Bringing a social enterprise to scale requires equal parts of patience and perseverance.
Interview by Fergal Byrne
Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE) is a social business in Rwanda and sells a low priced, high-quality, environmentally-friendly sanitary pad made out of banana fiber, as an alternative to high-priced traditional sanitary products available throughout the developing world. Founder and Chief Instigating Officer Elizabeth Scharpf speaks to Fergal Byrne about the challenges she has faced on her journey.
How did you get started?
I was working for the World Bank in Mozambique in 2005 when I came across a problem that had never occurred to me before. I discovered most girls and women did not have access to affordable menstrual products—because they cost more than a day’s wages for most people. I later learned millions of girls and women in developing countries miss up to 50 days of school/work per year, and many can become ill through the use of unsuitable homemade alternatives.
I set up SHE in . We spent three years researching the possibility of low-cost alternatives using local raw materials, instead of all imported materials, to ensure affordability and accessibility. We have now developed a sanitary pad made out of banana fiber, sourced from local farming cooperatives. These pads cost 50 percent of the price of imported products.
What is your vision for the business?
We are currently focused on Rwanda. Our vision is to scale SHE to a point where we can cover our operating costs. Ultimately, we would like to be a viable option for the majority of the almost five million potential customers in Rwanda.
Our ultimate objective, however, is to enhance women's economic potential by launching initiatives in developing countries that allow women to jump-start their own businesses to manufacture and distribute our affordable, quality and eco-friendly sanitary pads.
We also want to share our expertise and lessons internationally – we have been contacted by more than 300 stakeholders across 25 different countries who'd like to partner with us – including UNICEF, the government of South Africa and many individual entrepreneurs—so that others can scale these ideas in their own communities.
What are the challenges of running a social business in Rwanda?
The biggest challenge is the unpredictable environment in which we work. There is always the threat of water shortage, not having consistent electricity supply every day as well as the ever-present threat of civil war. So you need to innovate constantly to get things done and find ways around these problems. There was a shortage of water at our new production site, for example, so we had to figure out a recycling water system where we only use 10 gallons of water [every day], instead of a traditional plant that would use 30 times as much. This creativity extends to everything we do. For example, we didn’t have any washers for our construction, so we used caps from soda and beer bottles.
What has been the biggest achievement for SHE in the last year?
Being able to give our production staff, with minimal education background, a job they are proud of, making products they are proud of, with a new production process that is not necessarily easy work.
You worked for many years in traditional business. What have you learned from the shift to social entrepreneurship?
Isolation was a real challenge. Being on your own trying to solve all the different kinds of unique problems that social entrepreneurs face. The support I have had from social entrepreneur communities like Echoing Green and Social Venture Network (SVN) has been crucial to our success. Echoing Green supported a girl with a crazy idea and her vision right at the beginning.
And as we have grown, SVN has been invaluable: being able to meet inspiring, like-minded social entrepreneurs with a great attitude and love for entrepreneurship has been hugely helpful. In addition to the inspiration, I have learned concrete ways to deal with some real challenges, for example, on how to be a CEO, CFO and CTO at the same time.
All entrepreneurs have good days and bad days. How do you stay inspired?
The key is to celebrate small wins. We celebrated when our first machine arrived in Rwanda, for example, when we set it up and got it working. We celebrated when we figured out how to train farmers to extract the banana fibers from the trees. We have tried to set up little wins and celebrate them along the way.
What would you say has been your biggest lesson on this journey?
I have realized changing behavior takes a really long time—and it takes patience. Ironically, I don’t think entrepreneurs are known for their patience but that is one of their strengths: that’s why they get a lot of things done. But as a social entrepreneur, sometimes the scale of the challenge you are facing is so enormous you need to understand that you may never even see signs of change happening in the short term. You need a mixture of entrepreneurial drive and patience to achieve your goals.
About the Author:
Fergal Byrne is a seasoned freelance journalist who has written for many years for The Financial Times and The Economist Intelligence Unit. You can hear Fergal’s interviews with inspiring social entrepreneurs and changemakers at www.inspiringsocialentrepreneurs.com.
About Social Venture Network:
Since 1987, Social Venture Network (SVN, www.svn.org) has been the leading network of entrepreneurs who are transforming the way the world does business. SVN connects the leaders of socially responsible enterprises to share wisdom and resources, form strategic alliances and explore new solutions that build a more just and sustainable economy.