At a Ugandan factory, workers prove that 'periods don't pause for pandemics'

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Following a Ugandan government directive, the team at AFRIpads faced a tough decision: shut down and sell off stocks, or transform the factory into a co-living space to remain in operation. Photo by: Ed Ram Photography

MISSOULA, Mont. — Joyce Shida’s schedule is back to normal; she travels to and from her job each day, taking precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19. But from April through July, the 28-year-old quality auditor lived inside the factory where she works in southwestern Uganda.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Ugandan government in April declared that businesses could only continue operating if workers remained on the premises. The team at AFRIpads, a domestic social enterprise that produces reusable menstrual products, faced a tough decision: Shut down and sell off stocks, or transform the factory into a co-living space to remain in operation.

“We shut down for a period of two weeks while we tried to figure out whether we could, logistically and practically, meet the requirements and then, additionally, whether we could ask that of our employees and whether they were willing to do that,” said Sophia Grinvalds, who co-founded AFRIpads with her husband in 2010.

An AFRIpads employee at work in Masaka, Uganda. Photo by: Ed Ram Photography

The largest employer in Kitengesa, a rural village outside the city of Masaka, AFRIpads employs 127 workers, approximately 85% of whom are women. The social enterprise provides holiday pay, health insurance, and pension plans and has helped employees open savings accounts. As a result, many of the women employed have become the breadwinners of their households, Grinvalds said.

To keep AFRIpads open for employees and the diverse populations that the products serve, 60 workers offered to live inside the factory after the government decree. Staff members quickly helped transform the ground floor of the building into a dormitory and altered the 32,000-square-foot factory floor layout to provide workers with a safe 6-foot distance between one another.

The factory’s continued operation has been crucial for the staff members who work there but has also provided an essential health care product during a global crisis, Grinvalds said. On any single day during this health emergency, 800 million women and girls are menstruating while grappling with the unique challenges posed by a pandemic.

“This is definitely one of the unexpected outcomes of this pandemic: the newfound appreciation for essential workers.”

— Sophia Grinvalds, co-founder, AFRIpads

“As a sector, we've adopted the expression that ‘periods don't pause for pandemics.’ It's catchy and cute, but it's also true. We were really pushing, as a sector, all of the players to continue to do whatever they could to continue their work because, especially being locked at home, women and girls not having supplies was a real, real concern,” Grinvalds said.

The United Nations Population Fund, International Organization for Migration, United Nations Refugee Agency, and Save the Children are among the groups that purchase reusable menstrual pad kits from AFRIpads. Its consumer products can be bought at various retail shops throughout Uganda, where a pack of two pads costs approximately $1.75. To date, the social enterprise has sold and distributed more than 3.5 million kits globally, delivering products to 36 countries and becoming the biggest dedicated manufacturer of reusable pads on the African continent.

The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted global supply chains and slowed delivery, while lockdown measures have made sourcing goods more challenging for individuals. This is part of what prompted Shida to agree to live in the factory for a period of time, she told Devex.

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Not only did staying inside the workplace help keep her safe, but “it meant I could keep the factory running. The reason why we want the factory to be open is to provide women and girls with menstrual hygiene services. If the factory is closed, we would lose our jobs, and we would not be able to provide these products to women and girls in need,” said Shida, who performs final inspections of the products.

AFRIpads factory employees in Masaka, Uganda. Photo by: Ed Ram Photography

To pass the time, the women played netball or volleyball at night, and Shida became closer to her colleagues, who are employed as cutters, “snappers,” tailors, quality checkers, and supervisors, among other roles. In June, the Ugandan government lifted the requirement that workers must sleep on site, but AFRIpads’ factory employees collectively requested to continue doing so through July to keep themselves, their families, and their fellow workers safe.

“In the midst of the uncertainties COVID has brought on, it’s been pretty empowering to see our team band together to keep our factory going, which has enabled AFRIpads to do its part in ensuring the availability of quality reusable pads,” Grinvalds said. “This is definitely one of the unexpected outcomes of this pandemic: the newfound appreciation for essential workers. And in my view, this absolutely includes the women and men working in factories to continue manufacturing and distributing critical menstrual product supplies.”

As lockdown measures ease and development programs resume, the AFRIpads co-founder would like to see NGOs and development agencies double down on local procurement.

“This is a huge opportunity, I think, to purchase locally and put the power of that spending here in local economies to help keep businesses alive that don't have the other support structures to fall back on,” Grinvalds said.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.