Megan founded Zana Africa to ensure that young girls are able to navigate with dignity their puberty years and accompanying challenges related to changes in their reproductive health by providing access to quality hygiene products, particularly underwear and sanitary pads, as well as creating safe spaces for girls and young women to learn about reproductive health.
The New Idea
Megan’s first goal is to make the world’s cheapest sanitary pad that matches the quality and comfort of the most expensive on the market. In order to bring down the cost of sanitary pads, Megan is partnering with Africa Cotton and pursuing innovations in material science to create cheaper and higher quality pads. Her first product, Nia pads, currently sells for 10 cents, almost 40 percent less than the cheapest pads available in the market today and will decrease in price as further innovations in materials and manufacturing occur. In addition, Megan recognizes that underwear is also prohibitively expensive and that without this, girls are less likely to use sanitary pads. By developing specialized underwear with re-usable cloth liners for use during menstruation, Megan has managed to provide the first duty-free underwear in the country and has subsequently reduced their retail price by 26 percent.
Megan understands that a reduction in the price of sanitary products alone is insufficient to ensuring access for all. Thus, Megan’s second goal is to establish a smart, lean distribution system that tracks the extent and consistency of its own delivery but also the impact of products and services on girl child outcomes over time. To this end, she is working with women entrepreneurs and other citizen sector organizations (CSOs). The women entrepreneurs are able to generate extra income by retailing Nia pads and are also equipped with training to deliver reproductive health education to the young girls. CSOs, on the other hand, are able to purchase the pads and offer them free of charge to schoolgirls in areas they work in, also coupled with reproductive health education. The entrepreneurs and CSOs form a part of Zana Africa’s tightly coordinated network. This network is supported by an information management system, called the Nia Network, which uses text messages to relay distribution information as well as information on school attendance and performance of the beneficiaries. In this way, Zana Africa centralizes all distribution information for sanitary products and reproductive health education, making it far easier to ensure consistent and widespread delivery and track impact over time. Thus far, the Nia Network has eight organizations registered (in addition to many individual women entrepreneurs) and has tracked the distribution of 18 million pads and 900 000 pairs of underwear to 260 000 girls in 2500 schools in Kenya. The extent of the distribution represents 30 percent of all girls in schools who need access to sanitary products and reproductive health education.
Megan’s third goal is to ensure that there are safe spaces for girls to obtain reproductive health education so that they can make well-informed decisions and navigate their adolescence with dignity. She has created the EmpowerNet Clubs – an afterschool girls-only club, with an accompanying curriculum - to provide such spaces for girls. In order to make the topics more accessible and kid-friendly, Megan has pushed forth a series of comics to address 12 topics in the four categories of reproductive health and menstrual hygiene, family planning, HIV/AIDS and maternal heath. Thus far, Megan has reached 375 girls in 15 schools in Kenya.
By 2020, Megan plans to have directly served 2.5 million girls and women, winning back 5 million school days and a further 55 million work hours of time that would otherwise have been lost to menstruation and a lack of reproductive health education.
The uniqueness in Megan’s idea is evidenced by her holistic approach to a complex challenge that is on one side market based and on the other policy oriented as well as gender and culturally influenced. She is taking the full market approach to significantly reduce the price of sanitary products without compromising on quality by launching her own production process complete with world class R&D. Similarly, she is working at the policy level to remove barriers such as exercise duty on women’s underwear. She has developed a distribution model that partners with women entrepreneurs in order to tackle the gender and cultural nuances that often interfere with the provision of reproductive health education in conservative societies. All these factors make Megan’s approach not only new but also potentially disruptive.
It is estimated that 65 percent of girls and women in Kenya and up to four out of every five girls in East Africa are unable to afford sanitary pads available in the market today. School-going girls miss up to eight weeks of school every year because they cannot access affordable pads and drop out at twice the rate of boys. Young women miss valuable working hours every month due to the same problem. In addition, the stigma associated with menstruation alienates the subject from most social spheres, making the arrival of menstruation a particularly confusing, traumatic and embarrassing experience for young girls. With no one to talk to and no affordable products to use, young girls and women resort to the use of unhealthy options like rags and tissue paper while keeping away from public spaces (including school and the workplace). It is estimated that unhygienic alternatives cause untreated reproductive tract infections in at least 10 percent of cases.
