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Twenty-two

Liita Cairney - Kalitasha

Making period poverty history…

Liita Cairney - Kalitasha

Making period poverty history

Liita Iyaloo Cairney has turned a social problem into a business by developing an innovative product for feminine hygiene, primarily aimed at developing countries. Her reusable solution, called Koree, is not just more affordable but ergonomically designed for better comfort and prevention of leakage – the most common complaint from consumers. So how did this Namibian biologist end up in Scotland attracting investment in a company whose mission is to do social good at the same time as providing a return for investors?

Young girls in a village in Namibia and businesswomen in a boardroom in Scotland may not seem to have much in common, but once a month they have to cope with periods and not feel restricted in their everyday lives by their menstrual cycle. There has been a lot of focus on “period poverty” in developing countries, most commonly its impact on young girls not going to school, but in wealthier countries like Scotland, there is not just an issue with the cost of the products but also a problem with the “shame and stigma” associated with menstruation that can affect women from all walks of life. And Liita Cairney, CEO and founder of Edinburgh-based Kalitasha, feels very strongly that women should always feel comfortable in their own bodies and have easy access to a wide choice of affordable and well-designed feminine hygiene products whether they live in a small, remote village or run a big business.

According to a recent survey by a grassroots group called “Women for Independence,” almost one in five women in Scotland struggle to pay for basic sanitary products, using alternatives such as toilet roll, rags, socks and newspaper. Recent initiatives seek to address this by providing free sanitary products to low-income households, but Cairney has developed a novel solution – a reusable product called Koree, made from a silicon outer shell and a washable liner, which comes complete with bag for liners, so women can change them without needing access to bathrooms.

Some issues remain universal – in addition to health complications, most women express very similar feelings about the discomfort and leakage commonly experienced during menstruation – but period poverty tends to be a bigger problem in poorer countries, and has a much bigger impact on poor women's lives, wherever they live.

In the process of developing her revolutionary product, Cairney has also created a business which provides a return for investors as well as attempting to do social good. For Kalitasha, profit is what drives innovation and will make it sustainable over the long term – not a “dirty” word but the foundation of future success.

“When I registered the company,” Cairney explains, “I decided that the business model should not be a charity or social enterprise but a limited company, with shareholders like any other. This means there is greater scope for innovation and helps to bring in investors. Hector Cameron of Lancaster Capital was one of the early investors and he brought other members of his syndicate with him who also understood what I was aiming to do – they believed in me, simple as that.”

The journey begins...

Cairney's “intellectual and spiritual journey” has not only taken her thousands of miles from Namibia to Scotland, but also from the world of academia to business. “Everything I struggled to do in my PhD (for instance, diligent planning and execution), I am good at in business,” she says, explaining that her academic skills are also something she’s been able to transfer to her work as an entrepreneur. She also thinks she got her ‘independent spirit’ from her native Namibia, which was under the rule of apartheid when she was born and only won its freedom from South Africa in 1990.

When she was a teenager, growing up in a small village, Cairney also experienced for herself what it was like to enter womanhood and deal with all the issues which are now the focus of her business. Unlike many other girls her own age, the young Liita understood the biological aspects of the menstrual cycle, but like most of her schoolmates, she also paid for all her own feminine hygiene products, out of the money she earned from various jobs, including shop cashier and video shop rental assistant, and even a spell as a children’s television show presenter. “Most families simply don’t prioritise access to products,” says Cairney. “It’s such a critical, predictable event in women’s lives, but many people act as if it comes as a surprise. Most young women make do with what they can get, but this means they are often quite uncomfortable, and can lead to medical problems.”

What’s the problem?

Many social commentators argue about how much the menstrual cycle affects school attendance, but Cairney simply points out that the most important question is how much it inhibits women’s public engagement in general. School is only one of the problems.

Cairney welcomes efforts to address these issues in developing countries but is critical of “band-aid solutions” – for example, encouraging young girls to sew their own sanitary napkins. “Girls should not be defined by the limitations of their menstrual cycle,” she explains. “This is not addressing the heart of the problem, which has to include education.” In Cairney's view, people in many societies “conflate menstruation with sexual issues,” thus complicating the way it’s discussed by introducing a religious and moral dimension, as well as myths and taboos. “Menstruation is not necessarily a sexual issue,” she explains, but if it’s not addressed head-on, a lack of knowledge can lead to problems with family planning, for instance.

Namibia to Scotland

After doing well in high school in Namibia, Cairney applied for university in the US, spending 18 months in New Jersey before enrolling at Bard College in New York, where she gained a BA in biology followed by an MSc in environmental policy, graduating in 2008. Initially, she left her options open, doing several courses other than science (including sculpture and the Alexander Technique), and as she approached graduation, she realised her future lay not in the lab but with people. “Coming from Namibia, I thought it was my personal duty to focus on science,” she says, “but that was not my calling. Science taught me discipline but I am more a people person, and environmental policy started to interest me more, looking at the environmental, legal and human aspects of science, including public health and international development.”

