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How fruit fibres can be useful in unexpected ways

Africa: Banana pads for girls

In Rwanda, schoolgirls can now buy locally produced, cheaper sanitary towels. An hour's drive from Rwanda's capital, Kigali, there is the eastern Ngoma district. In an unassuming blue building, Marie-Louise Umurisa leads guests into a workshop where a dozen or so women in safety goggles and overalls are working at stainless steel benches. She picks up a handful of fluff. It's pale brownish grey, odourless and rather nondescript. reports how the fluff is processed from banana fibres, a waste product from the thousands upon thousands of banana plants. In this rural workshop it is spun into a product that, according to Umurisa, is worth its weight in gold: the core of eco-friendly, cheap sanitary pads that rival imported products with big brand names.

With the help of experts, Elisabeth Scharpf developed and patented the process to transform banana fibres into an absorbent material in the US. She also worked with professionals to build a production site in Eastern Rwanda.

She started lobbying the Rwandan government to drop tax on sanitary pads and a campaign called "Break the Silence" spurred the authorities to distribute pads to in-need schools. The organisation also worked to dispel myths and taboos about menstruation through health and hygiene education in schools.

Her customers include teenage girls and casual labourers. "Young girls are now more comfortable to ask for sanitary pads. I think they now understand it is okay to buy pads."

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