Why this Harvard grad has spent a decade making maxi pads out of banana fibers

Elizabeth Scharpf holding a banana tree trunk.
Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises

Elizabeth Scharpf is a force. She has a stack of diplomas and a downright intimidating resume.

Scharpf, 38, studied at Notre Dame, spent two years researching the Austrian healthcare system on a Fulbright scholarship, worked for three years in global pharmaceuticals and biotech, and then went to Harvard to pursue a dual graduate degree at both the business school and the John F. Kennedy School of Government. In her free time, Scharpf interned for the World Bank in Mozambique.

And that was all before Scharpf really got started.

Since graduating from Harvard in 2007, she has had a single-minded focus: giving women and girls around the world access to maxi pads.

While Scharpf was at the World Bank, she was working with local entrepreneurs when she noticed particularly high rates of absenteeism among women. She came to learn that women weren't going to work when they had their periods because maxi pads cost more than a day's wages.

That struck the then 27-year-old from Colts Neck, New Jersey, as absurd. And more than that, it made her angry.

The more research Scharpf did, the more she learned this problem was global — a secret pandemic that women everywhere suffered from but didn't talk about. With her business savvy and experience commercializing health products, she hoped she was uniquely situated to help.

Bernice Huang, an intern Scharpf first brought to Rwanda with her in 2008, blending materials to test their absorbency.
Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises

"It's not that I am so passionate about menstruation," she tells CNBC. "I am the person that always forgets when they have their period and is like, 'I hope not today, because I am wearing white pants!'"

The thing that really got Scharpf is that "it's symbolic of so many overlooked, taboo things that fall through the cracks." In particular, not having access to sanitary pads affects a woman's ability to take care of herself and get through her day — it affects her dignity. And that was something that Scharpf couldn't stand for.

In 2008, Scharpf went to Rwanda with a blender in her backpack in search of a material to make maxi pads with. Looking back, she says that many would call her idealism "naive." Instead, she thinks she's been driven by an "optimistic urgency" that defines entrepreneurship.

A new way to manufacture pads

Scharpf knew that to make pads affordable in Africa would mean developing a production process using locally sourced material. Importation and transportation can become the bulk of the cost of getting a consumer good to remote locations.

At the time, she and her team would put anything they could find into a blender to turn it into a fiber. Then they'd let the material dry overnight and pour Coke on it to see how well it absorbed liquid.

Through trial and error, Scharpf discovered that banana fibers are surprisingly absorbent — and banana trees are everywhere in Rwanda.

With funds from a couple of grants, including social entrepreneurship foundation Echoing Green and Harvard Business School, and the collaboration of students and professors, Scharpf developed and patented a process to turn banana fiber into a fluffy, absorbent material that looks something like cotton. Then, she developed a process to seal the banana fiber fluff into pads with old paper-making equipment.

"We make our pads with no water, very little electricity — not because we aim to be the leanest, greenest machine, but because we had to," says Scharpf. "And we had people from major companies like Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark tell us that this was not possible to create the material that would go in our pads with no chemicals and with little electricity. We figured out how to do it because we had to."

Now, nine years later, Scharpf is still doggedly working to make the pads affordable and available in Rwanda. Her company, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), has made and distributed almost 200,000 pads to 10,000 girls throughout the country.

SHE sells packs of pads for 70 cents, which is 35 percent less expensive than the next cheapest option. SHE also provides 28 production jobs in the local community of Ngoma in the Eastern province of Rwanda, where the main facility is located, and business to 600 local banana farmers, most of whom are women.

Global growth goals

Go! pad with 2 wrapped pads on banana fiber.
Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises

SHE is, against all odds, making progress. That's not only due to Scharpf's unwavering dedication, but also due to a partnership that SHE has made with the consumer giant Johnson & Johnson.

Its chief technology officer learned about the work Scharpf was doing and believed it could be applied around the world. The innovation department signed on as a technical adviser in March 2015. As part of the agreement, Johnson & Johnson does not have a financial stake in SHE, but does get a front row seat to the team's innovative process.

"We believe SHE's development of a scaleable business model could be transferred to other tropical regions, thus creating jobs for women in rural communities and incremental income for local banana farmers, in addition to assisting girls and women in need of sanitary napkins," says Josh Ghaim, the Johnson & Johnson CTO. "We believe that SHE's approach has significant potential for scalability and thus could be an important step towards making women's healthcare more accessible in these regions."

The SHE production team outside their facility in Ngoma, Rwanda.
Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises

Banana fibers are a raw material that could hold particular promise for Johnson & Johnson, as it looks to expand into India and China in the future. Also, making consumer products in the location where they will be used — as opposed to manufacturing them and then transporting them to the point of sale — is an interesting technology for the company.

For her part, Scharpf hopes that getting access to the brains, talent and equipment at Johnson & Johnson will help SHE scale production faster.

By the end of 2017, SHE aims to distribute maxi pads to 250,000 girls. And within three years, SHE expects to launch in other emerging markets. The ultimate goal is to expand across the globe by replicating the system used in Rwanda.

A banana tree trunk being processed into fiber.
Source: Sustainable Health Enterprises

Looking back, Scharpf says a sense of duty and sheer determination drove her to this point. Many people told her it was impossible, but that only pushed her harder.

"When someone says to me, 'it's not possible,' it just inspires me to go for it even more," she says. "I am going to prove you wrong."