For any young girl, starting your periods is a really big deal. For starters, it symbolizes a transition to womanhood. As the years go by you sort of start to get used to it and it becomes easier to handle. However, it is not uncommon to hear of period emergencies no matter how many years a person has been menstruating. Linda Njeru’s period emergency is what birthed the great Yz-Me sanitary towels vending machine project.
Linda was travelling from Indonesia with her family when she realised that she had started her periods while on the airplane. Unfortunately, she only had one her sanitary towel which she survived with until they got to Dubai. To make it worse, when she got to Dubai, she found that the duty-free shops did not sell sanitary towels. This experience was what led to Yz-Me, which aims to bring menstruation to Kenya’s public space. They specialise in the installation of menstrual hygiene products dispensers in public washroom areas.
Every May 28, nonprofits, government agencies, the private sector, the media, and individuals come together to celebrate Menstrual Hygiene Day and advocate for the importance of good menstrual hygiene management. With this in mind, we sat down with Linda Njeru to find out more about Yz-Me.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Well, I would say that I am a combination of personalities depending on the circumstance. I am result oriented, precise, and sociable. Some people say I am funny. They laugh at my jokes. Other than that, I love travelling and I am privileged to have been to more than 17 countries around the world. I am also the C.E.O of Yz-Me.
2. What is the meaning of Yz-Me?
YZ-ME is an acronym for the adjective word ‘Wise’ and the synonym ‘Me’. Our Company is called YZ-ME International Ltd (pronounced as wisey-me).
3. Why this name?
Because every time I introduced my business idea during our market research the feedback I got was “wow, this is such a brilliant idea”. It then hit me that indeed I was wise and brave to come up with such a business idea, we initially wanted to name our company Wisey-Me but then when we conducted the search that name was not available hence the acronym YZ-ME.
4. How was the organization born?
Interestingly the company was born out of my personal experience. As you know travel affects a lot of things in a woman including their period…so one time I was on a long haul flight from abroad (Indonesia) and the most mortifying thing that can ever happen to a woman happened to me at 1700ft above sea level…my period!! Those were the longest 17and a half hours of my life! While in that situation my lightbulb moment flickered and it dawned on me that there was something I could do to help other adolescent girls and women who could have fallen ‘victims’ or suffered a menstrual emergency.
5. What is the inspiration behind the prototype dispenser?
My inspiration was drawn from the aim to satisfy an immediate need for women who run out of menstrual hygiene products at any time of day to meet menstrual emergencies. This service allows for the users not only the convenience of easily purchasing sanitary products whenever and wherever they need them but also restore their dignity by providing peace of mind, privacy, and independence that is highly needed during the period. In a nutshell, we aim to provide the 3A’s: Availability, Accessibility, and Affordability of menstrual hygiene products.
6. What is your career/profession? And do you feel like it ties in with what you do in YZ-ME?
I am a Travel Associate in the Travel and Tourism industry. Yes it ties in with what I do, as they both revolve around the delivery of impeccable service.
7. In your opinion, what is the main challenge that plagues women in terms of menstruation in Kenya?
I would say mainly inaccessible products and lack of information not only in Kenya but also around the world.
8. Why is it so?
I think that apart from the bizarre cultural taboos not much has been done to obliterate period anxiety. It is unfortunate that menstruation is still a taboo topic in some communities. A menstruating woman is regarded as dirty, impure, and cannot participate in some activities.
9. What are the mental effects of lack of access to proper menstrual hygiene?
The mental effects are many, but the main one is low self-esteem which limits a lot of women from reaching their full potential. But one main extreme side effect is suicides, when girls feel that they can’t handle it anymore.
10. Why, in your opinion, is the topic of menstruation so stigmatized? In High school for example, we are taught to hide pads as though we’re drug-trafficking. Why is this the situation?
I’d say the main reason why menstruation is stigmatized is due to lack of information and the bizarre taboos and myths. I like how you put it, ‘as though we’re dealing illegal drugs’. Not to mention the ‘mafia-style’ rush to the bathroom whereby the ‘period victim’ is placed in the middle of two girls. In my opinion, all this boils down to a lack of information. A lot really needs to be done to demystify some of the bizarre social and cultural norms.