Two years working at the Population Council, an independent non-profit organisation which conducts research in public health and medicine, with an emphasis on poverty, gender and youth, persuaded Cairney that her future was “empowerment of adolescent girls,” and this encouraged her to do her PhD (in global public health) at the University of Edinburgh, to open more doors in her future career. While researching her thesis on HIV/Aids and the “ownership” of international development funding by recipient countries, Cairney went back to Namibia in 2012 to collect data, with assistance from the Ministry of Health and Social Services, and reached another turning point in her career. During her visit, she met the ex-Prime Minister, Nahas Angula, who inspired her to focus on a “simple solution” to poverty-related issues such as menstruation. “I wanted to come back and make an impact on people’s lives,” says Cairney, “and this opened my eyes to new possibilities.”

The next challenge for Cairney was to identify the issue which she cared about most and figure out how to address it, and “period poverty” came top of the list, not just because of the economics involved and the public health implications but also because of the “fear and anxiety” felt by young girls when they reach puberty, lacking support from the people around them.

As an academic, Cairney didn't know yet where her journey was heading, but a two-day workshop at the Centre for Career Development in Dundee, supported by the University of Edinburgh, helped her reflect on how best to re-channel her skills – and led to setting up her company in 2013. The idea of the workshop was to “look beyond research and explore the potential of entrepreneurship,” and Cairney was encouraged to think of her interest in the menstrual cycle as the launch-pad for a business. “They said, just run with it,” says Cairney. “And soon I realised I could do social good at the same time as developing a viable business and attracting investment – all in an environmental way.”

Initially, Cairney considered becoming a marketing agent for a silicon menstrual cup, developed by Ruby Cup and a few others, but after market research, she realised this was not the solution, partly because it required easy access to private washing facilities which are not widely available in rural areas. What Cairney needed was a totally new product, and that was when she started sketching out a few ideas.

Next, Cairney won a SMART:Scotland Grant from Scottish Enterprise to develop her product and a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Enterprise Fellowship (2014–2015) which provided business training, followed by a grant from the Scottish Institute for Enterprise (SIE) Patent Fund, which enabled her to design and develop her prototype. “At first, I thought the business would be something I did on the side, but it quickly took over my life,” she reveals. “I also learned that it is possible to learn how to be an entrepreneur – you don’t always need to have magical charm, but discipline definitely helps.”

One of the key people in Cairney's story is designer Helen Fisher from Edinburgh College of Art, who took Cairney’s crude pencil sketches and transformed them into a blueprint for Koree, which was then taken forward by product design engineer, Scott Miller. Cairney explains: “A lot of thought went into the design, to get the ergonomics right and try out different combinations of materials, making sure it met the core requirements – anti-leakage, reusable and easy to wash. We also had to take account of the fact that inserting a product is taboo in many societies.”

The initial design was also discussed with a group of 50 women in Scotland, who were also surveyed to find out their main concerns about menstruation, which revealed that fear of leakage and checking for stains was the Number One issue, followed by physical and psychological security.

The first 1,000 Koree kits were ready for trials in Europe and Africa early last year, and the current First Lady of Namibia has also supported the project, which involved 300 adolescent girls in Namibia. The basic kits include a silicone case and a silicone shell, plus five reusable pads. Extras such as an inner pouch for storing used/soiled pads or extra pads, etc., can also be ordered, and the package is supported by educational materials to help young women learn about the menstrual cycle, available via www.firstperiod.org and www.kalitasha.com.

Cairney plans to develop more products based on the Koree design, and feels very strongly they must have consumer appeal: “The girls that buy them are like me. I was born and grew up in a village, and why shouldn’t young women like me have a wide choice of products, like women in Scotland?”

Why don’t the multinationals also compete in this market? “They could also develop reusable products, and have started to recognise period poverty as a real issue, but marketing disposables has been a great sales strategy for them, so why bother looking beyond?”

Cairney's personal mission is to make an impact on people’s lives, and as she builds her team and looks for more investment, her company is also making waves in the commercial world, not just in terms of innovative product design but a new approach which turns a social problem into a sustainable and profitable business.

In April this year, Cairney returned to Bard College to deliver a speech, reflecting on her entrepreneurial journey. For her, it was a special trip that brought back lots of memories, but Cairney is more interested in looking ahead to the future than back to the past, as the struggle continues to make period poverty history.

 

Kalitasha's corporate mission: To bring dignity to women every day by applying common sense and ingenuity to the everyday problems associated with health and wellbeing.

 

 

 

 

"Liita Cairney - Kalitasha". Science Scotland (Issue Twenty-two)
Printed from http://www.sciencescotland.org/feature.php?id=345 on 16/11/18 09:22:41 AM

Science Scotland is a science & technology publication brought to you by The Royal Society of Edinburgh (www.rse.org.uk).