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Delivering Purposeful Products In Zambia

Delivering Purposeful Products In Zambia

The 2014 Sew Powerful Purse Impact Report

Earlier this week we returned from Zambia. In this post I’ll give a recap of the trip and then share our lessons and insights related to the Sew Powerful Purse program.

Purpose: The purpose of the trip was to have our U.S. team of professional seamstresses work with the Zambian team of seamstresses to do skills training and knowledge transfer. Almost the entire week was spent on the topic of re-usable feminine hygiene pads, which is a key part of our Sew Powerful Purse program. In the International Relief and Development industry, (aka World Health Organization type people), this topic is called MHM, (Menstruation Hygiene Management). You can read about how the Gates Foundation is looking into this topic here. More on that topic momentarily, but first here is a brief recap of the trip.


Trip Summary: Just so you understand how we organized our time, here are the major activities of the trip day-by-day.

Monday, (first full day): Monday was packed! We…

1. Were greeted by the 1,200 students at the Needs Care School. This is in Ngombe the poorest community in Lusaka. They sang for us and welcomed us. They even had songs about Sew Powerful. It was incredible!

2. We watched as the children were fed lunch and we learned how it is prepared, (it is commonly their only meal of the day). This is basicly one 50KG (very large) bag of commercial grade porridge that costs the school roughly $45 a day. That is all they can afford to provide and the situation is desperate because half (yes, this is a documented fact for that community) of the children are HIV+ and need a reasonable amount of food to maintain their general health while on Anti-Retroviral Therapy medication, (pills which they get from a local government clinic).

3. We also met and spent time with the new sewing students who are participating in the current 6-month sewing training program as well as the on-going sewing team and staff, (more on the team structure in another post).

4. In the afternoon we also visited the World Vision Zambia warehouse and picked up the 475 purses that had been shipped (starting in January) via World Vision United States, (our formal partner in this program). We also brought more than 25 with us so we had just over 500 to use in the program.

5. While we were at the Warehouse we saw several pallets of XXXL sized clothing that is going to be given to the Sew Powerful program so we can cut it down to children sizes and use it in support of our educational goals. See how we upcycle large items here.

6. We were also given 3 new Babylock Sewing Machines via World Vision (that was a huge surprise gift and very valuable). Thanks Baby Lock and World Vision!

Tuesday, (first full skills training day). We…

1. Discussed the Sew Powerful Purse program and the re-usable feminine hygiene pads with the sewing cooperative participants.

2. Cinnamon, Melinda, and Karen, (our professional seamstresses), showed the Zambian seamstresses how to cut and sew the re-usable pad items and they began making them. Of course when it came time to explain the entire program and how the products were intended to be used, (after a little awkward laughter), the women in the group were ecstatic! They laughed, they literally cheered, they were super eager to start making these items for their community.

3. We also went shopping in the Lusaka garment district and purchased roughly 80 meters of fabric including a water-proof fabric that is a key component of the product.

4. We also ordered 4 Singer combo electric/treadle sewing machines. These are the machines-of-choice for the seamstresses because they can be used with our without electricity. (We picked them up on Thursday).

Wednesday, (Program Visit To Susu Village). We…

1. Drove 3+ hours each way to a very rural community called Susu Village. This gave the team a chance to see rural village life, which is very different than the urban (slum) of Ngombe where our program work occurs.

2. We were greeted by the tribal leader and elders from the community. I’ve previously visited this location and feel like I have a good on-going relationship with the tribal leader, (his name is Sandy). His son, (Kenneth), is the school principal.

3. The team learned about the vast wealth, (in one respect), of the rural farmers who are very good at growing all sorts of produce, (watermelon, beans, maize, oranges, cabbage, etc.). They eat well and feed their children a very large meal at the school each day. A shocking difference compared to the school lunch the children at Needs Care receive. I’ve been pondering this difference for a year now and cooked up a plan to address it, (keep reading)…

4. We visited the Susu Village school of 232 students and distributed new dresses, shorts, and shirts to them. (of course these were all made-with-love by the Zambian seamstresses in our program). The fabric used included both “cut down” XXXL sized garments from World Vision as well as on-the-bolt fabric they had donated to the program, (again a huge thank-you to World Vision for that).

5. In the afternoon Esther, (our Zambian Program Director), and I had a meeting with Sandy and Kenneth and presented them with a business proposal, (we explained this was not a “charity” program or offer, this was business). Here is what we proposed: If they were interested, the Sew Powerful seamstresses could make their students beautiful school uniforms each year, (which is a custom in Zambia), in exchange for an equal value of farm fresh produce for the Needs Care School. Sandy responded by saying, “we’ve been praying about how to get uniforms for the children”. After a period of questions-and-answers on both sides we agreed that it was something that may very well work-out. Sandy agreed to present it to the village leaders and school parents. This could be a massive win-win, providing his school children with legitimacy of uniforms and the Needs Care school with much needed ongoing food.  (side note, I’ve calculated the cost of this proposal and committed to help the seamstresses cover the cost of the uniform material and transportation to the village as well as produce transportation costs).

