Lydia Asiimwe, a Ugandan entrepreneur, noticed that something didn’t seem right at her local school. A mother of four children, she became concerned about the number of girls missing lessons and dropping out of school in her community. She decided to investigate, and soon learned that this problem affected girls all over the country. The leading cause? The scarcity or non-existence of affordable sanitary products.
For girls from low-income backgrounds, the prohibitive price of sanitary products means that many resort to makeshift pads using ineffective and unhygienic materials, such as toilet paper and leaves. As well as being uncomfortable, this makes them feel self-conscious and insecure as they go about their daily lives. Moreover, the fear of stressful and embarrassing situations such as public menstrual accidents means that they often skip school. Across Africa, schoolgirls miss an average of one day every week due to menstruation.
This is what propelled Lydia to launch EcoSmart Uganda, a social enterprise championing menstrual hygiene management for Ugandan girls. With this initiative, Lydia hopes provide to all Ugandan schoolgirls with healthy, environmentally friendly, low-cost sanitary pads. “My life purpose is to ensure that every woman has an opportunity to thrive and reach their potential,” she says. “I do this by engaging in innovative solutions to their challenges.”
At the heart of EcoSmart’s mission are its affordable sanitary pads, but developing this product proved difficult. When the company was founded in 2017, Lydia and her fledgling team had to first determine the right material to make them from. After many attempts with cotton wool, banana fiber and other materials, they found sugar cane fiber – a byproduct of local sugar production – to be the most absorbent material. By recycling this unwanted material into sanitary pads, EcoSmart not only changes lives but reduces waste in the local community.
The next step was to develop sugar cane fiber into comfortable, affordable, easily disposable and biodegradable sanitary pads. Lydia first consulted with the local community to understand their needs before securing funding from the United Nations Population Fund Uganda and the Uganda Industrial Research Institute to develop the perfect product.
As soon as the EcoSmart sanitary pads were finalized in 2018, Lydia protected her intellectual property (IP) through a utility model for the pads and a patent for the process of turning sugar cane fibers into fabric. She also produced a trademark and a logo for the company and began working on educational materials to promote EcoSmart and its aims. It seemed like Lydia’s mission had been accomplished.
That was, however, until she took part in a in 2022. Talking to WIPO’s IP experts, Lydia realized that her IP rights to EcoSmart’s sanitary pads had expired due to unpaid annuity fees. “We were overdue by four years, but the program helped us understand the importance of the situation and how to clear out our outstanding annuities, which we did,” recalls Lydia. “We also learned that our trademark and logo needed to be protected from being used by other companies, and we have now proceeded to apply for trademark protection.”
WIPO’s mentorship program helped her identify which information and manufacturing processes she wished to keep confidential, and how to protect them. Not only did Lydia learn that all identified documents should bear the term confidential, but also that her employees should be required to sign confidentiality agreements before receiving any confidential information. Finally, Lydia realized that EcoSmart also owned the copyright to its educational and promotional materials, including a comic book and video.
As a pioneer, Lydia knows that further obstacles will lie in store for her and EcoSmart. Expanding the scale of production of sanitary pads to a commercially viable level, for example, has proved a challenge for the company’s 10-strong team. For this reason, Lydia has not yet officially launched her product but is instead promoting it at fairs and visiting schools and using it to educate schoolgirls about menstruation care.
Based on her experiences and insights gained from working with WIPO, Lydia advises other female innovators to always apply for IP as soon as possible. She further encourages women to speak up about the challenges they might be facing, to attract the attention of others who may provide them with solution. Lydia also underlines the importance of networks and encourages women to build partnerships, apply for accelerator programs and join groups where fellow innovators are exchanging ideas.
Most importantly, Lydia is adamant that difficulties should not discourage women from innovating. “Women should never look down on themselves. Being a woman is a strength, not a weakness,” she insists. “Even though innovation is not an easy journey, there is always a solution somewhere and you will always be able to overcome any challenges. Do not give up on something that is made for the right cause.”