When Barclay Paul Okari was still studying for a bachelor’s degree in Finance at the University of Nairobi in 2011, he volunteered to teach at a Girls’ High School in Narok, a small town in south-western Kenya, to boost his resume and improve his future job prospects. While at the school, Okari discovered that a large number of the girls repeatedly missed classes. On making a few inquiries, he learned that a large number of the girls, many of them from impoverished rural families, usually opted to stay at home during their monthly periods as they could not afford the regular sanitary pads manufactured by large consumer goods companies.
The 22-year-old Kenyan entrepreneur instantly had a light-bulb moment, and decided to explore the possibility of offering a cheaper, commercially viable alternative to regular sanitary pads. He took a $1,500 loan from his parents and set out to develop Safi Pads, an inexpensive, reusable, washable sanitary towel for low-income women. It turns out that there was a market for this product. Today, Okari’s company, Impact Africa Industries, has sold and distributed more than 1 million of these pads across East Africa. These reusable sanitary towels are patronized by poor women in rural areas in Kenya and Uganda, and help families make reasonable savings. In recognition of his efforts, Okari was a finalist for the 2013 Anzisha Prize, a pan-African award sponsored by the MasterCard Foundation and the African Leadership Academy to reward outstanding young African entrepreneurs.
I caught up with him recently in Nairobi, and he talked about his sanitary pads, and why he believes they are revolutionary.
In a nutshell, who is Barclay Paul Okari?
I am the founder of Impact Africa Industries, a 3-year old company that manufactures affordable, reusable sanitary pads. Before now, I have been a founder of two other tech start-ups in Nairobi which had mixed success. I have a Bachelor of Commerce- Finance degree from the University of Nairobi.
Your company produces reusable sanitary towels. How did you stumble on this of all other ideas?
I started Impact Africa Industries in 2011. The idea was completely by default. I took a volunteering job in a girl’s school in rural Kenya and at the time I thought the schools did not have enough teachers. When I got there I realized that pockets of girls kept missing school. On further inquiry, I learnt that the girls missed schools because they were on their periods and could not afford sanitary pads. I then wondered why there were no affordable pads in the market for this kind of population. Then the idea hit me that I could fill in that gap. That is when I registered the company and started learning about sanitary pads and the market. We now distribute across East Africa.
You sanitary pads, Safi, are reusable. How exactly does this work?
I developed a technology of an absorbent patch which patched with cotton is very comfortable for the ladies to use and can be washed. The pads are therefore washable after use and that helps them go on with their daily activities normally and helps save their hard earned money.
How the company was initially funded? How did you grow, and how is the company funded now?
The company was initially funded by personal savings I had from selling my second start-up and a $ 1,500 loan from my parents which I later repaid. I had tried taking loans from the company but that was initially a challenge. I choose to grow the company organically by bootstrapping all the income that we made. The company is still internally funded but is actively looking for investors to help scale the company to the next level.
What about your current revenues?
We are now doing revenues of $ 300,000.
Where is your manufacturing facility situated?
The manufacturing facility is situated in Kitale in Western Kenya. I have a team of 34 members. 23 are full time employees while 11 are part time. I have 22 women in the team. I believe that in empowering women with opportunities, I am empowering the community that we work in. I have seen this in the transformation in the lives of the families of the women that work with us.
Where do you sell Safi Pads?
Our products are distributed within the selling points that we have established in the informal settlements and through schools in East Africa. We do below the line marketing for our products because it is reaches our target audience more directly and costs less as compared to other marketing forms as we try keep our overheads low.
You were a finalist for the 2013 Anzisha Prize and you received an $18,000 grant from the Higher Circle Silicon Valley. How have these affected the fortunes of your company?
The awards have made my company and product known so it’s been a form of marketing/awareness for us which has led to new clients for our sanitary pads. The recognition has been humbling to the staff knowing that the world appreciates the work we are doing a great social enterprise. The money has helped us purchase new machinery and continuously build our capacity to be able to reach more women and young girls with a product that they really need.
How much do Safi Pads cost in comparison to the conventional sanitary towels?
The Safi Sanitary pads are almost half the cost of the conventional sanitary towels. The fact that they are also re-usable makes them even more affordable since they have a longer utility to the consumer.
In which countries are Safi Pads sold in, and where do you see the brand in the next few years?
We are currently distributing in East Africa with Kenya being our biggest market but all the countries we are in have a huge potential since this is not Kenyan or African problem but a global problem. In the next 5-10 years I want Impact Africa Industries to be an African brand having a huge social impact in communities and listed in the stock exchange.
First published here