A chance meeting with a teenager suffering from dysmenorrhea commonly known as painful period pains, who also lacked hygienic sanitary towels, set off Mwanaidi Abdul Mwilima, 32, on the path of entrepreneurship.
That was back in 2017 when she worked in procurement. Mwilima then toyed with the idea of making affordable and reusable sanitary towels as a way of solving a problem that is biologically natural but considered taboo even to discuss.
As she struggled with how to be of help, she found that menstrual hygiene was no isolated problem for teenagers but rather a serious dilemma facing many women in rural and urban areas. There were misconceptions, taboos and lack of menstrual hygiene knowledge, making it wholly unpleasant for affected women.
“I knew then that I wanted be the change I want to see. I am a strong believer in the mantra change begins with us, and not expecting someone else to be at the frontline to improve our situations, and the idea of making reusable sanitary pads was born,” says Mwilima.
In 2019, she officially registered her company, Jollie, with the help of a ‘’soft’’ loan as a member of the Tanzania Women Chamber of Commerce (TWCC), and bought sewing machines, fabric, and other related sewing accessories and the journey to creating Jollie started. She set up a workshop at Kinondoni Hananasifu in Dar es Salaam, and has been in full operation since.
Mwilima is the founder and proprietor of her company and makes reusable pads and accessories and breast pads. She is also a full time menstrual hygiene activist, and socialpreneur.
Her company sources fabric from China and her products are handmade from cutting and only the final stitching is done by machine by a team of tailors. Even the packaging is by hand.
A mother of boy twins, and a girl, Mwilima says was privileged enough to get exposure from a very young age, by studying in Nairobi, Kenya for her primary education and secondary school in Kampala, Uganda. She studied for a Bachelor of Arts degree in Business Administration and an MBA in Management from the Limkokwing University in Malaysia.
In 2020, Jollie participated in the 44th Dar es Salaam International trade fair in July under TWCC was awarded first prize in the category of innovation.
She has also been listed among the Digital Africa 1,000 Entrepreneurs challenge winners in 2020 after she won the Digital Africa Challenge Award 2020 at the Africa-France Summit 2020.
This year, Jollie received the Best Innovation Award of The Year at the Tanzania Women Industrial Awards TWCC and TradeMark East Africa for the Excellence Awards, has been listed on the 100 women who have excelled in manufacturing.
Absence of policy
Mwilima, however, says as an entrepreneur, she is struggling with lack of support from government for capital to upscale the business and is dependent on grants, which do not come easy.
“Also Tanzania Bureau of Standards and Tanzania Medicines and Medical Devices Authority certifications take long, which slows down as period products are all considered medical tools and must have standards certification prior to being placed in the market,” she says.
Tanzania is yet to come up with a menstrual hygiene management policy but they are working closely with other stakeholders and government ministries to come up with one. Socially, Mwilima says there is need for a mindset change in order for girls and women to shift to reusable sanitary from the wasteful disposable pads.
Also the absence of government policy on the use of suitable pads, which is an economic savings between reusable and disposable and the limited production due to inadequate working capital is affecting her as a manufacturer.
“The challenges are many from culture and taboos and limited purchasing power by girls and women,’’ says Mwilima. But on the bright side, she considers this business her lucky break after failing in running an internet café, farming and operating a taxi. These failed ventures cost her both time and money.
“I suffer from stage two endometriosis, so I tend to miss workdays due to menstrual pains. This means I must work twice as hard to make sure my absence is not felt for the days that am not well,’’ says Mwilima.
As a force for social change, she recently formed the yet-to-be launched Jollie Udada Club, a platform for secondary school girls to express themselves and find solutions to their challenges.