Thursday, (second full skills-training day). We…

1. Worked with the seamstresses to finalize the Sew Powerful Purse content and prepare for the 1st “Health Class” which is where the purses would be given to girls from the school.

2. We also “gifted” one of the completed purses to each seamstress. They were thrilled!

3. We picked up the 4 Singer Combo machines and had them set-up.

4. Cinnamon, Melinda, and Karen showed the seamstresses how to make a simple clutch purse as an alternative to the American made purses. This was done so that the clutch purses (and re-usable hygiene pads) could be sold locally to aunties, sisters, and other ladies in the community. The nice part is the heavy fabric used was donated by World Vision and originally intended for upholstry type projects, but worked great for the clutch purses. They had 10 to 12 bolts of the fabric, each with 40+ meters on the bolt, (a massive amount). There was A LOT of energy and enthusiam around this idea because prior to it the sewing cooperative team didn’t know what to do with the fabric.

5. We had a (fairly long) group conversation with the seamstresses about the program, the value of the product to the community, the necessary costs and pricing issues, and how the on-going product creation (and selling) could work. This was very cool because they were very opinionated about how the “new product” could be marketed locally. I LOVED this conversation because it felt like were were legitimate product marketers planning a product launch!

Friday, (the final full skills-training day). We…

1. (actually I) met with a local pastor (Bishop Banda) of a mega church and discussed the Sew Powerful Purse program and MHM topic. He was previously on the Board of World Vision Zambia for 9 years. He was very excited to bring his wife to visit the program and discuss how they might become a customer – using the program in two of their schools. He is the Presbyter overseeing 4,000 Assembly Of God churches in Southern Africa and (amazingly) also a Northwest University grad. So we might have a great opportunity to serve a bigger audience.

2. Assembled 60+ purses with the product for an afternoon health class that had been organized.

3. We also did skills transfer for a re-usable baby diaper product. While potentially valuable, the diaper product is probably less vital since there are somewhat good alternatives already provided at very low cost in the community.

4. The afternoon health class was a huge success. The girls were ecstatic, incredibly grateful, enggaged in the topic, and excited about it all. They literally danced in the parking lot of the school for half an hour after the class was over, (it was incredibly cool)!

Saturday, (our debriefing day). We relaxed and discussed the entire program at-length at a regional Safari lodge.

Sunday, (our tourist market day). We visited the tourist market and had fun.

Monday, (our last half day with the seamstresses). We spent time with the seamstresses and had an extended goodbye conversation.


Major Lessons Learned: We learned a lot on this trip about the reality of doing the Sew Powerful Purse program, the dynamics of the local economy, the topic of Menstruation Hygiene Management (MHM) and current products available, the needs of the children at the school and the reality of trying to launch a product in a foreign context. Including,

Understanding The Current Product: As a product marketer I was curious what our new re-usable pad product was competing against. I never imagined I’d learn so much about personal care products. There are basicly two commonly used personal care items for women in Zambia.

  • Disposables: One option (which none of the poor use) is disposable product just like women use in the western world. The problem is, this is a very expensive solution, unavailable in their community, and in the urban slum location, even if they could use this product, with no garbage service these products would create an ecological nightmare. This is really only an option for the urban middle and upper class.
  • Poorly Designed Re-usables: There is a current “method” (I won’t go into detail) the poor women use. What is very interesting is the older (American) ladies on our trip said it was “the common method” used in the United States 40 to 50 years ago, before the invention of disposable products. The reason the current method is poorly serving these women and girls is that it cannot be trusted to not leak and cause social embarrassment. This causes most girls that use this method to stay home from school during their period.

The Value Of The New Re-Usable Pad (MHM) Product: We aren’t claiming to be experts on the topic of MHM. We learned what we are doing from Days For Girls, (they are great, and have a different delivery model than we do). However, our team is expert at sewing and product marketing with deep design skill including over 25 years of Nordstrom Design and Management expertise. We also design sewing products for women – so we are at least in a good position to learn how to add value in this area. We also have a large group of seamstresses in Ngombe (the poorest slum in Lusaka) that are obviously very knowledgable about the issue and can validate what is fact versus what is fiction.

The Winning Product – Re-usables: In our view – it is obvious – a well designed re-usable pad product, that can be made very inexpensively in-country, then rolled out and explained by trusted local health workers and educators, is the winning product solution. We also believe it should be provided for free to school girls as part of their school supplies, but also made available for very low-cost purchase to others in the community. Until we learn otherwise, we strongly believe that for the urban and rural poor, a good quality, low-cost re-usable pad product is the only viable product. No disposable product solution makes any sense. That is a western convenience product that doesn’t translate into poor communities for several practical reasons including cost, and the fact that in poor (or rural) communities there is no garbage service. Simply “gifting” disposable pads into poor communities won’t solve the sanitation related problems.