This issue is further compounded by a lack of reproductive health education for young girls and women. Parents rarely talk to their daughters about sexuality and reproductive health because they either see it as inappropriate or they simply don’t have the answers. Most parents relegate this responsibility to teachers. Unfortunately, with schools lacking even the most basic infrastructure for purely educational outcomes (books, desks et cetera), reproductive health education is seen as trivial and unimportant in comparison. Girls are therefore left to learn on their own, often making mistakes that they are unable to recover from including early pregnancy, exposure to STDs and AIDS and choosing a life of prostitution.
These seemingly straightforward challenges of providing affordable sanitary pads and safe spaces for reproductive health education for girls have massive implications for their futures but also to the Kenyan economy. Studies show that providing pads and related health education could win back 75 percent of lost learning days and women could regain at least six hours of work per month. In addition, girls who stay in school are more likely to perform well enough to justify their parents’ continued investment to keep them in school. Education has cascading effects over a female’s lifetime – educated women are likely to have 15-25 percent higher incomes, are five times less likely to contract HIV/AIDS, are four times less likely to experience domestic violence and are three times less likely to have an early, unwanted pregnancy. Educated girls and young women are more likely to vote, survive childbirth and ensure better health and education outcomes for their own children. The World Bank Human Development Network Children & Youth Unit (2011) showed that if all girls currently dropping out of school completed primary school, Kenyan GPD could rise by 20 percent (increasing to 48 percent if girls completed secondary school).
Although much attention has been cast on the provision of sanitary pads to girls, existing efforts to address this challenge has been unsustainable and are not easily scalable. After a nationwide sanitary pad campaign in 2009, many NGOs stepped in to solicit pads from manufacturers and distribute them to girls. The government also allocated a portion of the national budget for the provision of free sanitary pads to schoolgirls using the same model. Unfortunately, both these approaches have proven inconsistent, expensive and unsustainable, as they are heavily donor-reliant. The effectiveness of these efforts is further reduced by uncoordinated, sporadic and inconsistent distribution amongst these players. As a result, it is impossible to assess the impact of this work or determine whether all girls are receiving sufficient and consistent access to sanitary pads. Moreover, few of these efforts address the need for reproductive health education for young girls and without this knowledge, young girls do not have the information and confidence they need to safely manage the transition to womanhood.
In order to address the lack of affordable sanitary products and reproductive health education on girls and women, Megan established Zana Africa in 2007. Zana Africa is a hybrid organization with interdependent nonprofit and for-profit entities. These separate but integrated entities each have their own focus but work together towards a common objective of enabling girls and women to navigate menstruation and reproductive health decisions without compromising on their educational and employment outcomes.
The first component of Megan’s strategy is to substantially reduce the cost of all sanitary products for menstruating girls and women. In order to tackle this supply-side challenge, she believes that a market-based solution to drive down the cost of all pads is necessary. The for-profit entity, ZanaAfrica.com, is responsible for delivering high quality sanitary pads at an affordable cost through innovations in both product development and mass distribution. Her goal is to create viable competition for mainstream sanitary pad providers in the Kenyan market, thereby forcing a drop in the price of all products.
In order to do this, Megan has to develop the capacity for cheap, local production in a market dominated by imported products. To this end, Megan has partnered with Africa Cotton, which currently runs at 20 percent capacity, to produce sanitary pads at a fraction of the cost of imported ones. In the medium term, Megan plans to import a pulping machine that will enable ZanaAfrica to produce sanitary pads at full capacity by the year 2018. In addition to local production, ZanaAfrica.com is also experimenting with different agricultural waste materials to boost the supply of locally sourced materials and to ensure that Nia pads offer the same if not better quality than the standard sanitary pads. Megan realized that the global pulping industry has shifted to materials from North and South America. This shift has resulted in the centralization of global production and distribution systems for products such as sanitary pads and toilet paper, making developing countries like Kenya dependent on imports despite their enormous potential for sourcing homegrown materials. She is combating this shift by partnering with Kenyan and American researchers to develop such local materials and has secured a one million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to carry our this research and development work.
