Business training graduate helps Tanzanian girls stay in school

08 March 2019

After completing UNCTAD's entrepreneurship programme, Jennifer Shigoli grew a start-up making reusable sanitary pads for girls who otherwise might miss out on an education.

Schoolgirls in rural Tanzania are getting a chance at an uninterrupted education and better reproductive health thanks to the initiative of a 30-year old graduate of an UNCTAD entrepreneurship programme.

Jennifer Shigoli, founder of Tanzanian cleaning and haircare products company Malkia Investments, started a reusable sanitary pads business in Dar es Salaam when she realized that many girls couldn't afford conventional disposable sanitary pads and were improvising unhealthy ways to cope with periods – and missing school because of it.

“You listen to the excuses they give – ‘I had toothache, I had a headache’ – and ask yourself, why is it that everybody has toothache, or has a headache everywhere I go?” Jennifer says.

About one in 10 girls in sub-Saharan Africa misses school during their menstrual cycle, according to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Jennifer Shigoli

“The teachers confirmed that there was a very big issue: these young girls could not afford proper menstrual products, so they resort to staying at home during their periods and resume school after. They lose from two to five days every month!”

Shocking information

Jennifer, who credits UNCTAD’s Empretec programme with helping her plan for the future of her business, was horrified when she found out what some girls were using instead of sanitary pads.

“Most of them were using rags,” she says. “Other girls were using cow dung. Some were even using chicken feathers – all unhygienic. This has a huge effect on their health and their reproductive systems.”

Jennifer says that such poor menstrual hygiene has a ripple effect that can cause infectious diseases and other health problems.

Using rags isn't comfortable, she realized – they're not absorbent enough and they don't allow girls to live freely. So, she set about developing an affordable product that would provide the same protection as leading disposable menstrual pads on the market.

Jennifer first became aware of the problem after starting a charity to promote hygienic behaviour in rural schools.

Missing girls

“I started the Choo Salama programme first, where we go into schools and form these wash clubs,” Jennifer says. “Within the wash clubs, I always wanted a balance between the number of boys and girls who participated, but I realized that there were frequently a number of girls missing.


“I started doing research and even consulted the teachers. They said ‘Ha! This is normal. The girls miss the class because they are having their period, and they can’t come to school’. This was shocking information for me.”

Jennifer adds: “I had one case, I was actually there, with a girl called Halima – she’s now our champion – she missed her Grade 7 national exam because she was late. She had to walk from miles away and was using a sponge, she was bruised, she couldn’t walk any faster, and when she got there she was [refused permission to sit the exam for being late] …There are so many such cases.”

Jennifer discovered that many agencies raised money to buy and distribute one-use-only, disposable sanitary products.

“This is not sustainable,” Jennifer says. “I asked myself ‘Do I have to fundraise every month? Who, what, where, when, how?’ It is not possible, and it is not realistic. Periods come and then next month they come again…I was looking for sustainability.”

Finding success

Jennifer found a way to manufacture a cotton-based sanitary pad that could be used more than once.

“They can be used, washed and used again,” she says, adding that this means the pads are environmentally friendly as well as affordable.

The lifespan of the product means that families can save and plan to buy the sanitary pads in the knowledge they will last a year, Jennifer says. This is important for families with limited means and girls planning for school semesters and exam preparation.

“Another advantage is that they are locally made, using local raw materials. They are made from cotton. This lowers the cost. If the products were made elsewhere they would have to be imported, and the cost would automatically rise because of taxes and whatnot,” Jennifer says.

Jennifer’s entrepreneurialism taps into the much broader and increasingly understood the global problem of “period poverty” and her success has brought her much recognition – from an African Entrepreneurship Award worth $150,000 to being named one of Forbes Magazine’s 30 Most Promising Young African Entrepreneurs.

And in 2017 Jennifer came first among young entrepreneurs from around the world invited to pitch business ideas contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals during Global Entrepreneurship Week in Geneva, Switzerland.

Creating jobs

The event, organized by UNCTAD, the World Intellectual Property Organization, the Politecnico di Milano, Youth Business International and Impact Hub Geneva, was judged by business leaders and attended by Roman Busch, a senior diplomat representing Switzerland at the United Nations in Geneva.

"It becomes increasing clear, thanks to events such as this one, that solving social and environmental problems can generate revenue and be turned into financially sustainable businesses," Mr. Busch said at the awards ceremony.

Jennifer’s business won over the judges not only because Elea pads are helping keep Tanzanian girls in school but also because they create jobs for local women.

"I'm very proud to say that every pad is made by women in Tanzania," she says.

“For those local women that are making the pads for the girls, there is more than just the product – there is a connection!” Jennifer says. “They are making them in the knowledge that we are doing this for a cause."

Jennifer’s business helps achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by contributing to, among others, goal 3 on good health and well-being, goal 4 on quality education, particularly target 5 on eliminating gender disparities in schools, goal 5 on gender equality, and goal 8 on decent work and economic growth, particularly target 3 on job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

Thinking big

Jennifer was inspired by UNCTAD’s Empretec entrepreneurship programme, which was launched in Argentina in 1988 and has since expanded to 40 developing countries. In cooperation with local counterparts, the programme has assisted 420,000 entrepreneurs through local market-driven Empretec centres, including in Tanzania where Jennifer enrolled.

“In June 2016, I took the Empretec course and the first big thing that I learned was entrepreneurship,” Jennifer says, modestly. “There’s a big myth about entrepreneurs – but who is an entrepreneur? I got the real meaning from the training we had at Empretec. And the 10 Personal Entrepreneurial Competencies – I follow them like my 10 Commandments.”

Jennifer adds that meeting other businesswomen during the training truly helped her grow as an entrepreneur.

“Some were very ahead, and some were just start-ups like me, so being under one roof you get to learn from them so much,” Jennifer says. “I’ve got my mentor from my Empretec class; she’s called Maida. She’s way ahead of me, but we had a great time learning together. You learn from the course, but you also learn from your peers.”

Empretec also encouraged Jennifer to think big.

“Another thing I’ve learned is that I can grow my business to wherever I want to take it,” she says. “I had this vision, but it was just so limited.”

After presenting her idea as part of the course, an Empretec instructor told Jennifer she had the potential to aim higher.

“I restructured my business plan, and now it is working! It was a turning point for me – it was a great course, and I always recommend it to other people. There is even ‘post-training’: when the course is finished the same group meets once a month, so there is follow-up, and you can still get help.”

Dedicated to spreading her message around the globe, Jennifer was among the speakers who shared their lessons at the December 2018 edition of TEDx PlaceDesNationsWomen, organized at the Palais des Nations, UN’s European headquarters.