When Alison Wood found out that men in Kenya were giving schoolgirls sanitary pads as payment for sex, she got mad.
Then, she decided to do something about it.
Alison was studying sexual health education in Kenya as part of her economics degree at the University of Edinburgh.
She was stunned that girls were so desperate to continue attending school that they would risk their lives in a country with a high HIV rate to get sanitary pads.
When she got back to Scotland, Alison and her friends began making reusable pads to send to pupils and teachers in Kenya.
Making 50 or 60 at a time by hand wasn’t going to solve the problem, but then Alison hit on an idea.
“When I was developing the pads for Kenya, I was getting everyone I could find to test them out,” she remembers.
“Everyone I forced to try them told me they were more comfortable than the disposable pads they were using – they told me their current pads didn’t fit properly or were itchy or gave them a rash.
“That told me that most disposable sanitary pads in the UK contained lots of plastic and lots of chemicals to absorb the blood, but which also absorb lots of the body’s moisture, which makes them itchy.”
Alison realised she could sell reusable sanitary pads in the UK, which would generate money to fund pads for Kenya.
Her pads went on sale in the UK last summer, overcoming the twin challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit to import her products from the factory she uses in Lithuania.
“When you buy online from a small business, just know that there’s someone sitting on the other side of the screen squealing with delight because they just got an order,” Alison says.
To keep costs affordable, she also shifted production of her African pads from Kenya to China.
As well as distributing pads through charities, schools, and churches, she is also developing a network of commission-based sellers, so women can earn a living by selling the pads in their local communities.
Designing products for the UK market brought its own challenges.
“Girls in Kenya want to be able to wear their pads for 14 hours a day and don’t care how thick they are,” Alison explains.
“But women in the UK wanted to wear them under leggings. Do you know what you can’t wear under leggings? Anything that’s even remotely thick.”
Alison entered Lilypads into the social enterprise category of 2018’s Converge Challenge and reached the finals.
“We were the ‘baby Convergers,” she laughs. “It was great to meet other mad people who had started businesses and now we can be mad friends together.
“We got some amazing training on how to pitch and how to speak from Maryanne Johnston.
“Having been born in Aberdeen, I speak fast and use my hands quite a lot. Everyone told me I had to slow down and only use my hands for emphasis, but Maryanne taught me to pause between sentences instead.”