Update on the Pad Group

Lorraine, with C4C Executive Director, Liz Berges.

In July of 2010, volunteer and long time C4C donor, Bridget McBride taught a group of 60 girls how to make washable pads. This past August, I got to sit down with the girls to see how their income generating project had fared over the past year. I was hopeful that they might have made some money, but having worked with a number of start up groups, I was not banking on it.

When I travel to Zimbabwe, people know that they need to get all their ducks in line. I come with lists of questions and requests for documentation, sometimes emailed in advance so papers will be ready for me upon my arrival. The washable pad group was no exception.
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Making my way toward the group of 10 girls, I could see by their long faces that they were not pleased. I had given them an assignment to list the current cost of all their materials, research prices of disposable pads, and to survey women about how many pads they use in a typical month.  They then had to compare this to their selling price and be ready to talk to me about their marketing strategy.

When I squeezed onto the picnic bench with them, Hazel handed me a sheet of paper covered in numbers.  I asked for a summary.  Lorraine sighed, and admitted that they were not selling the pads for enough to make money.  I looked over their numbers and quickly agreed.  But when I looked at the total number of pads they had sold, I saw it was several hundred!

Women proudly showing their new pads.

I then realized that the girls had been putting every penny they made back into the project; they hadn’t taken any of the money for themselves, despite the fact that they were sewing for several hours every Saturday afternoon.  “Wait, let me get this straight,” I said.  “You have made hundreds of pads FOR FREE?”  They nodded, ashamed.

I burst out laughing.  I couldn’t help it.  This was the first time I had ever worked with a group that was actually surviving because they were not spending their meager profits on food or clothing.  To me, this was positive.  It told me that the girls had some sense of how to keep a business alive (maybe not how to look out for themselves, but at least they understood the importance of maintaining their group).

The girls use sewing machines that don’t require electricity…since there often isn’t any.

I also discovered that after one particularly big sale, the girls opted to give the $90 they made in profits to another group that was forming.  This new group (interestingly made up of all boys), spent the money to buy materials for a candle making project, made one set of candles, and then gave it up because “it was too much work.”  The boys then divided the materials they had purchased among themselves and called it a day.

So we did a little strategic planning.  Although I worried that my individualistic American way of thinking might not be culturally appropriate,  I told the girls they were not allowed to give away any more of their profits until they figured out how to walk away with some money for each of the individuals in the group.  They decided group members who worked for at least 10 hours a month should qualify to receive some of the proceeds.

Because pads cost approximately 80¢ each to make, anything on top of that would be divided equally among the group members.  Let me stop here and do a little reality check — this means that if 10 girls work 10 hours each, making a total of 100 pads (that are sold for $1each), they would make a total profit of $20, which would mean that each girl might make $2 a month.

When I did the same math problem with the girls, they were ecstatic!  This was about the time that I decided the project was a

A rural home based care team was happy to learn to make pads from the girls’ group.

complete failure.  Two dollars a month?  How could they get excited about that?

But as is often the case, when I stopped talking and just listened to the girls, I was reminded what made this project so inspiring.  It wasn’t about the money – not for them.  Sure, they wanted to come away from the project with some cash, but they actually believed in what they were doing.   They knew that for females in their community, purchasing disposable pads every month was not realistic, and that poor girls who miss up to 5 days of school a month are not likely to be as successful as those who attend every day.

So for these girls, providing inexpensive washable pads, even if it meant they were working for free, was worth it.  It was also their desire to make life better for others that caused them to run workshops teaching church groups, rural youth and home based care teams how to make the pads.  Although in general, teaching everyone else how to make your product is not good for business, if your “business” is empowering women to be strong and independent, they’re off to a  good start.

The feminist inside of me smiled;  Gloria Steinem would be proud.

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