Interview with Florence Akara for SDG #5

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Florence Akara

Managing Director

Femme International

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Florence Akara

Managing Director

Author Biography

Florence Akara is the director of Femme International; a nonprofit serving nearly a decade of menstrual sexual reproductive health (MSRH) education, research and product distribution in East-Africa. MSRH status, in spite of investments/resources in the past decade, has been unsustainable. Through investing in a feminist social business model called "The Twende Initiative", Florence is invested towards monetising the nonprofit tools, skills, environs, and resources honed by Femme in the last decade; creating reliable, lasting income generating sources that will maximise Femme's impact in delivering MSRH solutions, and achieve menstrual equity by 2030.

Q1. What was your company’s unique approach in integrating technology to achieve UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)?

Our solution, the Twende Initiative’s biggest customer value proposition is its ability to leverage on low-tech, already existing community systems, because after a decade of implementation and learning, it is clear that the move to digital technology is not very inclusive of particularly rural regions’ in East Africa with a dire lack of resources or infrastructure to support that use of tech. 

Twende systems for communications, including in-person training and visits,  community gatherings, and radio, enabling access for even those who are too remotely located and/or lack resources operates in areas where access to smartphones, even electricity, is limited. We use already-existing arces or infrastructure to access tech media. And yes, we use social media alongside this too, because smartphone penetration is growing, especially amongst youth. Additionally, we offer customisable payment plans that help curb the burden of upfront costs that can be inhibitive for many, thereby accommodating  individual and community needs and realities. This is in consideration of the existing financial barriers in low-income communities, coupled with feedback data from over 17,000 beneficiaries and their communities; up to 71% of whom reported being burdened by the recurrent cost of menstruation – leaving them in a budgeting dilemmas when planning for essential family needs.

Menstruators in this dilemma are resourceful with natural and raw materials accessible to them, using alternative such as cloth, tissue , mattress surfing , animal hide  etc, which, despite being absorbent are not hygienic, comfortable , nor capable of guarantee a stress free period. 

 

Q2. What are some examples of SDG-focused projects that your company is currently working on?

Twaweza: Menstrual and Sexual Reproductive Health education Twaweza [Kiswahili word for “we can”] Programme in Tanzanian and Kenyan schools and communities in the past decade to address the gap in MSRH programming amongst girls who are already menstruating. To date, Femme has served nearly 17,000 direct beneficiaries and indirectly impacted communities across both countries. The implementation of the Twaweza Programme starts with “buy-in” meetings to gain approval from regional and district education officers, meetings with school administration, and teachers and parents prior to sessions with students’ meetings. In the meetings facilitators describe the program and allow The school meetings provide information about the programme and are intended to sensitise about the programme and to provide an opportunity for question and answers. The school meetings are followed by teachers, parents and guardians’ meeting to sensitise on the general content of the Twaweza Programme. These meetings also provide an opportunity to address common myths, misconceptions, and to educate on different menstrual products.

Femme arranges a Baseline quantitative questionnaires are collected to capture the socio-demographics, assess knowledge, MH practices, MSRH, participation, WASH, and confidence.  Identification of suitable time and venue for sessions for teachers and students (normally out of school hours). After the “buy-in” meetings, Femme conducts a series of participatory workshops with female students in all available classes.  The workshops loosely follow the Femme Tweweza manual but are flexible and allow for In its current format, only female students attend the workshop. The workshops are participatory in nature and informal, with long Q&A sessions after content delivery. InAt the final workshop, girls are provided with a Femme Kit, that contains either a menstrual cup or pack of four washable pads (the girls choose which they want), a towel, soap, a small bowl, two pairs of underwear, and a workbook. Six weeks after the workshop the facilitators return to school to meet with students, review key topics, and respond to concerns. In addition to routine monitoring of project activites, Femme implement a pre and 6 months post workshop questionnaire Final evaluation questionnaire, to assess changes in knowledge, MH practices, MSRH, participation, product use and confidence is administered after six months.

Partnering to support schools to promote better menstrual health and well-being (PASS MHW): A partnership for development, evaluation and research. The PASS MHW project will collaboratively conduct formative research to help refine our Twaweza intervention to address the gaps including the development and refinement of a comprehensive boys programme  to run concurrently with the girls’ and then pilot the refined intervention in four secondary schools in Mwanza region of Tanzania. (Currently on going). The research study protocol paper of our menstrual health research project, has just been published in BMJ Open. Anyone interested can read it here: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/bmjopen-2021-054860

Twende Initiative: A new way of doing the business of menstruation by monetising our 9 year non-profit initative data, expertise and experience in sexual reproductive menstral health knowledge & management education programming , supply and distribution of a variety of innovative, sustainable and economically friendly menstrual products, Research and programme development partnerships, and impact travel/tours based on our geographic location strengths in Nairobi, Kilimanjaro, Mwanza regions of East Africa. Overall, Twende will provide us with alternative sources of income enabling Femme to continue supporting our programs & operations as well as ensure sustainability and growth of our organisation in the future.

