For many privileged young girls in South Africa menstruation is not a factor that would typically affect their school attendance. However, throughout South Africa as many as two million girls miss some days of school each month just because they cannot afford basic sanitary pads. The lack of this basic need shouldn’t result in absences, and girls should not miss out on an education – and subsequently a career – as a result.
Ramona Kasavan, a social entrepreneur and media personality who feels strongly about women empowerment, worked as a DJ on both Highveld Stereo and East Coast Radio, as well as an Eastern Mosaic presenter, was disturbed to discover the plight of these South African girls.
Seven years ago Kasavan wrote a post-graduate dissertation on ‘The Constructs of Femininity through sanitary products in South Africa, using a global sanitary brand as a case study’. It confronted two key challenges faced by school girls: they could not compete at school because of the number of days they lost each year; for lack of an item which most girls take for granted and the high rate of unemployment of young black women in South Africa.
She points to a study undertaken by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)1 which details the extent of the problem, and also reveals that due to affordability issues and lack of access to sanitary ware, some girls are forced to use cloths, tissue paper, rolled up socks or newspaper. In fact, studies even suggest that some girls would exchange sex for money or pads in order to avoid the embarrassment of their menstrual cycle.
“The study estimates that because of the lack of affordable sanitary pads millions of South African girls lose on average 60 days of school a year. Over a school career, girls can lose up to 528 days of schooling and many girls eventually drop out due to the shame they feel or because they have fallen irretrievably behind their school work,” explains Kasavan.
Her dissertation created the backdrop to Happy Days, but the trigger came years later from Kasavan’s work as a media personality in which she MC’d various events related to adolescent issues. These highlighted the issue of sanitary pads, and she recognised that the global brands were not targeting consumers in the lower LSM bands, which were consequently shut out, and which particularly affected schoolgirls. “I spotted a gap in the market and the concept of Happy Days was born. We want to give girls the opportunity to not just complete school, but to better themselves and their future.”
She subsequently decided to forego a successful corporate career and celebrity status to confront the two challenges which had earlier been identified in her dissertation; the unaffordability of sanitary pads, and the high rate of unemployment of young women in South Africa.
She started with nothing but a laptop and a home office. With funding from family and friends, she managed to import an entire container-load of sanitary pads and in 2013 founded the Happy Days Foundation as a non-profit organisation, of which she is CEO. “We continued importing pads, with a local content ratio of 20%, though we have advanced plans to establish a local plant in tandem with building the brand.”
She has since obtained Corporate Social Investment (CSI) support from various companies such as Deloitte, Unilever, Standard Bank, Absa and SAB Miller. So far, 25 JSE-listed companies have sponsored Happy Days. She also received support from the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).
To date Happy Days has distributed 600,000 sanitary pads across seven provinces of South Africa, and exported to three African countries.
It is a vocation which she is devoting all her energies towards. Today, that business concept has succeeded to a point where she has earned a semi-finalist spot in the Pick ‘n Pay Boost your Biz 2016 competition and is also partnering with beer giant SAB Miller under the wing of its CSI arm to take her concept a stage further. They jointly established an initiative ‘Pads & Cents’, training unskilled women to become Happy Days sales agents and brand ambassadors. “With this additional arm of the business, we are able to not only address young girls’ challenges in remaining at school, but create both financial independence and job creation for needy and unemployed women. We achieve this by empowering women through our six months’ Pads & Cents Enterprise Development training programme and placing them as direct sales agents in communities. The objective is to move women from poverty to empowerment,” says Kasavan.
Happy Days is South Africa’s first black-female-owned and managed sanitary pad company. Its Happy Days Foundation donates sanitary pads via sponsors and CSI departments and teaches women entrepreneurial skills that help alleviate high levels of unemployment. This in turn increases their income level so that they achieve financial independence and confidence.
Happy Days was established to help shed light on the struggles that women in South African communities still face. The organisation additionally provides a safe place for girls to share and discuss ‘taboo’ issues such as menstruation and unplanned pregnancy.
“There are about 25 million menstruating women in South Africa and half a billion on the continent. This translates into a massive market – and we have designed the right distribution model to access it,” she says.
“Our biggest goal at Happy Days is to restore dignity and hope for young women in our country. Our hope is that by having a brand that teaches them about self-respect and self-worth we will achieve that goal,” concludes Kasavan.