Girls In Ngombe Are Missing School Because Of This Issue: We validated the fact in the Ngombe community that girls do commonly stay home when they are on their period, (we watched the hands raised as they answered the questions). Statistically it has been documented that girls in Africa miss about 6 weeks of school each year for this reason. That is a massive systematic dis-advantage over the boys in school. We also have the test results from the Needs Care School to prove that girls do worse than boys on the Secondary School Exams, (yes, we have actually statistical test data). Our plan is to document the test results over the next few years and also track user adoption to statistically prove our product has serious social (and educational) value.

We Need Two Purses For Every Girl: The first comment we heard from our local program staff, after seeing the value of the purses and re-usable pads, was that the moms (or caretakers) of the girls would (without any doubt or hesitation) take these items from the girls so that they could use them for themselves, leaving the girl in the same circumstance as before. So we need a “household” solution. We decided the most practical way to achieve this is to give each girl a purse for themselves and one for their mom or caretaker, which may be an aunt or extended female family member.

Additional Supplies Must Be Provided: We also heard quickly from the Zambians that the girls in Ngombe don’t have more than one pair of underwear. Nor do they have soap for doing laundry at their house, a key part of the re-usable pad method. So we factored into our Sew Powerful Purse program the cost of one bar of laundry soap and two pair of underwear, (all sourced locally). We believe we can cover this cost at-scale for the school program and “build it into” the cost structure of the locally sold product versions.

We Need To Put The Product On-Sale Locally: The first question the girls in the health class asked was, “how much does this cost if my sister or auntie wants to buy it.” Wow, we were shocked! We quickly realized we need a complete solution that can be sold – in addition to the “gifted” items given to the school girls. So we spent several days working out the product costs and have a work-able solution for the local Ngombe community. We believe we can affordably provide a complete solution, including a simple clutch purse made by the seamstresses, that will provide a one-year “solution”. Our new product strategy looks like this:

  • Sew Powerful Purse version: In this version pads and related supplies are included in a beautiful purse made with love by seamstresses in American (and Canada, Australia, England and beyond). This is a “gifted” version that goes to girls as part of health class training. For use beyond the Needs Care School in Ngombe, we will charge our in-country distribution partners a fee to cover the cost of the pads and related supplies, but the purses are a gift.
  • Local version: The local version is identical except that it comes in a locally made clutch purse that is sewn by the seamstresses in Lusaka. This version is designed to be sold to local customers at a price point that they can afford, (very inexpensively), but still covers the cost-of-goods and labor.

This Is Unstoppable And Really Powerful: There are so many “wins” related to this program for us, the seamstresses, and the women and girls in Ngombe, it is incredible. Let me list a few of the exciting aspects:

  1. We are a charity, but at our day jobs, Liberty Jane Clothing, we are product makers and marketers. So this fits within our core competency very well. Truth is, this doesn’t feel very much like charity to us, but of course, it is very charitable. But with our product marketer hats on, our job is to create a superior product – for a very low-cost – at a very large scale – and then work to introduce it into the community for broad adoption. This is in our wheel-house – we can do this work professionally and it feels like a reasonably good part of our core mission.
  2. This product gives the seamstresses in our program good solid work. We are paying them one U.S. dollar for each completed product. Almost all of them live on less than $200 USD per month, so this program can increase their household income by 33% per month, or more. That is a serious benefit to them personally.
  3. The product has real health and educational benefits for the poorest girls and women in the world.
  4. We can do this at-scale. This year we served 250 girls and their moms (or guardians) in Ngombe Compound (Lusaka Zambia). Call it our “proof of concept” year. Next year that number will most likely double and reach a much bigger target market. We have no doubt we will make this work at a large scale. We are well on our way! We have the capacity to provide the purses and the re-usable pad products for years to come. We are building the relationships to expand this program to cover all of Zambia.
  5. The Sew Powerful Purse program, (Americans and other western seamstresses making purses for the girls), is a very nice part of the program. The western seamstresses get to learn about the program, use their extra fabric, as well as skill, to make very nice gifts for girls. The girls in the health class really appreciated the purses being made by someone who “cared” and took the time to include very encouraging note cards. Delivering them to Zambia via World Vision was (almost) cost-free. We believe this could be our signature donor engagement strategy for years-to-come.

I realize there are probably two or three people that will read this entire post, but I felt like it was important for us to document our work and explain the program completely. Feel free to contact us via the contact form if you have questions, or leave them in the comment field below.


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