Sanitary pads and social innovation: how complex does an innovation need to be?

What is an innovation? A sophisticated new engine running on readily available biofuel? A novel drug that can cure cancer without negative side effects? Would these be social innovations? And how much research is needed to get there?

Last week I attended Austria’s annual CorporAID Conference on business and development, bringing together public and private stakeholders looking for solutions to maximise business contributions for development. Besides facilitating a panel on research & innovation I was asked to provide input on social innovation in the context of low- and middle-income countries. And what a learning experience this was!

Having recently worked with endeva on analysing a set of health business model innovations for the World Bank I thought I’d draw from this experience. Using the 4A model (acceptance, awareness, availability and affordability) as the analytic framework, I set out to explain key elements of social innovation we had identified when investigating business models focusing on female hygiene.

“Female hygiene?” you may ask. Yes exactly, sanitary pads to be precise. Female hygiene happens to be a hugely important yes under-researched development issue in which innovation can have an enormous impact. Until recently, sanitary pads received only little attention by businesses and development stakeholders. My educated guess is that a key reason for this lack of attention is the simple fact that menstruation is a subject about which the majority of the population feels somewhat uncomfortable – it certainly isn’t what fairly conservative and predominantly male conference participants were expecting when attending my panel on research and innovation. In fact, you may be feeling a little awkward as you are reading this right now.

Why is female hygiene such an issue? In a nutshell, there is enormous unmet demand for female hygiene products (of which sanitary pads are the most common). This has a lot to do with the price of internationally-branded products, which simply are too high for households in low resource settings. Therefore, in India alone, more than 300 million women go without adequate products and resort to cloth, newspaper or other unhygienic alternatives, causing various health issues. Moreover, inadequate menstrual hygiene management products and facilities cause girls to stay away from school and women to be absent from jobs, with associated negative impacts on female education and productivity.

Now do we need sophisticated new sanitary pads? No, quite the opposite. Do we need innovation? Yes, absolutely! A number of South Asian and African social enterprises have begun addressing this important development issue in recent years. Quite some innovation has gone into ensuring sanitary pads can be produced cheaply, sustainably, and with locally available materials. Other social innovators have focused on developing machines which allow uneducated women in remote rural areas to produce pads themselves, thus covering local needs while creating income generation opportunities for poor women in rural areas. All these are prime examples of frugal innovation. Nevertheless, research and innovation are still needed to develop business models that actually work, i.e. that allow the social enterprise to make at least a modest profit.

Given that these clearly are important social innovations (providing new solutions to a societal problem) I found it all the more interesting that a member of the audience stood up after just a few minutes of my speech and asked when we’d finally get to the point of the panel, i.e. the ‘real’ research and innovation bit. It became clear that even within the sustainability and development communities there is still a lot of work to do in terms of bringing everybody on the same page.

When it comes to social innovation, a lot of that ‘real’ research and innovation is indeed about stuff which seems simple, but is actually quite complex: ensuring a product or service makes sense locally (acceptance), that people know about it (awareness), that the logistics work (availability) and that it is priced appropriately (affordability). In other words, rather than increasing technology-intensity and adding ever more features, social innovation is about maximising impact and sustainability by minimising complexity.

 This blog post was authored by Alice Schmidt.

Photo credit: Sukhibhava (banner) and Jayaashree Industries (blogpost)

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