west of the country, banana leaves are laid out to point towards a location for slaughtering a bull in ekemano (dowry negotiations). Juice from a banana stem is applied to help with blood clotting.
Now it is being used by two students at Kabarak University, a private higher education institution in the Rift Valley region, to tackle a major health issue.
Paul Ntikoisa, 22, and Ivy Etemesi, 21, have invented a banana fibre sanitary towel. Their aim is to change a situation in which superstitions about using pads and poverty have resulted in many woman and teenage girls being denied relief during menstruation.
Etemesi says: “During our research in December last year, in selected areas of Baringo county [in the Rift valley], some women and girls had no idea what pads were and, if they did, they could not afford them. Some feared that if they used them they could contract a disease that ate their flesh and bones.”
The students spent six months researching ideas. They finally rested on the banana plant having found its stems being used among Ugandan women during menstruation. “We thought, if banana stems could be used [for other things], why can’t we think beyond the obvious,” says Etemesi.
In July, after a farmer living near their university donated them the trunk of a banana tree, the pair began to convert their idea into a product based on the design and measurements of the standard pad.
The procedure begins with fleshing out the soft inner stems, washing them to remove impurities and crushing them on a wooden board with a pin to soften them into fine fibre. To harden the towel and kill off any bugs, the fine fibre is laid out in the sun for six hours.
It is disinfected before being arranged into strips, which are then sandwiched between two soft liners to provide comfort and to prevent skin irritation. The bottom side is fitted with a waterproof material to ensure against any leakages. It is manually woven into the towel. A transparent sticky tape is attached on the sides to keep it in place when worn.
Ntikoisa says six of their fellow students have tried them out and they worked for seven hours.
Now, Etemesi says, they are sourcing funds for advanced production and patenting their innovation. Both realise poverty could be a big hurdle to marketing the pad, although it sells for €0.061 – lower than the €0.087 price of the common pads.
At least 2.6 million schoolgirls in Kenya lack access to affordable and hygienic sanitary towels, according to Unesco.
Etemesi says: “Schoolgirls were hiding themselves at home until the elapse of their menstrual periods.” Ntikoisa adds: “It is extremely humiliating and devastating to see girls stay at home while boys comfortably remain in school. They never recover the days and they continue to lag behind.”
Some women and girls are forced to use leaves, rags, animal skins and even chicken feathers. In some cultures, they smear themselves with cow dung or dig holes and sit on them for the days they are menstruating.
“Women actually use soil to keep themselves dry. They are not able to go to the farms because the society does allow any scent of blood on a woman’s clothes,” says Etemesi.
Both students see huge potential in their invention and are approaching individuals, youth and women’s groups, churches, non-profit organisations, companies and devolved county governments for support. They are also hoping to patent their idea.
“Our market plan involves everybody but we cannot give further details at this point,” says Etemesi.