The water hyacinth is to Lake Victoria, Kenya what kudzu (“the plant that ate the south”) is to the southeastern United States—an invasive plant with an unbridled appetite for wreaking environmental and economic havoc. So thick are the weeds that blanket the Kisumu shoreline, in fact, that light can barely penetrate the upper layers and local fishermen are cut off from open waters. But the water hyacinth can be classified as a natural fiber, one that can be spun into filaments and used in papermaking and textiles. For a group of visiting students from the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, the solution was simple: When life gives you water hyacinth, you pulp the suckers into something the native population can use; in this case, sanitary protection.

water hyacinth, Kenya

FLOWER POWER

What women in the first world take for granted doesn’t come as easily for developing countries. Roughly 870,000 girls in Kenya miss four days of school every month due to a lack of feminine protection and underwear. In the course of their research, Karin Lidman, Sophie Thornander, Marc Hoogendijk, Lars Marcus Vedeler, and Kristin Tobiassen uncovered the water hyacinth’s impressive absorbency. The scourge of Lake Victoria could be recast as easy-to-make, inexpensive, and biodegradable sanitary napkins to help girls receive the education they need to escape poverty.

The scourge of Lake Victoria could be recast as sanitary pads to help girls receive the education they need to escape poverty.

The Jani, which means “leaf” or “sheet”, consists of four layers made entirely from water-hyacinth paper. Each tier is imbued with different characteristics, whether it’s perforated holes to improve absorption or a veneer of beeswax to prevent leakage. Slits on the top layer allow the pad to adapt to the wearer’s body, reducing discomfort.

Jani’s packaging received just as much thought. Each pad is folded with the waxed barrier facing outward, then held in place with a thin paper strip that protects the adhesive. A 9×9-inch piece of water-hyacinth paper, fastened with a sticker, secures multiple pads. “This ?exible solution allows the customer to either buy a pack of 10 pads in one go, or just one or two at a time,” note its creators. “The vendor can then easily tighten the wrapping around the remaining pads and reattach the sticker.”

Necessity, have you met invention?

+ Jani