The IKEA Foundation helps many organisations accelerate their efforts in combating climate change. Facts and figures speak for themselves, but who exactly are the people behind this extraordinary work? In this storytelling series, we spotlight brave individuals who move mountains in their climate action strategies and solutions. Today: Mary Nyaruai, founder of Nyungu Afrika, winner of the What Design Can Do ‘No Waste’ Challenge.
Inspired into action
In Kenya in 2019 there was a hashtag on social media where women were complaining about their personal experiences using local sanitary pads that caused irritation, itching and rashes. And unfortunately, in the same year the story came to light of Jackline Chepng’eno, who started her period in class, was allegedly shamed for this, and so went home and took her own life. At the time I didn’t know anything about the female hygiene industry, but as a mistreated woman I also experienced similar things. These events inspired me to take action.
I started a social media page which is still active now. I began putting out content about women and their periods, and at the same time reached out to brands that make sanitary pads outside the country to do some research. I wanted to find out if there really is a difference in sanitary pad quality between sub-Saharan Africa and the global North. One company sent me their pads and I was shocked to learn that it was the case. I reached out to a material scientist and started learning about alternative ways of making cellulose instead of being reliant on wood pulp. And that’s how we were able to collaborate and make the product which is now Nyungu Afrika.
Discovering potential impact
I have lived for the last 23 years in a town called Thika, which is referred to as the pineapple capital of Kenya. The first time that I felt a type of aha moment was when I was doing research with scientists and profiling different types of fibres. I held the pineapple pulp, realised that it was a viable alternative, and thought to myself, “Oh my… this is it.”
I was so excited. When I started this process I kept doubting myself, but today we are making this pulp in high quantities, continuing with research and testing, and I say to myself, “This is where I want to be for the rest of my life”.
So, that was the first aha moment, seeing the opportunity. The next occurred when I went to see the farmers and told them, “Do you know that these leaves can also be converted into fibre to make sanitary pads?”, and they were so surprised. I did the same thing when collecting the maize husks from the market, and got the same reaction. At that point I saw a community around the supply chain, from the youth I pay a stipend to to collect the maize husks, to the women who are helping to make the pads, all benefiting from this project, and it was so impactful to me.
I was so excited. When I started this process I kept doubting myself, but today we are making this pulp in larger quantities, continuing with research and testing, and I know deep down, “This is where I want to be for the rest of my life”.
So, that was the first aha moment, seeing the opportunity. The next occurred when I went to see the farmers and told them, “Do you know that these leaves can also be converted into fibre to make sanitary pads?”, and they were so surprised. I did the same thing when collecting the maize husks from the market, and got the same reaction. At that point I saw a community around the supply chain, from the youth I pay a stipend to collect the maize husks and extract fibre from the pineapple leaves, to the women who assemble the pads, all benefiting from this project, and it was so impactful to me.
Planning and persevering
When I was starting out in 2019 I would ask myself, “How am I going to build the skills to enable this thing that I’m so passionate about, all while keeping my job and maintaining my responsibilities as a parent?”
I put a plan into action, looking to save money so that I could work on the project full-time. I changed jobs twice over the next two years. This was all so that by the end of 2021, I could put everything I had saved into doing the required research and to try validate the prototype.
Unfortunately, the savings were running out fast and that’s when the What Design Can Do ‘No Waste’ Challenge came to my attention; I applied for it and won. I travelled to the Netherlands where I attended a boot camp, met amazing people, and received a cash prize which was injected into the project. The competition was a turning point and now everything is coming together.
Thinking like a designer
In the Netherlands we attended a one-week boot camp which really changed how I approach our work. The major difference being that before the boot camp I didn’t think like a designer. Now when working on the project I design around the needs of the people and the needs of the planet.
So it really developed my approach; I went in there as an entrepreneur and I came out as a designer. We had Bruce Mau and all these experts giving us knowledge that I’ve since brought back home, telling us how to design our products, teaching about branding, life-cycle assessments, theory of change, working to eliminate waste, and on how to become very impactful entrepreneurs.
