Researchers pool skills to design ‘green’ sanitary products

It is clear that ‘going green’ is a concept Dr Jacqueline Kisato feels passionate about, as she explains her affordable, eco-friendly sanitary towel, a product she expects will help empower women and young girls while also putting money into farmers’ pockets.

A lecturer in fashion design and marketing at the Kenyatta University (KU), Kisato was keen to develop a way to commercialise discarded banana stems in a project that could employ members of the local community.

Banana stems are generally considered useless by farmers and are usually left to rot away on farms. Kisato realised after the Kenyan government enforced a ban on the use of plastic bags in 2018, there was a need to find immediate alternatives.

“I started looking at this project from an entrepreneurial point of view. How could I commercialise banana stem fibres? The government had just banned single-use plastic bags and market vendors needed alternatives to serve their customers,” Kisato told University World News.

At the same time, Kisato was aware that sanitary towels also formed part of the pollution problem since they were partly composed of plastic. She was also aware of the challenge that women and girls had in accessing affordable sanitary products.

“While walking along the university hallways one day, a student stopped me and asked if I could help her with a packet of sanitary pads. This incident shocked me as for a long time I had assumed ‘period poverty’ was only experienced amongst high school children,’’ Kisato said.

It was while researching alternatives to plastic bags that she realised she could “solve two problems with one stone”.

Kisato applied to the National Research Fund (NRF) in 2018, pitching a research project aimed at developing eco-friendly plastic bags and sanitary towels. In 2020, the NRF granted Kenyatta University KES9 million (about US$61,623) for the project, with Kisato taking the lead as the principal investigator.

A team effort

Her team is made up of scholars from different departments and institutions, and also includes PhD and masters students, with each one of them playing a major role in seeing the project through.

“I lead a team of engineers from the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute, whose task is to reverse engineer machines that can extract fibre from banana stems and use them to create eco-friendly packaging and sanitary towels,’’ she said. “I also work with researchers from Moi University whose task is to turn the extracted fibre into soft materials for use.”

Kisato’s aim was to produce quality sanitary towels that could compete with what was already in the market while still being eco-friendly, a fact that led her to seek the expertise of Edwin Madivoli, a chemistry lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

According to Kisato, existing towels in the market have a component in them called hydrogel which enables them to retain fluids for longer and are also lined with plastic sheets to prevent any leakage. “Our intention was to replicate them, but use bioplastic materials, which can degrade, as opposed to the normal plastic that is being used,” she said.

From her research, Kisato had discovered that Africans on average wear a single sanitary towel for longer than women and girls from developed countries, and were thus at risk of getting bacterial infections. This was mainly due to limited access and affordability.

“We thought adding anti-microbial properties to our product would therefore make it as good or even better than what was in the market,’’ said Kisato.

For this second phase of the project, Madivoli’s chemistry came in handy and the Research Scholarship and Innovation Fund was happy to allocate KU an additional KES9 million for Kisato to continue what she had started.

“My role is to ensure our sanitary pads are of the same quality as those in the market while at the same time maintain an eco-friendly nature, which is the main agenda of this whole project,” Madivoli told University World News.

“I am tasked with the development of hydrogels, production of bioplastics and finding a way to incorporate anti-microbial properties into our products to protect the users from possible infections,’’ he said.

JKUAT also received funding of KES800,000 (about US$5,477) from the Kenya National Innovation Agency to further help Madivoli with this research.

Commenting on the use of banana stems as a source of biomass, Madivoli said: “As they are left to dry up on the farms, banana stems are known to produce large amounts of methane which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to the climate change problems that we are trying to tackle … Having an alternative use for the stems therefore limits the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere.”

Job creation

Madivoli said that most banana farmers usually do not know what to do with the stems once they have done their harvest and this project gives them a way to earn some extra income as the farmers can sell the stems for KES35 per stem.

“This project will not only be environmentally friendly but will also create jobs for the people who go to cut the stems from the farms while also finding use for the biomass that the farmers thought was useless,” he said.

Once it is up and running, the project will source banana stems from counties such as Kisii, Muranga, Embu, Meru and parts of western Kenya.

Stephany Musombi, one of Kisato’s students specialising in textiles, is responsible for coming up with quality packaging materials.

“Apart from the banana fibre, I am also experimenting with other biomass such as pineapple and seaweed,’’ Musombi told University World News. If I can find a way to make this work, the project will open up a market for seaweed and pineapple biomass.

Climate summit

Kisato’s project could not have peaked at a better time as Kenya hosts leaders from different parts of Africa for the Africa Climate Summit 2023 that started on 4 September whose sole purpose is to find ‘green’ solutions for humanity.

Kenyan President William Ruto drove himself in a tiny electric car to the summit taking place at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, where he challenged African leaders and innovators to find sustainable solutions to their daily activities that can help reduce society’s carbon footprint in the continent and globally.

“Africa can power all energy needs with renewable resources. The continent has enough potential to be entirely self-sufficient using wind, solar, geothermal, sustainable biomass and hydropower energy. Africa can be a green industrial hub that helps other regions achieve their net zero strategies by 2050,’’ Ruto said at the summit.

Kisato expects her product to be market ready by the end of September and she plans to make them more affordable. Her intention is to team up with startups or established companies that deal in toiletries.

“The cheapest sanitary towels on the market cost KES140. We expect ours to go as low as KES100,” Kisato said.

Kenyatta University Vice-Chancellor Paul K Wainaina lauded the project, saying it will enable the country to meet its industrial needs while conserving the environment.