Students help nonprofit fight Ethiopian taboo: Part I

Students in the CEL Practicum: International Impact Initiative provide real-world, team-based consulting for business leaders in a global setting. Second-year MBA student Raisaa Tashnova describes the experience of working with Professors Al Kent and Hillary Anger Elfenbein and fellow second-year MBA students Molly Goldstein, Brenna Humphries, Paul Dinkins, and Jerrod Anderson to consult for US-based nonprofit Dignity Period. 

Puberty for girls in Ethiopia comes with a double whammy. First, menstruation is a taboo subject, causing embarrassment, shame, fear, and surprise as girls have their first period. Second, this cultural taboo creates a shortage of menstrual hygiene supplies, causing makeshift remedies, accidents that cause embarrassment, missed school, and more.

Interviewing the director of a rural health center

Dignity Period, a US-based nonprofit that’s addressing the issue through education and access to sanitary pads, has seen tremendous results. But through Olin’s Center for Experiential Learning, I had the chance—with a group of fellow students—to help Dignity Period’s mission become more sustainable.

Few of us have traveled to Africa. Even fewer have seen how business is conducted on the continent. Learning about the African economy is what motivated me to apply to serve on the Dignity Period student consulting team. Because of the client’s visionary social impact, the opportunity was even more exciting. After our recent trip to Ethiopia, I was inspired by business opportunities in Ethiopia and humbled by this opportunity to represent Olin and the CEL in Africa.

Dignity Period came into existence through Freweini Mebrahtu. Freweini grew up without access to menstrual hygiene products, a fate common to women in Ethiopia. Upon graduating from high school, she was awarded a scholarship to attend college in the United States. When Freweini returned to Ethiopia in 2009, after a successful career as an engineer, she decided to address the lack of access to menstrual hygiene products.

Inspired by Freweini’s vision and leadership, Dr. Lewis Wall and his wife, Helen Wall, founded Dignity Period, a US-based nonprofit. Its mission: Keep Ethiopian girls in school by providing free access to sanitary pads and the health education needed to break the powerful social taboo around menstruation.

Since 2014, Dignity Period has reached more than 73,000 boys and girls with menstrual hygiene education and sanitary products. In selected schools, girls in grades 5 and above receive a free kit of four reusable pads and two pairs of underwear, all sewn in Freweini’s factory. Both boys and girls receive education around menstruation so that all may help break down taboos. Research conducted by Wall and his colleagues identified a 23 percent reduction in school absenteeism for girls after the Dignity Period intervention. With such a powerful effect on the community, Dignity Period is now looking to expand its reach and create sustainable change in society with the help of the CEL student consulting team.

Our five-member student CEL team and two faculty advisers were tasked with assessing the question, “How does Dignity Period grow?”

Motivated by the organization’s mission, we wanted to bring our business knowledge to help Dignity Period reach more women and girls in Ethiopia and become a sustainable business for the long term.

Before our client visit in Mekelle, Ethiopia, we distilled our project focus into two areas: operations and market expansion. The operations agenda included analyzing Freweini’s factory’s value chain, identifying her pain points, and recommending solutions to streamline the production of the pads given her high-quality, patented design.

The market expansion agenda involved identifying new channels to distribute the reusable menstrual pads, creating a market for them.

But the biggest solution we could provide for our client was hope: Hope that what they created from nothing could and would continue. Hope that the mission they embarked upon could be accomplished.

Stay tuned to hear more about our student consulting trip to Ethiopia in Part II!

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