Right now, we’re already having a small impact. I don’t like to describe it as small when what I see is women and youth who come to remove the fibres, cutting the husks and are literally involved in the process of production. Watching them do the work, I see people who now have a chance for livelihood generation, who are getting something to take back to their homes and the pride that comes along knowing that their work will also better other women, girls and the planet.
We are still in development, doing extensive testing on our product, preparing to put it to market, but from where I’m looking it’s not too far from us to achieve the impact that I see. That vision is to make sure that women and girls in my country, and in Africa as a whole, are able to have the agency of products that are made with local materials, made with their needs in mind, and which are not harmful to the environment. We have a lot of raw materials, so much of which is going to waste, that can be converted to give them a basic need. It’s there and I can see it, I can feel it and I’m really focusing together with the team to get there.
The menstruation conversation
If I had the opportunity to speak at COP28 I would tell the participants that without periods, none of them would be there. That a mother, their mother, had to get a period for them to be here, and it’s a shame that we have put menstruation in the backseat while half of the population is made up of women. There have been conversations in the periphery, but I would speak out and focus on menstruation.
The current situation for women is very discriminatory. Kenya ranks third globally for teenage pregnancies because girls have to trade sex for pads for a little under one Euro, which is a public crisis. Then there’s the environmental crisis, because sanitary pads in their current form are inflicting colossal damage on the planet. According to a life cycle assessment conducted by the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, low-density polyethylene that is used for the back strip of the sanitary pads and tampon applicators uses a lot of high fossil fuel generated energy to produce to turn it into a thin plastic in a product that is used by women every month, and there’s just not a lot of innovation around it, about how we can make menstruation sustainable.
We need to start anchoring the conversation of menstruation, even to help us to achieve sustainable development goals. That is the conversation I want these people to hear. Because yes, there are so many other things we need to focus on, but if we don’t include women in the conversation, then I think we’re not doing service to humanity at all!
Unlocking opportunities for others
My personal hope for the future is that people get the opportunities to expand their abilities to learn. I never had any scientific background or training, but my ability to deeply care about something and to look for a solution has led me to this point, to this feature, to the What Design Can Do ‘No Waste’ Challenge, and to everything that has followed since. All of this is because I want to see a positive change in the world, and I allowed myself to learn about something I had no experience in.
If people just stop and look at their environment, and if there is a problem for them to solve, they can expand their ability to learn and make a difference, just like I am with a lot of support from family, friends, mentors and partners who continue pouring themselves wholly into the vision. It’s small actions and expanding our way of thinking and learning that will make a big difference.
I feel like what I’m doing is going to help because my deeds and my actions have inspired a lot of women to become innovators. I know this because I see people reaching out to me, telling me they’re inspired. I go to schools and I talk to students and see that they are also inspired. I know that in the minds of people watching our work, there is hope.
Supporting black women innovators
Innovation does not occur in a silo. There’s a lot of public and private collaboration that has to happen for innovation to come to life. In some cases, private foundations are needed, so that entrepreneurs like myself can be seen and brought into the global space, to be able to be credited and given support.
I’d like to see a lot more of that support, because it takes so many years, so many grants, and so many no’s and rejections to even start on the path to success. Otherwise people give up, especially women of colour. It’s so difficult for us to get funding in this space; our ideas get scrutinised, often more severely than our male counterparts’. We experience so many bottlenecks and so many challenges as black women to be able to access funding, so I really hope that people start paying attention to black women innovators.
Mary Nyaruai is the founder of Nyungu Afrika, which is a biomaterials and circular economy startup that recycles the underutilised agricultural waste of pineapple leaves and corn husk fibres into eco-friendly sanitary pads. She was one of the winners of the What Design Can Do ‘No Waste’ Challenge.
What Design Can Do and the IKEA Foundation are engaging the design community to find innovative solutions to climate change and motivate the many people to take climate action.