11. What can be done to reduce period stigmatization?
I think we need to start creating awareness by engaging and involving both boys and girls from an early age. For instance, I tag along with my two children (boy and girl) both under 10 years every time I do site visits or outdoor activations. They even assist in restocking the products into the vending machines. I once left my 9-year-old son manning our booth during one on the outdoor events only to find him explain our business to a guest who was very attentive. I was beyond thrilled, to say the least.
Again with regards to engaging the male gender, our vending machines also dispense wet wipes and pocket tissues which are unisex. So as men purchase the pocket tissues they also get to familiarise themselves with the feminine hygiene products hence lessening the stigma.
Lastly, we need to open up the ‘period discussion’. Everyone in my family including my not so young parents and pastor (a man in his early fifties) knows I am in the sanitary pad business. We are quite comfortable talking about it and sharing ideas and opportunities.
12. What is your take on reusable pads? Would they offer a long term solution?
I have never used them but I think they are great if you observe proper hygiene, they can come in handy especially when the disposable pads are not accessible.
Whether or not they would offer a long term solution is debatable. It depends, but in terms of saving the environment, I would imagine the biodegradable ones would be more ideal.
13. What are the main challenges you face in YZ-ME?
I would say acceptance being a new entrant to the market. Locally, not many people are familiar with the feminine hygiene products vending machines. My wish is for adolescent girls and women to stop carrying pads in their bags but instead, rest assured that YZ-ME will always be there for them at any time of day. With our App, all they will need to do is look out for the nearest YZ-ME vending machine and their ‘emergency period’ will no longer be an emergency.
14. In your opinion, what is the ideal situation in Kenya and in the world with regard to menstruation?
While I appreciate the efforts by the government and other private entities, I think we still have a long way to go but I am optimistic we shall get there someday. Any support would be a bonus. There needs to be more awareness, especially during the menstrual hygiene day.
15. Tell us a little bit more about how you won the Sinapis business plan competition.
So, Sinapis is a global community blending intensive training with faith-based principles and access to capital. Entrepreneurs learn how to scale their businesses. For me, joining Sinapis was the best decision ever. Our business is based on Kingdom principles and Sinapis helped us achieve that through the intensive training that they offer to small and growing businesses. The executive-level training is developed in partnership with the Acton School of Business, a leading MBA program designed for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs.
Throughout the Entrepreneur Academy, entrepreneurs work to develop and refine an investment-worthy business plan and compete for the seed capital. Upon graduation, these entrepreneurs are invited to submit their business proposals to Sinapis’ annual Business Plan Competition. After submitting my business plan proposal I was shortlisted to participate in the competition and after a series of pitches, I qualified to compete at the grand finale. I ended up being among the 7 finalists out of an initial 100 entrepreneurs who had submitted their business plan proposals and eventually emerged the winner. It was unbelievable. I walked into Sinapis with just a business idea and left a competent entrepreneur and USD10, 000 to boot. Isn’t God amazing? Why I Would Recommend The Sinapis Entrepreneurship Course To Those Looking To Take Their Businesses To The Next Level
16. What are your future plans for the business?
We want to scale up and ensure that every public washroom has a feminine hygiene dispenser. I want adolescent girls and women to access feminine hygiene products the same way you are almost guaranteed of finding tissue, sanitary bin, and water in the washroom.
17. What are the opportunities and wins so far?
First of all winning the Sinapis business plan competition was great, the win against all odds further validated my purpose and calling for my business. Secondly, within the short period, we have been in operation we have managed to secure some key high foot traffic locations. We are currently present in Two-Rivers mall, Next-Gen Mall, Beauty Point College, Kenya Methodist University (KeMU), Nairobi Railways terminal, the Kenya National Library in Upper hill, Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) stations both Nairobi and Mombasa among others.
Worth mentioning is that our beautiful feminine hygiene products’ vending machines have an integrated Audio-Visual display interface that allows for the live or on-demand streaming of various forms of advertisement and digital content.
Lastly, ours is the first feminine hygiene product vending machine to use M-PESA.