Students Reflect on Experiences Working with Duke-UNICEF Innovators

This year’s COVID-19 measures have prevented students from traveling—yet in the Spring 2021 Social Innovation Practicum, taught by Matt Nash and Paul Bloom, they were able to gain international experience nonetheless as they worked with clients operating in Burundi and Kenya.

In order to learn about scaling innovative, sustainable solutions to social and environmental problems worldwide, students partnered with entrepreneurs in the first cohort of the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, conducting in-depth research to provide the enterprises with capacity-building support to scale.

All the innovators in the Accelerator’s first cohort had a focus on menstrual health and hygiene (MHH), seeking to improve the status quo for women and girls facing a lack of information and resources as well as widespread social stigma surrounding menstruation.

Image courtesy of SaCoDé

The Duke-UNICEF Client Enterprises 

SaCoDé, an NGO based in Burundi, provides education to women and girls about menstrual hygiene and produces a menstrual pad that can be worn without underwear called the AGATEKA pad (agateka meaning “dignity” in Kirundi) to reach a more remote, lower-income community of women and girls.

One student team consulting with SaCoDé worked to address how to enter the Tanzanian market—including recommendations for manufacturing, distribution, shipping, partnerships, and potentially including the pad in humanitarian kits—and explored open-source licensing as part of a larger open-source push by UNICEF.

A second team working with SaCoDé developed a pilot business model to allow for expanded impact internationally, with a focus on entering the Ugandan market. They mapped the MHH landscape in Uganda; provided recommendations for business models, product design, branding, online merchandising, production models, and the potential for a buy-one-give-one program; and offered next steps for developing a hybrid nonprofit/for-profit business model, finding grants and venture capital, seeking legal advice, and integrating the other student team’s findings regarding licensing.

Image courtesy of Oky and LVCT Health

Oky, an open-source app that functions as a period tracker and encyclopedia, decreases the stigma surrounding menstruation while increasing knowledge about MHH and access to supportive services. UNICEF, after developing Oky and piloting it in Mongolia and Indonesia, partnered with LVCT Health, a Kenyan NGO, to adapt the app to Kenya’s local context and launch the app there.

The student team that worked with Oky provided recommendations about identifying promising business models to scale the app sustainably, forging partnerships to increase Oky’s financial resources and expand its userbase, and using digital marketing and social media strategies.

With tangible recommendations for scale, based on extensive research and in-depth interviews with other social enterprises and experts across Africa, the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator team will support SaCoDe and Oky/LVCT in implementing various tactics presented to them by their student teams.

Student Reflections

Darcy Blaylock  ’22 (SaCoDé)

The interviews we conducted gave us incredibly inspiring insight into the work being done in Uganda and the MHH landscape in general, and I greatly enjoyed working with Francoise and the SaCoDé team. My key takeaways are that understanding your client’s goals and values is critical, we must always remember that there are things we don’t know and will never understand even after conducting in-depth research, and having steady, constant communication with a client is crucial for yielding a strong end product.

Leigh Marshall ’22 (SaCoDé)

It has been amazing to have this experience as part of a class! I really enjoyed interviewing different menstrual health and licensing experts about their work and hearing their thoughts on how to help SaCoDé. Our main takeaway was that licensing a relatively simple consumer product (like the AGATEKA pad) is more difficult than one would expect. I was very surprised to learn that menstrual pads in Tanzania are considered a medical device. This classification makes it much harder to enter Tanzania than other countries.

Andrew Lee ’22 (LVCT)

There’s nothing like real-world experience to learn how to do real-world things. I’m thankful for this practicum and the opportunity to work with LVCT Health, and I learned firsthand what social impact consulting actually means and looks like. I was surprised to realize how ignorant I was to issues about menstrual health and hygiene and how there are such vast cultural differences in stigmas, particularly in developing countries. It was an eye-opening project!

Anna Chulack ’21 (SaCoDé)

Learning that all the major product-based MHH social enterprises working in Uganda (and East Africa generally) employ hybrid business models was surprising to me. That the hybrid model was vouched for by all of our interviewees working in this space is a testament to how the hybrid business model works well in enabling product-based organizations working in MHH to achieve financial sustainability as they scale.

Françoise and her team were a delight to work with. Their passion to achieve SaCoDé’s mission created a positive and motivating working environment, and their open-mindedness to our team’s proposed directions, scope of work, and recommendations made this project very rewarding. The AGATEKA pad has the potential to impact hundreds of thousands of girls in East Africa and beyond. I am excited to follow SaCoDé’s continued success as they look to scale their operations!

Arya Patel ’22 (SaCoDé)

I learned a lot about the way international development organizations and consultants work together to innovate and create connections between grassroots implementers and high-level organizations to work towards social change. Diving deep into SaCoDe’s market landscape, business models, and scaling options really opened my eyes to the small and big challenges social innovators face. I also learned about consultant-partner organization relationships and the ways they can be successfully facilitated to create positive outcomes. Having this hands-on working relationship for the semester was one of the most unique and educational experiences I have had at Duke.