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Naturally Free

Providing girls and women with access to affordable, appealing, environmentally friendly sanitary wear and concurrent economic opportunity.

Photo of Coenie Louw
21 10

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Explain your project idea (2,000 characters)

Lack of access to sanitary wear jeopardizes the rights of girls and women to equality, health and education. Attitudes towards menstruation and the provision of sanitary wear demonstrates the low priority given to girls’ and women’s basic rights. Individuals forced to use unsuitable products (grass, rags) or to withdraw from daily activities cannot enjoy their rights to dignity, equality and health. School attendance: Lack of access to sanitary wear helps to reproduce gender inequalities in access to education. Poverty coupled with low levels of SRHR education can exacerbate girls’ risk of sexual exploitation when they reach puberty. There is no large-scale, up-to-date data on the number of school days lost to menstruation in South Africa or the continent as a whole. Solutions need to be based on evidence and experience. Sanitation In order to maintain personal hygiene, whether using disposable or reusable pads, girls and women need reliable access to adequate clean water and cleaning products. Most of the girls and women who struggle to access sanitary wear also live in water-scarce communities. Millions do not have basic sanitation. Efforts to realise menstrual health rights need to factor in the issue of water and sanitation. To address all these challenges faced by girls and women, and the planet, Naturally Free aims to produce affordable, comfortable and appealing sanitary wear using a combination of natural fibers. Naturally Free sanitary pads will be 100% compostable and environmentally friendly - degrading to soil within 180 days - with none of the plastics (polyethelene, polypropelene etc) and difficult to biodegrade ingredients used in commercial brands.

Who are the beneficiaries? (1,000 characters)

Girls and women from menarche to menopause in South Africa and Zimbabwe will benefit from natural product that are affordable and appealing. Women's groups will benefit financially from a social franchise business model where they can produce raw material, manufacture, market and/or distribute sanitary pads to their communities. The planet will benefit from a reduction in pollutants, use of agricultural waste products and a product that is 100% compostable - meaning it will degrade to soil within 180 days.

How is your idea unique? (1,000 characters)

Sanitary wear are marketed as biodegradable, however biodegradable can mean 1000s of years. Our product is 100% compostable, meaning it will degrade to soil within 180 days and consists of only natural fibers. Most sanitary products used are considered ‘disposable’. That means they are thrown away in landfills and pit latrines. About 90% of the materials used to make sanitary pads and liners include polyethylene, polypropylene and polyacrylate super absorbents. Pads and tampons may be marketed as ‘biodegradable’ but the but the length of time they take to fully break down or decompose could be up to 1000 years. If a product does not fully break down, the resulting ‘microplastics’ can pollute the environment including soil and ground water.

Idea Proposal Stage (choose one)

  • Prototype: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing the idea.

Tell us more about your organization/company (1 sentence and website URL)

Gateway Health Institute is a South African Not for Profit focusing on sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women.

Expertise in sector

  • 3-5 years

Organization Filing Status

  • Yes, we are a registered non-profit.

In 3-4 sentences, tell us the inspiration or story that encouraged you to start this project.

Millions of girls and women in Africa do not have access to affordable sanitary wear. Pads should be comfortable for girls and women to wear and meet the same standards as women and girls in the developed world. Investing in keeping girls in school is a powerful investment that benefits both individuals and society. Education unlocks the potential to improve health, nutrition, social justice, democracy, human rights, gender equality, social cohesion, and economic prosperity.

Please explain how your selected topic areas are influenced, in the local context of your project (1,000 characters).

Planet - If a product does not fully break down, the resulting ‘microplastics’ can pollute the environment including soil and ground water. Use of disposable sanitary pads produces around 150 kilograms of sanitary waste per person in a lifetime. About 90% of the materials used to make sanitary pads and liners include polyethylene, polypropylene and polyacrylate super absorbents. Pads and tampons may be marketed as ‘biodegradable’ but the but the length of time they take to fully break down or decompose could be up to 1000 years. Prosperity - if girls have access to sanitary wear they will not miss the average of 48 school days per year, improving their chances of completing school and furthering their education. The project aims to empower women through a social franchise business model that will creat opportunties for women to earn an income by producing either raw material or manufacturing sanitary pads, packaging them, and marketing and distribution thereof.

Who will work alongside your organization in the project idea? (1,000 characters)

Our partners are the Sex Rights Africa Network (SRAN) - hosted by the AIDS Foundation of South Africa and Katswe Sistahood - a Zimbabwean NGO working in the SRHR sector. We are all working together to ensure girls and women have access to affordable sanitary wear. Gateway will be responsible for production of sanitary pads in South Africa and Katswe Sistahood will be the licensed franchiser in Zimbabwe. SRAN in collaboration with WITS will be responsible for testing the pads with 500 girls. The project is supported by the government of Zimbabwe in that the government scrapped import duty on both raw materials and machinery needed to manufacture sanitary wear and support for the social franchise business model to empower women. Researching the feasibility, viability and characteristics of the sanitary wear will be done in collaboration with the University of the Witwatersrand.

Please share some of the top strengths identified in the community which your project will serve (500 characters)

The project will provide opportunities to women to move out of poverty by supplying them with small business opportunities. Both South Africa and Zimbabwe have many women trapped in unemployment and poverty that are eager and ready to be empowered to start their own small businesses. Female and male small holder farmers are eager to benefit from their agricultural waste or to produce raw material that will benefit girls and women in their communities.

Geographic Focus

South Africa and Zimbabwe to start, later the Southern African (SADEC) region.

How many months are required for the project idea? (500 characters)

36 months

Did you submit this idea to our 2017 BridgeBuilder Challenge? (Y/N)

  • No


Join the conversation:

Photo of Vicky S.

Congrats on your idea! This will greatly benefit underprivileged women. Access to sanitary products should be a fundamental right and it is a shame some people don't see it that way.

There is another initiative in this year's challenge called: "100% Biodegradable & Compostable Sanitary pads made from Banana fiber"

Maybe you should look into partnering with them. Their idea is very similar to yours and it looks like both of your ideas also focus on the environmentally-conscious aspect of female hygiene products.

Photo of Coenie Louw

Thank you, Vicky, we are always prepared to collaborate and/or partner with like minded organisations.

Photo of One World In A Box

Dear Coenie,

I agree with Vicky, the other initiative with sanitary pads also makes a great partner for your project. One of my questions for them was actually what they do about any smells, so my question for you is the same, how do you avoid any odors?
Furthermore, do you in any way involve your beneficiaries in your project?

I look forward hearing from you ! In any case, all the best!


M. Ahmadi

Photo of Coenie Louw

Thank you very much for your comments. As for smells, I am not sure what you mean - if sanitary wear is changed often, and if girls and women practice good feminine hygiene then there will be no smells to be concerned about. The solution is to provide girls with enough sanitary wear to enable them to change 4 to 5 times a day. That is why we are packaging the pads in packs of 20s. Deodorizers and scents causes more infection and harm than good, and should be avoided.

Photo of One World In A Box

Thank you for the clarification! But what about the involvement of beneficiaries, perhaps by holding a questionnaire to ask them how user friendly the pads are etc. is a way? I'm also wondering how affordable the product is for women?

Thank you!


M. Ahmadi

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