We chat to Zizipho Ntobongwana, founder of Sheba Feminine – an organic pads and tampons brand – about the difficulties of running a niche business.
Please tell us more about yourself.I was born in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape in 1994, so yes, I’m a born-free! My parents’ names are Fezile and Koliswa Ntobongwana. I have five siblings. Although I’m from the Eastern Cape, I went to primary school in East London, and in Durban, and then went to an all girls' boarding school in the Natal Midlands. I finished matric in 2012 and bang my studies at UCT in 2013. I graduated in 2015. I still live in Cape Town. I recently graduated with a Bachelor of Social Sciences honors in African Studies. My thesis focused on ulwaluko and how it excludes women, makes the queer community invisible and reproduces a problematic isiXhosa hegemonic hypermasculinity. I grew up as an unapologetic person, which I took from my mother. My ambition definitely manifested from my father.
How did the idea for Sheba Feminine come about?It was 2016 whilst I was studying my honors. The term ‘decolonisation' was connected to my everyday life. It occurred to me that as menstruators (a term that we use, because people who menstruate are not only women) – we never question the things we use or put into sensitive parts of our bodies. It was then I decided to do my own research. I found problems with the generic products we use and the people that owned these companies, and my solution was Sheba Feminine.
We’ve noticed a debate about the pricing of your products. Just how difficult is it to produce organic toiletries?It's extremely difficult because sourcing the crop is difficult. Organic cotton is really difficult to grow, and most cotton products that are made today are from genetically-modified cotton. Although made from cotton, these products can still be harmful to the body because they are sprayed with pesticides and herbicides. The residue of this growth process then lands up on your pads and tampons. Secondly, if not made from cotton, your products are mostly made from rayon - a synthetic material which is a concoction of fragrances, chlorine, dioxin and plastic. The debate of our pricing is understandable. This is because when people see something different, they tend to panic. Organic cotton is more expensive than any generic material. Although difficult, I believe that this transformation forces transparency in the feminine hygiene sector and allows menstruates to make fully informed decision. Knowledge is power.
What are some of the lessons you’ve learnt about running a business?It's not easy to run a business as a black women, but you must keep going. You need to have thick skin because you will get scrutinised more than others. This is important not only for representation but also for black female economic growth and development. Unfortunately once you think things are getting easier another problem will surface. So being patient is another big lesson learnt. Great things take time and perseverance.
What’s the most popular Sheba Feminine product?So far it’s the regular tampons.
Please tell us more about the CSI component of the company.Sheba created Menstruation Mob tote bags in order to bring the menstruation dialogue to the streets. These tote bags tackle the questions and the discomfort of a bleeding vagina, desexualise the female body and destigmatise menstruation. More importantly they form part of Sheba's CSI because all proceeds from the bags will go to non-profit organisations across the continent.
What are your plans for the company?Global take over! We do plan on changing the mindsets and views of people in Africa. We as a brand want people to be conscious and aware about the products that they put into their bodies. We also want to be a company that plays a big role in women and black empowerment. I have big aspirations, and we as Sheba Feminine are going far. The black girl magic will always shine.
Anything else you’d like to add?Sheba is not simply about feminine hygiene. It is about the construct of periods and femininity. We want to normalise dialogue around periods specifically and instead of being a taboo, we want these to be mainstreamed. More than half the world’s population will likely experience a period in their lifetime, so then why is this normal, natural process shamed? You can’t walk to the bathroom with a tampon without hiding it. And you can’t ask your friend for a pad without acting like it’s a drug deal. We believe the lack of ease in talking about periods traces back to body insecurity in general. We want to present our best self to others all the time, so the fact that something that's messy and isn’t super cute is happening inside us, keeps us from feeling comfortable with experiencing it.