What initially started as a fundraising project to supply sanitary pads to disadvantaged girls revealed a need even greater than a once-a-month donation, for social entrepreneur Ramona Kasavan.
She did not merely want to give hand-outs to disadvantaged young women, seeing it as a short-term solution that kept them dependent. Instead, Kasavan wanted to dig deeper at the chains holding thousands of them back and empower them to make a living.
The insight saw Joburg company Mimi Women (formerly Happy Days), transform into a for-profit operation aimed at supporting what then became its non-profit arm, the Mimi Foundation.
The foundation keeps girls at school by giving them sanitary pads.
And for Kasavan, the founder of Mimi Women, South Africa’s first black female-owned sanitary pad company, it has been a challenging yet rewarding four years of educating and empowering women.
Since 2013, her company has distributed about 1.5 million pads, across nine provinces in four Southern African Development Community countries.
About 37500 girls have benefited from the initiative.
"Mimi - a Swahili word for 'I am' - is based on my own journey of self-acceptance, care and love.
“Growing up in a traditional Indian family, I was brought up to always care for others ahead of myself and that my role in life was to marry a man and cook and clean.
“But through this initiative and this product, I’ve learnt the value of teaching women self-worth and confidence,” the 31 year-old said.
Kasavan said apart from being helpful and charitable, the business venture needed to be sustainable.
She brought in direct selling and distribution to provide business opportunities for women in impoverished areas.
Kasavan developed MimiBizBox, a business concept in which women act as sales agents in their communities by selling the pads. They earn commission from the sales.
Women are coached in financial literacy and business skills before being signed on as sales representatives - taking home 20% of the profits.
But it hasn’t been smooth-sailing for the business.
“When you walk into a shop as a woman, you already know which sanitary product you’re going to buy and don’t need to talk to anyone," Kasavan said. “Our challenge has been in selling the product because talking about menstruation is still so taboo and it's seen as dirty. There's this massive secrecy around it.”
“It’s hard doing what we do and competing against global brands.
“This has become a true test for me in entrepreneurship because women are very loyal to brands and we’re trying to create a new way of business.”
However, she is confident about the future, with plans to establish a factory to manufacture sanitary pads locally.
“A large percentage of South Africa’s sanitary pads are sourced in China.
“Creating jobs in South Africa by manufacturing our own locally-produced and therefore more affordable product is the next logical step for Mimi Women.”