In a modest building outside of Kyaka II refugee camp in Kyenjojo District, a small industry is quietly growing; the production of sanitary pads.
The manufacturers of the pads are refugees, the raw materials are locally grown and the recipients are women who would otherwise use cloth during menstruation.
The 25 employees at the factory — nearly all Congolese refugees — are grateful for the income they earn making pads, called Makapads, but remain haunted by the war that displaced them from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Life in the camp is a struggle for the refugees; they do not earn enough to leave the camp or attain an education and many lost their families to recurrent violence back home.
The workers at the sanitary pad making factory pocket Shs30,000 to Shs50,000 per month. “I like it very much here [at the job]. I am very proud because my life was difficult, but now I see that it’s going to be okay,” says Evelyn Bamanyisa.
Six years ago, Bamanyisa, 19, fled Congo when soldiers entered her school and hacked students with machetes. As she ran away, she spotted a classmate whose stomach had been cut open and whose limbs had been sliced off. She spent the next two months travelling to Uganda on foot with a group of students. It has been six years since she last spoke to her parents and she does not know if they are still alive.
When she arrived at Kyaka II, Bamanyisa was given a plot of land and food stipend. Every month, she receives 15 kilogrammes of beans and maize and two bottles of soda from the World Food Programme. With this handout, she can eat two meals a day. Often the food ration runs out before the month’s end. “It amounts to nothing for us. It’s very hard,” she says in French. “If you don’t have work to do, you cannot live here.”
Bamanyisa would like to return to school, but does not earn enough to pay school fees. It would take 10 months to pocket enough money to pay tuition for a year, she says. In the factory, refugees are employed at every production stage — they gather raw materials, seal the pads and package them for transportation to other camps.
Even the manager of the factory, Mr Ibrahim Rumannyika, is a refugee. He left Congo five years ago after his father and uncle were slaughtered in the civil war. He pays tuition for his brother and supports his family with his salary.
Before working at the factory, Mr Rumannyika spent his days tilling the land and had little income. “We started at Makapads poorly, but now we are getting something. I get Shs150,000 per month,” he says. “Now at least I’m not digging; at least I’m happy with my work.”
Need breeds innovation
In 2004, the Makapads project was developed by Dr Moses Musaazi, a senior lecturer at the Makerere School of Technology. He designed a prototype for an affordable sanitary napkin for girls in primary schools who skipped classes during their period because they did not have access to pads. “Some girls would use scraps of cloth or leaves and infection rates were high among the young girls,” says Dr Musaazi.
With a $78,000 (Shs164 million) grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Dr Musaazi spent three months designing a sanitary napkin that could be produced cheaply from local materials. He tested grasses, bark cloth and leaves for their absorption capacity. Papyrus, he discovered, was ideal. It sopped up liquid like a sponge and grows in abundance across the country.
“That was a God-given raw material,” he says. “It’s very easy to process and it has a high absorption capacity.”
In 2005, Dr Musaazi was approached by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) and the German Technical Cooperative (GTZ) to set up a production site at Kyaka II. With a $52,000 (Shs109 million) grant to kick-start the project, production was underway by September 2007.
Today, Makapads is entirely self-sustaining; it receives no donor money. The UNHCR purchases the home-grown pads and distributes them to three refugee camps in Uganda. Dr Musaazi has expanded production beyond the refugee camps. In September, the pads will be sold in stores for Shs600 or Shs700 for a pack of 10, less than half the price of imported pads that retail for about Shs2,500.
According to Kurt Kandler, GTZ’s country manager, the workers produce 45,000 pads per year. Output will grow to 90,000 by the end of this year when the factory expands. But it is still not enough. In order to meet the needs of all female refugees in the country, UNHCR would need to handout 300,000 packs every year. “We could easily employ 100 people (at Kyaka II), because the human resources are there,” he says. The only thing missing, he adds, is sufficient funding.
Projects like Makapads provide refugees with economic independence and also teach them entrepreneurial skills, Mr Kandler emphasises.
For many women in rural Uganda, and low-earning refugees in particular, purchasing pads off the shelf is out of reach. In the refugee camps women receive Makapads for free. The pads are also given to primary school-going girls in the camps. Many women use rags or cloth scraps during menstruation. At best, using old clothing leads to embarrassing leakages but using rags can also cause infection and extreme discomfort.