Kenya’s Ban on Plastic Bags Spurs Development of Eco-Friendly Sanitary Towels
Dr Jackline Kisota (centre) and colleagues involved in making eco-friendly sanitary towels.

After Kenya banned plastic bags back in 2018, an academic’s quest for alternative packaging has led to the development of eco-friendly sanitary towels.

Dr Jackline Kisota wants her product to empower young girls while also conserving the environment she told the launch last October, which was graced by potential investors and UN representatives.

According to the Kenyatta University academic, her product is expected to favourably compete with products already on the market in terms of cost, health impact and environmental concerns.

In 2018, the Kenyan government banned single-use plastic bags to align with climate change mitigation protocols, and this caused difficulties for shops and market vendors who did not know how to package their goods for sale.

Kisato’s venture started out as a project to find a commercial use for banana stems, which were considered useless by farmers and would usually be left to rot away on farms. 

‘’I started looking at this project from an entrepreneurship point of view, on how I could commercialise banana stem fibres. The government had just banned single use plastic bags and market vendors needed alternatives to serve their customers,’’ Kisato said.

Period poverty

But Kisato had already noted the struggles that some university students had to access sanitary towels, but it was not until she started her banana stem fibre project did she realise that she could tackle the girls’ plight. 

‘’While walking along the hallways one day, a student on campus stopped me and asked if I could help her with a packet of sanitary pads. This incident shocked me as, for a long time, I had assumed ‘period poverty’ was only experienced amongst high school girls,’’ Kisato said.

‘’My research also found that poorly disposed sanitary towels also formed part of the pollution problem since they were composed of plastic,’’ she explained.

Kisato applied to the Kenyan National Research Fund (NRF) in 2018 for help to develop eco-friendly plastic bags and sanitary towels, and in 2020 the NRF granted Kenyatta University $61,625  for the project with Kisota as principal investigator.

Her research team is made up of scholars from different departments and institutions, including PHD and Masters students.


‘’I lead a team of engineers from the Kenya Industrial Research and Development Institute (KIRDI), whose task is to reverse engineer machines that can extract fibre from banana stems and use them to create eco-friendly packaging material and sanitary towels,’’ she said. 

“I also have researchers from Moi University whose work was to turn the extracted fibre into soft materials for use.”

The project also interviewed 400 high school girls from low-income areas of Gatundu, Kibera and Kawangware where they found out that more than half the girls in these areas could hardly afford sanitary pads.

Kisato’s research also found that, due to affordability and limited access, African girls used each  sanitary towel for longer than girls from developed countries, and were thus at greater risk of getting bacterial infection.

‘’The recommended period for one to have on a sanitary pad is about three hours, which means that it should be changed at least three times a day to avoid any risk of infections. This is, however, not the case for many girls in Africa due to poverty,’’ Kisato explained.

‘’We decided that adding anti-microbial properties to our product would make it as good or even better than what was in the market,’’ said Kisato.

Menstrual myths

The research team also found out that there was a lot of myth surrounding menstrual flow amongst young girls, a fact that led to a lot of stigmatizations which made it difficult for them to properly understand how to use sanitary towels.

Some of the notable ideas that the young girls told each other concerning menstrual flow including that it is a curse from God, girls who had periods were considered dirty and impure and their faces would become pale from losing blood.

‘’These are beliefs that need to be done away with by encouraging parents and the government to openly speak about monthly periods with young girls,’’ Kisato said.

These substances have been extracted from banana stems to make eco-friendly sanitary towels

‘’The sanitary towels in the market have a component in them called hydrogel which enables them to retain fluids for longer and are also lined with plastic sheets to prevent any leakage. Our intention is to replicate the same but use bioplastic materials which can degrade as opposed to the normal plastic that is being used’’.

To ensure this, they sought the expertise of Edwin Madivoli, a chemistry lecturer at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).

‘’My role is to ensure our sanitary pads are of the same quality as what is in the market while maintaining an eco-friendly nature, which is the main agenda of this whole project,’’ Madivoli said.

‘’I am tasked with the development of bioplastic hydrogel and finding a way to incorporate anti-microbial properties into our products to protect the users from possible infections,’’ he added.

‘’As they are left to dry up on the farms, banana stems are known to produce large amounts of methane which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to the climate change problems that we are trying to tackle, added Madivoli. ‘’Having an alternative use for the stems therefore limits the greenhouse effect in the atmosphere.’’

Madivoli said that most banana farmers usually do not know what to do with the stems once they have done their harvest and this project gives them a way to earn some extra income as they expect to buy the stems from them at 25 cents per stem.

‘’This project will not only be environmentally friendly but will also create jobs for the people who go to cut the stems from the farms while also finding use for the biomass that the farmers thought was useless,’’ he concluded.

The Research Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) has contributed $56,250 to enable Madivoli’s research, while the Kenya National Innovation Agency (KENIA) has made a $5000 contribution.

Eco-friendly packaging

Stephany Musombi, one of Kisato’s students who specialises in textiles, has been tasked with coming up with quality packaging materials.

‘’Apart from the banana fibre, I am also experimenting with other biomass such as pineapple and seaweed,’’ Musombi said. If I can find a way to make this work, the project will open up a market for seaweed and pineapple biomass.

Once it is up and running, they intend to source banana stems from counties such as Kisii, Muranga, Embu, Meru and parts of western Kenya.

Kisato expects her product to hit the market this October, where she plans to make it more affordable for all. Her intention is to team up with startups or established companies that deal with toiletries.

‘’The cheapest sanitary packet in the market costs Ksh 140 ($1). We expect ours to go as low as Ksh100 (70 cents),” Kisato concluded. 

Kisato’s products are currently awaiting the approval by the Kenya Bureau of Standards (KEBS) before they can finally start mass production.

Kenyatta University’s Vice Chancellor, Paul Wainaina, lauded the project stating that it will enable the country to meet its industrial needs while conserving the environment.

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