Olivia Onyemaobi, is the CEO of PadUp Creations, a social enterprise company with bias for the production of washable and reusable pads for women. She is also the founder of Kommmb Innovations, a company that recycles fabric waste from Pad-Up Creations Limited into educational toys, home décor and soft furniture. With a Master’s in Business Administration and being a Ph.D. student in management at Texila American University, Onyemaobi launched her sanitary pads vending machines in Minna, Niger State, the first of its kind in Nigeria, in May, 2022. She speaks with WO on how the machines could help up to one million school girls across the country conquer the challenge of menstrual hygiene.
You launched sanitary pads vending machines in Niger State recently, what was it about?
We rebranded the product packages. We wanted sanitary pads to have a different look, they don’t need to look like the conventional sanitary pads. People are already used to seeing the conventional sanitary pads, so anytime you find a girl with sanitary pads, people begin to think that oh, this is about period.
We wanted it to wear a new look where people don’t need to feel absurd when they behold sanitary pads. So we rebranded them and unveiled the new pack to the public. We also have other new products, like the padded pants and the baby diapers that were also unveiled.
We also unveiled a mobile app that is designed to help girls and women calculate their menstrual cycle, their calendar, so they can easily include their last menstrual date and they get to know when their next ovulation will be and when the next period will be. So it helps to do that calculation for them. There is also another section on the app that provides for a psychotherapy session where girls and women, and possibly, the general public can anonymously meet some psychologists online who can talk to them about matters in real life, so that people can become confident to share with someone private issues like, “I have rashes on my pubic area, how do I handle it?” These are sensitive and private problems that people have, that they don’t feel free to share in the public. We wanted to have a forum where people can share their personal problems, and not have their identity shown. So, when people download this app, they can actually share whatever it is that bothers them on the app, they can also get someone to interface with to solve some of their problems.
The third thing that the app will do is that it is going to help our sales agents to track their sales, it will help them to place their orders online; it will help them to connect with other sales agents in other locations.
How the sanitary pad vending machine works
The vending machine is not an electronic device; we made the machine to work without electricity because we know the challenge that we have here in Africa. The machine will work by dispensing sanitary pads on your second twist of the handle. Before you twist the handle, you unlock the handle with a coin, a regular vending coin. For every place that we install these machines, we will have the exact number of coins also given to the guidance counsellor in the school or whoever is designated to manage the machine. This helps us to track the usage of the sanitary pad. We design everything in such a way that when students are in school, and they lack access to sanitary pads or their period starts while they are in school, they can just go and meet the guidance counsellor and take a coin, go to the machine and get just one sanitary pad to use while in school.
Are the 25,000 machines for the entire country?
Yes, that is our target. We hope to install that across the 36 states and the FCT, Abuja. Like I said earlier, the students are not going to pay for this. That is why we want to make this open so that there can be partners like UNICEF, UNFPA; many international and government agencies, international organisations and other government agencies can key into this. We want to see that girls stay in school.
I am a menstrual hygiene advocate. Most times, we find out that the girls do not know when their period would start. When it starts in school and the fact that they do not have sanitary pads with them, they cover their school uniform with their sweater, or their hijab or start hanging around behind the classrooms to avoid bullying. So, we don’t want them to say, ‘Ah, I didn’t concentrate in school because my dress was stained.’ We want a situation where once your period starts; you can access these sanitary pads while in school without paying a dime for it. That’s why we have the coins; these coins will help us to monitor the pads, so that teachers are not going to abuse this privilege, and that the students also are not going to abuse it.
You mentioned psychotherapy support. Is this in partnership with the Nigerian Psychotherapy Association?
In our office, we have a department that takes care of that. It is basically involved in community engagement. We find that a lot of girls really do not have good information about their health, about hygiene, and even about life in general. Most times parents are so busy and they are not paying attention to their children, and so they (their children) get the wrong information that is available to them, especially from the internet. The solution is to recruit trained psychologists who will be handling these challenges. These people don’t only sit back in the office and wait until you call. We have community engagements in which we have school visits every single week. That is just their job. Currently, we have about 538,000 girls and women that have been trained on menstrual hygiene and reproductive health. We are working on increasing that number in the next two years. That is their job, they go to these communities, to schools and they are able to talk to the girls there. But after talking to the girls, we cannot stop the information that is available out there. When we leave the school, what happens? That is why we created the app, it can be a private place where people can actually find solace when they have challenges. That’s why we created that app.
Can you give the percentage of girls that would access the 25,000 machines?
Each of the machines is going to take about 40 sanitary pads, which are going to be replaced as soon as the batch is exhausted. We have a system that can help us pull this through. Recently, we started a project that we call Success Through Empowerment Project, and it is designed to create 1,503 jobs. Part of it is being sponsored by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What we do is that we recruit these sales agents and they sell this product in micro units. For every product that people buy, we reinvest about 30 per cent of it into free distribution. This free distribution, instead of going to schools to start sharing pads and all that, we look at how we can still get these girls to build more confidence. So, if you are installing the 25,000 sanitary pads in school, in every two weeks it is going to service about a million girls in school, every two weeks.
For the vending machines, we do not have any funding. We are still hopeful that we are going to get partners and sponsors for the project, but it is a bold step that we have to take. We have been in this business for six years. We are the first company to commercialise reusable sanitary pads and the first to be certified by NAFDAC.
Why did you decide to go into the production of reusable pads?
To solve a problem. Initially, I volunteered in 2015 to administer therapy on sexually abused girls and educating them on how to avoid sexual abuse.