Our next 2012 ONE Africa Award finalist is an inspiring organization from Uganda called Supporting Orphans & Vulnerable for Better Health, Education and Nutrition (SOVHEN).
As an orphan raised by his grandparents in rural Uganda, Richard Bbaale looked up to their daughter as an older sister as he learned to navigate this big wide world. When she was in her teens, he noticed that she began staying home from school for a week at a time, usually once a month or so. He even noticed that his sister used mud and leaves—to control the bleeding he’d later find out—since their grandparents couldn’t afford the expensive sanitary pads that would have helped her stay in school, prevented infections, or saved her from embarrassment. Years later, that feeling of helplessness and regret for his sister’s missed education haunted Richard.
Fast forward to Martyrs University Nkozi in the early 2000s. Richard is a student and starts a student club with his friends that focuses on supporting orphans and other vulnerable groups in rural communities with tutoring, encouragement, extra-curricular activities and more. The university students take turns to volunteer and go out to the communities in the four districts on which they have focused. They raise money at times to buy food, school supplies and maybe a football or two so the children have a distraction. The volunteers increasingly notice that young girls, once they became of age, continued to increasingly miss school until they no longer bothered to attend. With Richard advancing in his studies of science and engineering, the thought of his sister still nagged at him. While visiting a village one day, he noticed the discarded stem of a banana tree, its bananas freshly plucked from it. These stems littered the roads and paths of these rural areas. Surely there had to be a use for them.
And with that thought, Richard and his group of friends, which had formally registered as SOVHEN, set their minds to finding a solution for these girls. They soon set upon developing a sanitary pad that is affordable and created from sustainable and bio-degradable materials. The discarded banana stem, when pressed and processed, provided an absorbent fiber that when placed into sheaths of special paper and shaped, could provide the solution to help keep girls in schools. As they refined the idea and tested prototypes, SOVHEN began soliciting partnerships that could support the roll out. Now after about four years of manufacturing the sanitary pads in SOVHEN’s rural facilities, SOVHEN has developed a distribution network that employs teams of women to sell the pads. These pads are readily distributed in the four rural districts of Uganda in which SOVHEN operates through a close-knit network of women who earn money by selling the pads. SOVHEN has also created employment in these rural districts by locating the banana stem processing and manufacturing facilities there so that local women and men are paid salaries for their work. The individuals that manufacture, distribute and sell Bana-pads go through extensive business development training and coaching. SOVHEN’s Bana-pads are not the sole source of income for these people, but by participating with SOVHEN, they are learning important skills that can translate into their own enterprises.
In addition to the work surrounding the development and manufacturing of the pad, SOVHEN is still active in its communities by providing additional services to orphans and the vulnerable. With a presence in these communities’ schools, SOVHEN raises awareness of the specific challenges girls face in their educational development. SOVHEN, working with other community groups, has been responsible for changing the attitudes surrounding girls as they become of age and reducing the stigma of the menstrual cycle. SOVHEN also works hand-in-hand with Uganda’s government to ensure its national strategies for youth unemployment and gender empowerment are fully implemented. In fact, representatives from the Ministry of Gender, Labour & Social Development had nothing but praise for SOVHEN’s efforts to keep girls in school while also creating employment with innovative, sustainable solutions.
SOVHEN directly impacts MDG 3 (gender equality) while also creating employment (MDG 1) and keeping girls in school (MDG 2). We’re proud to recognize SOVHEN for their work and hope you enjoy learning their story!