For a variety of reasons, girls in various parts of Africa miss school when they’re having their period. One factor is a simple lack of access to menstrual products. (Issues like a stigma attached to menstruating and pain also contribute).
When Diana Sierra learned about that problem ten years ago on a trip to Uganda, she decided to do something about it. A Columbian industrial designer by profession, she threw herself into creating an affordable, reusable product that, she hoped, could change the lives of the women and girls using it. In 2014, she co-founded Be Girl to sell her invention. But it wasn’t easy: The general subject wasn’t one that many funders immediately found compelling.
Since then, the market for alternative hygiene products has become increasingly competitive, as more companies have entered the fray. At the same time, investor interest has picked up and, after many years of outreach and research, Be Girl has found it easier raise funds from multiple investors. “For a long time, impact investment was unheard of in the menstrual space,” says Sierra. “That’s changed considerably.”
The global market for feminine hygiene products is projected to grow from $38.18 billion in 2021 to $54.52 billion in 2028, according to Fortune Business Insights.
A Trip to Uganda
It all started in 2012, when Sierra decided get a masters in sustainable management at Columbia University. During that time, she convinced an economist there to take her along to Uganda on a UN Development Program project. That’s when she became aware of just how difficult the simple matter of menstruation was for school girls, who lacked access to menstrual products.
Then Sierra had her eureka moment. Why not design an affordable, reusable pad? To that end, she took the top of an umbrella and mosquito net and created a barebones prototype. When she returned to the U.S., she kept tinkering, running pilots with a total of about 500 young women in Tanzania, Malawi, Rwanda and Uganda. By 2014, “It got to the point where I was spending most of my salary on this,” she says. “And I realized it couldn’t be a side project anymore.”
Weighing potential operating models, Sierra decided a for-profit company would be more effective than an NGO. “We were trying to solve a market problem,” she says. She and co-founder Pablo Freund named the Washington, D.C.-based company Be Girl and also were accepted into Halcyon Incubator’s first cohort.
A series of small pilots revealed crucial information. Most important: Many of the girls didn’t even have underwear to which they could attach pads. So, in 2016, they developed a 2-in-1 solution: “period panties” with a pocket to accommodate either a reusable or disposable absorbent. That was a game-changer, since it served two functions and, therefore, was more affordable. (Plus, men in the household were more willing to buy it, says Sierra).
Investment and Distribution
Along the way, Sierra found the process of attracting investor interest in the market an uphill battle. Attracting attention required a long, patient process of investor education and, more important, building a body of evidence to prove the product’s market potential —tracking consumer feedback during multiple pilots to understand the impact on girls’ lives, for example. “It took a lot of time and education and proof of impact through evidence to bring in new investors,” she says.
In 2014, she raised $300,000 from Futura Foundations, with another raise of $755,000 more than two years later, half of that from Futura. But it was just last year that the company raised $500,000 from a broader array of impact investors, including Akazi Capital and Future Females Invest, among others. (Sierra also raised two Grand Challenges Canada grants for market development).
Products initially were sold to NGOs, which now distribute them for free in over 35 countries. Then in 2018, after conducting studies in seven countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, the company opened an office in Mozambique. There, Be Girl started distributing through retailer Intermoda, as well NGOs. Sierra then expanded to stores in 10 provinces. Last year, the company entered the market in Kenya via distributor Kasha, which sells direct to consumers, as well as to retailers. Sierra plans to use her most recent fundraise for expanding to more brick and mortar stores this year.
Now the product line includes underwear with built-in menstrual protection, along with a reusable pad, a menstrual cup with a sanitizing case and a tool for tracking period cycles. Revenue for 2021 was over $1 million.