The second component of Megan’s strategy is to build a smart distribution system that can support the delivery of these products and reproductive health education wherever and whenever it’s needed to minimize the impact of the absence of these products and services on young girls and women. In this way, she is not falling into the same trap of poor distribution as previous donor and government driven efforts. She is working with CSOs as distribution partners in addition to forming a coordinated network of women entrepreneurs called the Nia Network (Nia means “purpose” in Kiswahili) to more effectively distribute pads to school girls around the country. She has also trained over 80 Marie Stopes Community Health Agents to act as “salesmoms” for ZanaAfrica. She sees this model of training existing community health agents (through Marie Stopes and other organizations) as a strategy for expanding the reach of her work. Seeing the need for an appropriate monitoring and evaluation tool, the Nia Network uses an information management system of the same name that allows the women entrepreneurs and CSO distributors to capture information about distribution quantity and timing and which schools have been reached using their mobile phones. This basic information is stored in a central and accessible database, making the entire distribution system much smarter and more effective than alternative options and ensuring consistent and sufficient delivery.
The Nia Network application is essential to the work of ZanaAfrica.org, the nonprofit entity responsible for connecting the work of ZanaAfrica.org to Megan’s mission of ensuring that reproductive health decisions and menstruation do hurt the educational and employment outcomes for girls and women. ZanaAfrica.org provides the app as a tool for donors to access standardized distribution methodologies and to guide them to the schools most in need for their pad donations by synchronizing the map of schools with available socioeconomic data. Further, the schools use the app to ensure that the intended girls receive the pads and also to document attendance and academic performance, which is useful in tracking quantifiable impact of sanitary pads and reproductive health information on school metrics. For example, the New Adventure Academy in Kibera had 100 percent of the Class Seven students returning for Class Eight, a fact they attributed to the pads that the girls in the class received throughout the year as well as ongoing health education that was provided by ZanaAfrica. All schools covered by Zana Africa thus far have reported an improvement in attendance and participation. Importantly, girls have also shown improvements in personal grooming and hygiene. Megan sees this data as being an invaluable advocacy tool for ZanaAfrica.org and to inform policy and raise awareness of the importance of affordable sanitary products and reproductive health education for girls and women.
The final piece of Megan’s strategy involves creating a safe and warm space for young girls to find answers to questions about their reproductive health and adolescence. She has found that the four-year timespan around menstruation - two years before and two years after a girl’s first period - is crucial for providing reproductive health education. Girls drop out of school at a rate twice that of boys from the age of puberty and girls who stays out of school are several times more likely to face the risks of unwanted pregnancy, rape, sexual assault than those in school. Convinced that keeping girls in school during this time in their development is of crucial importance, Megan has created afterschool girls-only mentorship clubs through ZanaAfrica.org, which provide reproductive health education, guidance as well as emotional support. She is also pioneering the use of comics to deliver health education - creating several characters with personalities that appeal to different demographics - all working to educate, empower and excite girls about their periods and their physical health. To this end, Megan has secured a grant of $150,000 from USAID to pilot the development and use of these comic books that will then be incorporated in the delivery package of the Nia sanitary pads through the Nia Network. The comics are also available through a mobile phone app and online.
Megan is driven to regain 5 million schooldays and 55 million working hours of time lost to the lack of affordable sanitary care products and reproductive health education. She plans on serving 2.5 million girls and women by the year 2020 in order to do this. She also hopes to have the Nia Network adopted as the mandatory reporting mechanism within the Ministry of Education to reach over 72,000 schools in Kenya. The network will also capture 18M daily attendance and annual performance records plus retention or transfer records. Megan expects to spread this model through partners within East Africa. Her primary strategy for scaling the impact of her work is through partnerships with both the public sector and the development sector. Through an introduction by Ashoka Fellow, Haron Wachira, Megan is already working with the Kirinyaga Country Government to start distribution of sanitary pads to girls in the region. She is also partnering with Marie Stopes Kenya to provide both sanitary hygiene products and reproductive health education using its network of thousands of supamamas (women distributors). On the production side, Megan has partnered with Africa Cotton to start the production of pads, but she is already raising funds to purchase her own production machine that will see her scale the production of pads over the next ten years.
