Did you know that women in the developing world can miss up to 50 days of work and school a year because they can’t afford proper feminine hygiene? While most of us can simply hop into the nearest CVS to pick up a pack of maxi pads for a few bucks, our counterparts in countries like Rwanda lack access to adequate, affordable sanitary products. To make matters worse, menstruation is painted as something embarrassing and taboo. Enter Harvard MBA graduate Elizabeth Scharpf, whose social enterprise, Sustainable Health Enterprises (S.H.E.), is working with local women to make and sell cost-effective sanitary pads using banana-tree fibers.

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Still, for Sharpf and S.H.E., their ecologically sound banana-fiber pad was only the beginning. For the past two years, S.H.E. has been teaching groups of Rwandans about the basics of improving women’s hygiene, as well as advocating for increased access to women’s sanitary products. Since 2009, S.H.E. has also trained 5,000 Rwandan women to set up their own sanitary-napkin micro-enterprises, creating an industry that is as sustainable as its product.

With every woman-led business that S.H.E. invests, about 100,000 women gain access to affordable sanitary products.

With every woman-led and -operated business that S.H.E. invests in, according to the organization, roughly 100 jobs are created and approximately 100,000 girls and women gain access to affordable sanitary products. “Multiply this by 12 franchises and 1,200 jobs will be created, and 1 million girls and women will be reached,” Scharpf notes.

In October, S.H.E. received the 2010 Curry Stone Design Prize for its multifaceted advocacy, education, and business-promoting efforts. Scharpf describes her team and their efforts as a “quilt”—diverse talents working on an issue that affects half the world’s population. She hopes that the Rwandan model can be expanded to other countries over time. Her definition of success, she says, is when she’s “driven out of a job.”

+ Sustainable Health Enterprises