Lecture Series One: Elizabeth Scharpf of Sustainable Health Enterprises


The Products of Design program encourages students to venture into the world via biweekly studio visits, and alternatively brings the design world to us through biweekly lunch lectures from working designers and design thinkers.

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First up in this biweekly series of informal lunchtime talks was Elizabeth Scharpf the Founder and Chief Instigating Offer of SHE (Sustainable Health Enterprises), who delivered a presentation on SHE’s current work in Rwanda. The initiative facilitates the development of local businesses by manufacturing inexpensive sanitary pads from readily available local materials. Elizabeth opened her talk by describing how very shocked she was when she heard for the first time about the sheer numbers of women in the developing world who repeatedly miss days of work or school while menstruating, due to lack of access to affordable sanitary products.

Over the past three years, SHE has interviewed over 500 women and girls, and developed a plan of action made up of three parts: Advocacy, Business Development, and Education. Education, in particular, has posed a number of complex challenges for the team at SHE, as they any initiative across cultures does. They have engaged in conversations around deeply rooted taboos in order to reveal the link between the overal wellbeing of a nation and that of its female population. SHE’s initial advocacy campaign was very well received. As a result, the current target is to increase the use of pads from 10% of women in Rwanda to 50% by 2017, a goal they are optimistic about keeping.

Elizabeth’s Harvard Business School background, her experience in the health care industry, and her work in East Africa make her particularly well suited to take on this venture. SHE’s efforts are fortified by a strong team of Rwandese activists and professionals from a variety of fields.

SHE Global Fellow Connie Lewin explained that introducing a new line of locally made pads is not quite the same as it would be in America. In Rwanda there are a multitude of very complex consumption habits that dictate consumer choices. As a result, SHE strives, on one hand, to persuade its market of the benefit of pads over the rags commonly used by menstruating women, and, on the other hand, to offer an inexpensive alternative to brand-name sanitary pads. And the use of banana plant by-product as an absorption agent, shows particular sensitivity to the matter of locality and sustainability. Their initial strategy is to target girls aged 10-14, the demographic considered most vulnerable to being immobilized by the onset of menstruation. Government subsidies have been promised, and with schools having agreed to distribute the pads for free to students, SHE expects the initiative to promote continued school attendance for these girls, and hopefully strip away some of the stigma around menstruation. Connie emphasized the importance of creating a brand without any stigma attached to it.

Elizabeth and Connie opened the floor up for discussion and an electric discussion, including several design suggestions from us students ensued.. SHE was invited, to the excitement of Elizabeth and the students, to return to run a workshop where some of the ideas that were raised may be taken to the next level.