Megan was raised in Greenwich, CT and attended Greenwich Academy for 14 years. An ardent traveler from an early age, Megan went to Germany by herself for several weeks just before her ninth birthday. After her father lost his job, Megan depended on scholarships to attend Greenwich Academy. She loved playing in team sports, and in sixth grade found a passion for goalkeeping in lacrosse. After countless hours in practice, Megan was recognized as an All-American lacrosse goalkeeper in her junior year of high school. From this Megan developed a strong sense of resilience.
Megan also became aware of the absence of cultural diversity in her life from an early age. She noticed how certain people could be invisible to others, and that often this invisibility was linked to their economic status and ethnicity. Janitorial staff members at her school, for example, were mostly of Eastern European origin or from Central America. Although her father taught her and her siblings to respect those in the service industry, there always seemed to be an unbridgeable divide between their worlds and Megan’s. To combat this, she started learning about the music, food, artwork, stories and experiences of, for example, the African-American daughter of an American Baptist preacher or the girl at camp from Colombia. Megan particularly remembers the Ethiopian Famine of 1983, which was featured prominent on TV during that time. She was disturbed to see emaciated children and believed it insulting to them and to the humanity of the viewers that TV presenters promised that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, viewers could keep the children alive. She decided to volunteer at a local homeless shelter and in high school she created the Community Building Grant through which the graduating class would choose a cause to fundraise for.
Megan came to Kenya as part of a vocational and faith journey in 1998 during the summer before her senior year at Harvard College. She was placed at Homeless Children International (HCI-Kenya) to help four girls between 8-14 years old transition from full-time street life to full-time school and quickly realized they, like her, were also seeking opportunities to dream big and pursue their passion in life. Three years later, she was invited to come back to HCI-Kenya, which by that time had grown to a staff of 33 people taking care of 245 residential boys and girls. As the Resource Mobilization Manager for HCI, she spearheaded the construction of a shelter for girls in Loitoktok and a school with a dormitory, kitchen and borehole. She also helped secure a power donation from the Ministry of Energy. Thereafter, she helped the organization to acquire adjacent land to build another school, a boy’s dormitory, a cow shed and a shopping center, all constituting a self-sustaining community. To achieve this, she managed to convince a local bank to donate 1 million shillings despite the fact that they had no presence in the region. As part of her work, she wanted to understand HCI’s cost per child by gender. Through this, she discovered that after removing direct educational costs, HCI’s largest monthly expense for all children was bread while the second largest for girls was sanitary pads. Based on these facts, she decided to source ideas for income-generating initiatives that would help the organization achieve cost-savings on sanitary pads and other essentials. However, she was asked to leave when she tried to get the Board of Directors on board with her idea for a sanitary pad manufacturing enterprise and another idea for a small business incubator in rural Kenya
Two years later, the Board invited her for a meeting in which they apologized for their shortsightedness. However, by that time, she had already begun her plans to provide access to sanitary hygiene products and reproductive health education to women and young girls across Kenya and eventually, East Africa. In 2004, female Members of Parliament successfully lobbied to waive taxes on sanitary pads. Prior to that, pads were considered a luxury good, in the same category as lipstick. This opened the door for Megan to launch the National Sanitary Towels Campaign (NSTC) on Valentine’s Day 2006 as the then-Incoming President of the Rotary Club of Nairobi South. Partners in the launch included the Ministry of Education, the Girl Child Network – which has taken a vital leadership role in the issue – and other stakeholders. This was the first such initiative of its kind, and put the issue of pads squarely on the map in Kenya. The NSTC helped to pave the way for the Gender Policy in Education in Kenya, which cited sanitary pads as a key barrier to school attendance and retention. In March 2008 the Ministry of Education and Girl Child Network convened a stakeholders’ assessment meeting, at which the NSTC Coordinating Committee (NSTCCC) was formed. Achieving recognition of the importance of sanitary pads in girls’ health and education at the national level was a significant step towards establishing large-scale systems for improved access for the 65% of Kenyan women for whom pads are currently out of reach. However, Megan recognized that there was still significant work to be done and founded Zana Africa to accomplish this.