For most women the obligatory monthly visit that is the menstrual cycle is a quietly endured and discreetly dealt with occurrence. Feminine products in every size, shape and color, and available for purchase from supermarkets to public restrooms, lessen the burden. But contrast this reality with that of women living in impoverished countries for whom these commonplace hygiene products are unaffordable luxuries. This glaring discrepancy has prompted Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), together with researchers from North Carolina State University, to create affordable, quality sanitary pads to ease the lives of millions of women who, for several days a month, know another kind of period pain.

Some young women living the hardest of lives in the world’s poorest places are forced to miss up to 50 days of school annually - an action which diminishes educational and professional opportunities - due to insufficient availability of a product most women take for granted. Elizabeth Scharpf is founder and CEO of SHE, an organization led by women who are committed to manufacturing and distributing affordable, high-quality and environmentally-friendly sanitary pads in under-served parts of the world. She says: “In some … areas of Africa, a month’s supply of imported sanitary pads cost more than a day’s worth of wages. Our goal is to create affordable pads that are … easily manufactured for a low cost at the local level - and the research being conducted at NC State helps us do that.”

Researchers at NC State have combined knowledge across areas such as wood and paper science, medical textiles, biomedical engineering and textile engineering chemistry to create the prototypes currently under evaluation. Raw materials used in the process are banana stems, which are easily accessible in a country such as Rwanda. The stems are subjected to a series of chemical treatments and mechanical actions that convert the coarse, waxy fibers into soft, billowy materials capable of absorbing liquid. The substance is then incorporated into a comfortable and environmentally-benign cover.

Paramount to the product’s success is its viability to be reproduced, and therefore cost-effective, at a local level. Dr Lucian Lucia from the Department of Wood and Paper Science says that their role in this project “was to show that turning banana stem fiber into an absorbent material is possible … and that the average person, not necessarily a scientist, could create these sanitary pads.” Keeping production and distribution local means that the end product can be sold by community health workers for 30 percent less than the available brand.

For Dr Marian McCord, associate professor of textile engineering chemistry, science and biomedical engineering, the project “is just one of many examples of how a university … can have a major impact on global health.”