Limpopo-Born Mashela Mokgabudi recalls not having sanitary care products as a girl going though puberty. But this has since become the driving force that led her to find a solution not just for herself but many girls growing up in Africa.
Mokgabudi, who was raised by domestic worker parents, is a trained physiotherapist and also holds a PhD in pharmokinetics from Wits University. She has since become a social impact entrepreneur whose business, GentiShe, recently won the 2019 Engen Pitch and Polish entrepreneurial competition.
GentiShe manufactures and distributes recyclable menstrual cups, specifically designed for African women.
In a telephonic interview with Fin24, Mokgabudi said that getting her period was one of the "most challenging" times as a young girl.
"Given my background, that my parents were both domestic workers, it was very difficult for them to put money aside for sanitary care products.
"Like all the many girls in South Africa, I also faced a similar dilemma - to either choose to stay at home [away from school] when I am on my period, or to use anything I can get my hands on," she tells Fin24.
"With that kind of experience - it was such a daunting experience - I told myself that I am going to change this, I am going to end this history of poverty," Mokgabudi recalls.
Not knowing how she would end period poverty, Mokgabudi went on to graduate from Wits University. Twenty years into running a private practice in pharmokinetics, she decided to go into business.
It was on a business networking trip to India in 2010, arranged through an entrepreneurial programme run and funded by the Department of Trade Industry (dti), she discovered the menstrual cup. Mokgabudi said that she had interacted with three Indian businesses in pharmaceuticals with the aim to partner with one of them. One of the businesses had displayed a menstrual cup among its products, which piqued her interest.
"I took interest particularly in the menstrual cup … this particular product caught my eye. It was something that I was not familiar with - I actually wanted to find out what it was," Mokgabudi says.
The entrepreneur asked if she could get a sample and returned to South Africa where she did more research on it and even trialed it herself.
Mokgabudi discovered that menstrual cups had been around since 1932 and were used by women during the war and were prevalent in developed countries, she found no record of it being widely used in Africa. "That on its own is what basically inspired me to want to do something different," she says.
Designed for African women
Mokgabudi ordered 23 different cups from international suppliers and used them over a period of two years. She found that all the brands had one thing in common – they leaked.
At first, she thought she was not using it right, but later figured there is a scientific reason for the leaks.
"The cups were leaking because the rims were too soft. On insertion of the cup, it is supposed to pop open, to firmly hold itself against the vaginal wall, so that it does not leak. If it does not pop open completely, it will leak," she says. The reason the cup wasn't popping open completely was because of the difference in pelvic muscles of African women.
"I had to redesign the cup," Mokgabudi says.
She trialed the new design on herself, and her late daughter. The cup comes in two sizes - for girls or women who have not yet given birth, and another one for women who have given birth.
By 2012, Mokgabudi had registered her business and had approached the dti once again to assist her to find a company that would make the cup. The manufacturing of the cup was outsourced to a company in China, as she did not have the machinery to make it.
In the meantime, Mokgabudi approached the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC) to raise funding so that she could eventually produce the cups locally.
The cup is made of medical-grade silicon, used for medical devices such as catheters, drip bags and masks. It is recyclable and environmentally friendly, according to Mokgabudi. The lifespan of the cup is five years - and it can be cleaned with water. The retail price is R200.
Mokgabudi has 10 sales representatives working across all nine provinces, and also employs an administrator.
A long road
But getting to this point has not been easy.
Mokgabudi struggled at first to show the IDC the commercial value of her product, as she is a social entrepreneur.
She had envisioned that her business would require corporate sponsors to support the distribution of cups to girls in school.
"When it comes to the actual commercialisation of the product, that is where I got stuck. I could not come up with a sales strategy that makes sense to a funder," Mokgabudi explains.
Through entering Engen's Pitch and Polish competition – which allows small businesses to pitch their ideas to potential investors and bankers - she found a solution.
Mokgabudi realised that she would be able to distribute her menstrual cups in the bathrooms of Engen's existing network of petrol stations across the country. Through this partnership, Mokgabudi said she could demonstrate to the IDC how she could generate cash from her business. Mokgabudi called this a breakthrough, as every woman and girl could get the products, irrespective of whether they were sponsored or not.
"Whether they get it through a vending machine mounted in a female bathroom or a kiosk bathroom outside a shop, that was the opportunity I saw and I am pursuing," she says.
Breaking the stigma
There is another hurdle that Mokgabudi had to overcome, and that was to convince schools, parents and teachers as well as traditional leaders to endorse the product, as there is a stigma associated with menstruation.
"The stigma is quite massive, especially in areas where the issue of virginity is a huge concern - which is in most rural areas," Mokgabudi says.
The entrepreneur said that when she approached schools, it was difficult to get male teachers responsible for life skills subjects, as well as male principals, involved in workshops.
Mokgabudi said it is important for men not to just view the product as a subject they cannot be part of. Their buy-in is important in breaking the stigma in schools. For children to become comfortable with the process, it is important for the head of the institution - whether male or female – to lend their voice to it, she explains.
"We had to break down to them that this is a natural process that must be spoken about by both genders."
Mokgabudi said that meetings were also held with parents and traditional leaders, as they are the "makers and breakers of everything", and they had to understand that using the menstrual cup does not impact the virginity of young women.
"Once it is understood, then the stigma slowly diminishes and we get a thumbs up on it," she says.
It was also challenging to introduce a new product on the market. Her participation in the Engen competition has helped create exposure for her product, she says.
The future is Africa
When asked about her goals for the future, Mokgabudi said that she would be looking into expanding into Africa.
"The future is Africa, Africa and Africa," she beams. "Every girl using a pad, will also be using a cup. [The future] is looking absolutely bright for this type of product."
Commenting on her late daughter, who has inspired her to continue on this journey of creating GentiShe, Mokgabudi says she has dedicated her win to her. She lost her daughter, Lerato, in the early stages of the competition, but pushed through to the finals. Lerato, whose name means love, had planned to pursue studies in international business management in Ireland, because she believed the product had a world-wide appeal, Mokgabudi recalls.
Mokgabudi displays her menstrual cups on a stand labelled Love, in remembrance of her daughter Lerato, who inspired her to continue pursuing her business. (Photo: Supplied)
Mokgabudi is still headstrong in her belief that the menstrual cup will have a wider reach than South Africa and that it is meant for all women.
Explaining the name – GentiShe, Mokgabudi says 'Genti' comes from the German word for genesis and 'she' represents females. "My concept was the beginning of the best thing to come for women. The beginning of the female revolution," she explains.