It’s been just over a week since our return from Tanzania and I’m still working to process all that transpired.
We had no idea that sanitary pads would feature so prominently in this trip or represent such a galvanizing focus for social entrepreneurship. Both Danielle and Lyndsey had researched this topic as part of their ELN independent studies and were well aware of the connections with girls’ education and public health.
But seeing Danielle working on the reusable pad project was an emotional experience for all of us. The idea had come from her final study abroad project and when she discovered Dare Women’s Foundation’s model via an internet search, they had offered to train our partners in Musoma. Danielle quickly raised the funds needed to support Stephen Marwa’s (Executive Director of Hope Revival Children’s Foundation) travel to Arusha. And here we were, returning just one year later with sewing materials, ready to support the start-up of a Musoma-based reusable sanitary pad project.
To our surprise, the very next day Stephen delivered the first batch of reusable pads (see featured photo) and I was proud to be the second customer -Danielle being the first. Stephen explained that after the pads are certified by the Ministry, they will be manufactured and sold. Proceeds will sustain the sewing project while also supporting school-aged girls unable to afford appropriate menstrual supplies.
I was so pleased with the pads that I carried the prototype with me as we visited leaders and organizations throughout the area.When we were introduced to the Anglican Bishop of Musoma, Dr. George Okoth, he was so impressed with the project and our interest in menstrual management that he asked us to visit a Safe House in Mugumu Serengeti where village girls fled go to escape Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). He explained that they had acquired a disposable pad machine that was sitting in storage, without any institutional knowledge about how to operate or fix it. Although Muguma was a clear departure from our itinerary we were all eager to accept the invitation. With a recent Engineering grad (Mathew Falcone), our own Macgyver Librarian (Cindi Tysick), and resident pad experts (Danielle and Lyndsey), how could we pass up the challenge?
Our 2+ hour drive to Muguma was both fascinating and bumpy. We winded our way around the massive Acacia gold mine as we tried to anticipate what lay ahead. When we arrived at the Mugumu Safe House we received a brief tour of the facility while learning about the daunting challenges facing the girls. And then Melina (Director) showed us the pad machine.
It was sitting in a a storage closet draped in plastic, obviously never touched or utilized. We all stood and stared at the impressive contraption, trying to comprehend what we were seeing. Then Lyndsey yelled, “It’s from the Pad Man!” We knew this to be a movie that our UB School of Management colleague, Debbie Grossman, who had visited Tanzania with us the last year had urged us all to see- but we hadn’t had had time. Within seconds the girls were texting Debbie and miraculously even though it was the crack of dawn in Buffalo, she immediately replied, confirming that the machine was indeed the same type and make of Indian apparatus featured in the movie.
And then they were off- a quick assessment (with the help of YouTube) revealed that nothing was wrong with the machine. There was simply no Tanzanian adapter for the Indian power cord. Dan quickly surrendered his travel converter and the machine immediately purred into action. Between Cindi and Matthew the first prototype was produced in minutes and once the girls got the hang of it, the Muguma Disposable Pad Project was born before our very eyes.
But our biggest joy came as Melina recognized what she had just stumbled upon. Suddenly, her prospects for supporting and stewarding the Safe House and its girls were much more promising.
How to celebrate the promise of girls’ empowerment in the Mara Region? Early in our trip we were treated to unforgettable dancing and poetry by the new “Musoma Action, Girls Empowerment” group led by partner and friend Monica Achieng. These beautiful girls were gathering to celebrate their solidarity and share inspiring messages about education, self-empowerment and women’s health.
As we reflect on the beauty and vibrancy of the young women we met throughout the trip and the promise of their collective futures we can’t help thinking about menstrual management and girls’ empowerment in a new way. Clearly, there is much to celebrate and infinite opportunities to learn, share and collaborate around this important topic.
I am no photographer and my equipment was sub-standard to say the least. But as I crouched in my seat, watching the cheetah begin to move across the road, I kept clicking away, anticipating some sort of crescendo. The build-up was palpable- some exquisite moment was inevitable, and I knew if I stayed with the process I was destined to behold something truly amazing.
I have long held on to this expectation- the notion that once in motion, once a path forward is activated, something inherently great will come. And by visiting the Mara Region of Tanzania every year, bringing students and colleagues, contributing when and where I can, I have readied myself to behold a crescendo- a tipping point through which community impacts are realized and quality of life becomes somehow better, more expansive and real for those who need it most.
This year was different, or perhaps my sensitivity to the nuances and challenges was somehow heightened. Although our partners continued to do great work, to innovate and adapt to changing needs and challenges, to persevere and flex their commitments and leadership- I did not necessarily see or feel the build-up that I had come to expect.
Certainly, if I looked through the right lens, I could identify benefits. Students served through a sewing project, liters of fresh milk processed and distributed, children being taught who would otherwise be at home. These are all important advancements and shouldn’t be minimized. But how to leverage and amplify these toward broader impacts, how to transform these specific investments into mechanisms and levers of change?
It was these questions that I had the chance to discuss with our students as they reflect on their study abroad trip and prepare their final projects to be presented later this week. The topic for this course is Social Innovation, and after spending two weeks in rural Tanzania, getting close to community development and the courageous leaders who commit their lives to making a difference- the complexities were too heavy to ignore.
The Bishop of Tarime had told us to focus our efforts on something tangible, not to get overwhelmed by the scale of need. He shared his vision for a school for girls in Tarime- a representation of all that is possible, a place where girls can realize their potential and expand their opportunities beyond the realities of poverty that currently constrain their lives.
But even if the Bishop is wildly successful, if every school and orphanage and textbook project being implemented and envisioned throughout the Mara Region and other parts of Tanzania and the developing world were to be realized at the highest level of actualization- would it be enough? Would they collectively change the vast disparities between the haves and have nots, the gaps in opportunity and resources necessary to live a productive and meaningful life?
I suggested to the students that the power of social innovation lies not necessarily in the specific localized solutions to contextualized problems, but instead to the development of new models that are scalable, robust and powerful. Models that can leverage specific contributions, talents and investments and amplify their impacts- like a prism transforming light.
As someone who has studied and experimented with social innovation, I know it can happen in multiple directions. With a clear and compelling vision, we can build out specific components into comprehensive systems and programs that are effective by design. But we can also do it in reverse. We can take existing projects and initiatives and weave them together under a common frame, a frame that is maximally relevant and compelling. By doing so we can harness their specific impacts while transforming their collective energy into something more powerful and transformative, and sustainable.
When I reflect on the individual partner sites we visited while in Mara- John Bosco School, the dairy farm in Baraki, the sewing project, preschool and agricultural projects in Mogabiri, Nyamete Women’s Group and Hope Revival in Musoma along with Buhare Community Development Institute- and their amazing leaders who bring them to life- I am convinced that they can be connected in some meaningful way, a way that optimizes their motion and reach.
When I look at this picture of the cheetah, I am inspired by what nature affords. The beauty, elegance, and power that can be achieved when systems are perfectly aligned and in motion. As I travel the world and meet leaders who are poised to soar- and students who yearn to make a difference, I am inspired by the possibilities. And as I continue to search for powerful frames that will allow us to leverage collaboration and engagement, I can’t help thinking that Social Innovation might be just what we need.