It began with a problem – two problems, actually.
The first was a phenomenon known as menstrual absenteeism. It means that lots of girls and young women who are affected by poverty miss school during their periods. They can’t afford proper sanitary towels, so they instead turn to scraps of old fabric or mattress foam, toilet paper, cotton wool or even newspaper. Fearing embarrassing leaks, they stay home from school, miss out on learning, fall behind and potentially drop out, plunging them deeper into poverty. This is a very real issue for girls and young women in Zambia.
The second, related problem: high unemployment among Zambia’s youth, which can be particularly dangerous for young women. Too often, without stable, dignified work, they’re forced to turn to dependency on men, early marriage or sex work.
In 2017, Pact’s Zambia office had an idea to address both problems at once. With $10,000 in seed funding from Pact’s innovation unit, 21 ‘Kozo Girls’ between the ages of 17 and 24 were trained to make washable, reusable menstrual pads, now known as Kozo Pads. (In Lozi, Kozo means “peace and comfort.”) A pack of five Kozo Pads provides an inexpensive, worry-free way for girls to manage their periods for at least 12 months.
“The goal of Kozo Girls was to provide economic opportunities for its trainees, as well as Kozo Pads free of charge to as many school-age girls in Zambia as possible,” says Emily Bell, a Pact project associate in Zambia who has championed Kozo Girls.
Among the original 21 girls who began making Kozo Pads was Emily Lubinda, now 24, who lives in Lusaka with a cousin and aspires to eventually go into the public health field.
When Lubinda heard about the opportunity to become a Kozo Girl, she jumped at the chance.
“Talking about menstruation openly is taboo in our society, and I struggled a lot when I was at school,” Lubinda says. “My mother died when I was just two years old, and when I started my period, I missed her so much. I remember one day, my period came during school assembly, and I had to cut the pocket out of my school uniform to use as a pad. I was so embarrassed. I missed so many days of school because I didn’t have pads. I don’t want other girls to have to face this challenge.”
Slowly, Kozo Girls grew. Sales reached 1,000 pads, with many of the original girls still using their first set of pads. They operated out of six DREAMS Centers, selling their products there, as well as at other, similar facilities, at local faires and markets, and online through a Zambian e-commerce platform. In marketing their pads, they focused on how they’re locally made and on Kozo Girls’ social mission. Supporting them was $20,000 in funding through Pact’s Zambia DREAMS budget.
But Kozo Girls wanted to grow even more. With 40 DREAMS Centers across Zambia, Kozo Girls had the capacity to reach many, many more young women. Pact also implements DREAMS in Malawi, South Africa, Swaziland and Tanzania.
In addition to scaling through DREAMS, the Kozo Girls team envisioned launching its own marketplace, expanding its product line and becoming a distributor of Kozo Pads to other organizations. They received inquiries from other African and European INGOs, requesting as many as 20,000 Kozo Pads. With $20,000 in additional Pact funding to help Kozo Girls expand, the business conducted market research that suggested this type of bulk distribution could be highly scalable through a variety of government channels including women’s prisons, schools, orphanages and hospitals. Kozo Girls also identified UNHCR refugee camps as another likely way its products could help women and girls.
In the spring of 2018, Kozo Girls opened a dedicated business space, workshop and storefront at Pact’s main office in Lusaka, calling it the “Launchpad.” Around the same time, Kozo Girls got another big boost when it was accepted into CARE’s Scale X Design Accelerator. Through the accelerator, the Kozo Girls team learned about designing for scale, generating a business model, pitching, marketing, scaling through the private sector and more.
Kozo Girls has now sold more than 4,000 Kozo Pads, but in the future wants to be selling that number per month. The majority of these customers will be NGOs, UN agencies, and government ministries – all purchasing pads to be gifted free of charge to the end user. The market is there; for example, one UN agency in Zambia recently invited bids to provide 36,000 reusable pads per year. Kozo Girls aims to be the group that wins such bids and eventually becomes a household name in Zambia.
To reach that next level – to become an independent, self-sustaining social enterprise in the form of a limited liability company – Kozo Girls now needs capital. It’s why Lubinda is thrilled to be pitching for seed funding through CARE’s Scale X Design Challenge, taking place the last week of February in Atlanta. Lubinda competed with other Kozo Girls to win the opportunity to represent the team. Bell will accompany her, along with Taylor Cruz, a member of Pact’s innovation unit.
“The opportunity to go to the United States to represent Kozo Girls is one of the proudest moments in my life,” Lubinda says. “The experience of preparing for our pitch has been so helpful because now I feel confident telling anybody I meet exactly what we need to scale up Kozo Girls and turn it into a successful social enterprise.”
If Kozo Girls wins the funding, which Pact has pledged to match, it will use the capital to help establish a factory for manufacturing Kozo Pads, to make improvements to its products and to hire its first paid staff, including a line manager and other key personnel to institute quality control, improved supply chains and strong operational efficiency.
“Securing investment in Atlanta would take the venture to the next level,” Bell says. “At the moment, NGOs and others in Zambia import reusable pads, which are made in other African countries. Instead, let’s provide jobs to Zambian women in Zambia, and let’s start tackling menstrual-related absenteeism head on.”
Even if Kozo Girls doesn’t win, Lubinda knows the future is bright, because she and the rest of the Kozo Girls team have built a strong foundation. They have all the skills they need to keep going, including lots of practice pitching for funding, which they’ll continue to pursue.
“I hope to come back from America with funding to make our impact bigger and better,” she says. “Kozo Girls is addressing two issues that I know about first hand – girls missing school while menstruating, and girls without jobs and hope. We have what it takes to stand on our own two feet and address these challenges.”
Lead photo: Emily Lubinda at her sewing machine.