JOHANNESBURG – When digital strategist Jovana Korac first heard that many South African girls missed school because they couldn’t afford to buy sanitary products, she was appalled.
It isn’t a South Africa-only problem either. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that tens of millions of African girls miss school during their periods every month. Socks or newspapers are often used as a replacement for sanitary products.
There is just a point of privilege where you don’t even consider that this could be an issue, Korac tells Moneyweb.
“I just remember sitting in this meeting and just feeling outraged and I spent the next two, three days like Googling and researching and it is like: What can you do? And there wasn’t really anything short of setting up a large-scale manufacturing plant.”
Such a solution would have required millions of rand and just wasn’t feasible, she says.
But about three years ago, she came across an article about a man in India who developed a machine that could produce sanitary pads at a fraction of the cost.
“I remember reading this article and I was like: This is it! We need to get this machine here.”
And so Kgoshigadi – Sepedi for Queen – was born as a social enterprise with the aim to set up mini-factories that produce affordable, biodegradable sanitary pads in local communities. Kgoshigadi is essentially a “business-in-a-box” solution that employs five women as full-time manufacturing agents while another 15 to 20 women work as distribution agents and sell affordable pads to friends and family, local spaza shops, independent vendors, church groups, NGOs and schools in the area. Manufacturing agents need about a week’s training before they can start producing.
The start-up business currently has one pilot site in Milpark, Johannesburg, with plans to expand its footprint to various areas including Soshanguve, Alexandra, Soweto, Newcastle, Rustenburg and Marikana.
With a price tag of around R250 000 the machine and raw materials are quite pricey, but it is still a lot cheaper than a traditional manufacturing plant. A machine can produce around 2 000 pads per day, Korac says.
Kgoshigadi has used grant funding as a start, but as it wants to be a self-sustaining business, this is not ideal. The business would potentially approach corporate sponsors to use money from their CSI initiatives to set up factories, instead of giving a once-off donation to buy pads in bulk, she adds.
Often when a corporate hits a bad patch, the first budget that gets cut is CSI funding. This also informed a decision to move away from a donations model and it is investigating a co-operation model where companies can partner with the community to create business owners, Korac says.
“With franchises a lot of the entrepreneurial risk is reduced quite drastically. You have got the support. You have got the training and that is what we really wanted to do, but we also ask the co-op or the initial community to invest a bit as well because then obviously the buy-in… is much higher because they feel it is also their money.”
They are currently engaging the technology development arm of the University of Johannesburg to potentially reverse engineer the machine, so that it can be produced locally, which could increase job creation and create efficiencies for the business.
Korac and her business partners, Tebogo Motubatse and Simphiwe Mntambo, have received mixed feedback about the name Kgoshigadi with some arguing that they have to change it (“nobody can say the name”) while others have encouraged them to keep it (“If people can say Givenchy and all of that, there is no reason they can’t learn this”). As a compromise, the pads will be sold under the Nandi brand – named after the warrior queen Nandi, Shaka Zulu’s mom.
While the business is still in an early phase and doing a lot of research to ensure it meets local quality standards, sells the product at the right price and sets the business model up in a way that allow for sustainable scalability, it has already been a finalist in the Green City Startup competition and recently won the SLUSH 2016 Global Impact Accelerator.
“It has been quite a long journey I think – as all entrepreneurial journeys are – lots of ups and downs. I think we as a team – the three co-founders, all young, all women – really work well together and to be honest we just get stuff done. I think a lot of the entrepreneurial path is sort of figuring things out and we just managed to kind of do that.
“Sometimes you figure out things by doing the wrong thing first, which is fine.”