 

Q3. What are the most difficult challenges your company and other companies face generally in the implementation/adoption of new sustainable technology?

Lack of resources, tech operations awareness or know-how nor team to adequately/sustainably integrate into our programming systems.  Our decision to focus on low-tech solutions is cognisant of the majority of the communities that we support who either have no access to tech infrastructure or resources to sustain their efficient operations. Smartphones and internet access are still very much a luxury item amongst the communities we serve.

 

Q4. Tell me about a time your sustainable tech helped another company realize their SDG goals.

Our Kenyan based partner for an upcoming girls STEM programme, Reaching our with Compassion in Kibera (ROCK), based at the centre of Kenya’s biggest slum. ROCK’s biggest challenge was how to scale-up on menstrual product distribution without contributing to the already existing waste management challenge in the slum. Most local menstrual programme solutions do not have access to sustainable products and opt for single use disposable pads which are in turn problematic for the environmental and financial sustainability of the programme model. Our strengths in access to a range of products through a variety of distribution partnerships with reusable/sustainable product manufacturers has been handy and we look forward to implementing a long term partnership that will see ROCK girls in the STEM programming receiving menstrual cups to guarantee them longer period-stress-free hours necessary for focus in school work, coding and social activities. We work with sustainable menstrual products that are specifically designed for period blood, which consequently require less water to clean, reducing the challenge of access to water that already exists in Kibera.

 

Q5. What is the biggest challenge your company has handled while enabling your sustainable tech accessible to different communities?

Aside from funding, import and local registration process clarity, timelines and efficiency when we need to imports of new and innovative menstrual products and MSRH goods particularly reusable menstrual cups and pads, which are not yet recognised by the local bureaus of standards, mean that penetration of any new products/partnerships we pursue/enter into become frustrating and consequently negatively affects the objectives particularly where the timelines are very key.

 

Q6. Cost-effective sustainable tech can be lifesaving and planet-saving approach. What actions your company takes to make your sustainable tech economical and a fit for the large-scale adoption?

Our organisation focuses on creating more awareness about sustainable innovative solutions to menstruation. Awareness is key because without knowledge the barriers to uptake of products is very evident. We raise awareness by highlighting the specific difficulties in reference to lack of local waste management solutions, about how plastic waste found in single-use disposable pads continue to pollute agricultural land as a consequence because they take 500 years to decompose, we also highlight the significance of switching to chemical free menstrual products because they are better for the body and from our research over the past decade shows that there is related reduction in recurring urinary and  reproductive health ailments by up to 65% of our beneficiaries.

 

Q7. What do you believe will be a global, long-term, impact of your sustainable tech integration?

The Twende initiative focusses on education adults. Thus coupled with our program  Twaweza programme model which focuses on a young adults, facilitate a top-down, bottom-up approach towards targeting sexual reproductive menstrual health in East Africa. By so doing, we are creating menstrual friendly communities that are going to continue to support the future generation of menstruators who will find the communities more open to discussing menstrual health, regardless or gender and age. Ensuring that they can be productive and contributing members in their communities without being inhibited by persistent Menstrual taboos, myths or stigmas that have previously contributed to low self-esteem and negative psycho-social consequences being experienced by menstruators in East Africa to date.

 

Q8. What’s your vision for the sustainable tech industry and your company’s role in it?

My vision is towards achieving financial sustainability for Femme to secure the longevity of our programmes and operations. I believe that sustainable impact starts with adjusting our individual carbon footprint. We know that on average, each woman will use 5,940 single-use disposable pads/menstrual lifetime –  multiply that by the entire global population of menstruators, not switching simply means that menstruation heavily contributes to plastic waste that is damaging our soil and water resources. switching to sustainable menstrual products  will play a huge role towards conserving the environment and impacting climate change from an individual scale which then will create a ripple effect and push for others to participate through peer influence.

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Female Empowerment in the Digital Age

Dr. Laura Bechthold is a social scientist and innovation professional from Munich. As a postdoctoral researcher at the Friedrichshafen Institute for Family Entrepreneurship at Zeppelin University, she works on questions regarding responsibility and decision paradigms of family entrepreneurs. As the Director of Science Services at Philoneos GmbH, she supports family fi rms in establishing organizational structures for innovation. Laura holds a BA in Business Administration (Zeppelin University), a Master of Business Research (LMU Munich) and an MSc in Sustainability Science and Policy (Maastricht University). Her PhD research focused on unconscious biases in female entrepreneurship. Her fi eld experimental study on female entrepreneurial role models was awarded twice at international conferences. Laura’s passion lies in building bridges between science and practice to foster an open dialogue and co-create solutions for an inclusive, sustainable and prospering society. Therefore, she contributes to EUTECH by writing about entrepreneurial challenges and opportunities for contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals.

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