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November 21, 2018

Students turn menstrual cycle into big business opportunity

Vibrant, beautiful, passionate and fun are some of the words that one can use to describe the Danish trio that co-founded Ruby Cup. Ruby cup is a menstrual cup long used in Europe and America but this is the first commercially available one in Kenya. The Ruby Cup girls, as they are affectionately called by friends, are Veronica D’Souza (28), Julie Weirgaard Kjaer (31) and Maxie Matthiessen (28).

"We met at university. We were all pursuing a Masters degree at the Copenhagen Business School and in March last year we went away together for a weekend to do some research.

On that trip we started talking about menstruation and asking ourselves why more women on the planet do not use menstrual cups. Initially we were thinking that it might be our thesis but it ended being our business" says Julie. Maxie points out that the three always wanted to start a business together and laughs, "we haven’t finished the thesis yet, but we got a business out of our research."

Veronica explains "menstrual cups are great but really expensive in Europe so we set about finding a more sustainable and affordable option." So, why Kenya? Why not start in Denmark? Veronica says, "We found this small study done by the Africa Population and Health Research Centre that had tested menstrual cup use in Kenya and showed a 97 per cent acceptance rate which is really high and we decided to make this our pilot country and we moved here in September 2011."

So six months between the birth of the idea and making the actual move? Maxie says "yes!" and Veronica chimes in, laughing "we move fast". Julie, the quietest of the three, points out that "We saw the possibilities of menstrual cups very quickly.

We have been using them for years and the idea that a woman can use three or four menstrual cups in her lifetime, as opposed to 11,000 sanitary pads is huge. It has great implications for the environment, they are comfortable, and we can make money while doing something we believe in. SIDA also made us move fast.”

SIDA is a Swedish Government fund that is available to entrepreneurs around the world who are creating innovations against poverty. Maxie excitedly explains ‘they funded us from our idea on paper. Lots of funds do not do that. They will only engage with businesses that have existed for a few years.’ Julie says, "we have won a grant from them three times now and it comes with enormous support which we really appreciate."

Veronica expounds "they do not give you a lump sum of money and hope for the best. They promise a certain total and spread it out so that you receive installments when you hit your milestones. This way the growth of your business and the use of their money are both monitored"

Has SIDA provided all their capital? "Oh no," says Veronica, "we begged friends, family and fools for seed money (she laughs) and we eat a lot of ugali and sukuma wiki. Seriously though, we also took a loan from a bank; entered several competitions and won cash prizes which have kept us going."

So what have they been doing since they moved here a year ago? "Well we had to create our menstrual cup from scratch" says Julie, "which meant getting technical advice and feedback from the generous women who agreed to test it out.

We have been through four rounds of testing to ensure that the cup does not leak, that the stem is long enough, that the packaging is right, and to figure out how to speak to our market. We have tested it in Samburu, Meru and Nairobi with women and girls between 14 and 40, and been very pleased with the results. Girls and women are proud to own a Ruby Cup.”

Maxie also points out that they had to figure out how to start a business in Kenya "We of course had to register the company, get a KEBS (Kenyan Bureau of Standards) stamp on our product and get work permits. We heard horror stories that this would all be very difficult but that has not been the case.

The KEBS guy gave us a list of parameters to meet which we did, Immigration was relatively straight forward and no-one has asked for bribes." Veronica adds "in Denmark, a certain level of bureaucrat is really hard to meet, but we have found Kenyans very supportive and helpful and willing to meet us and talk."

So now what? Where can I get a Ruby cup? Veronica explains that Ruby Cup will not just be sold in Kenya "we will sell it in the European market for 28 Euros, while here we are aiming for a retail price of about Kshs 2000.

The European market already knows about menstrual cups so we want to push that because it will fund our marketing and educational efforts here. We have sold Ruby Cups to different NGOs, the Red Cross in Uganda and recently The Research Pollution Centre in South Africa, which is funded by Bill and Melinda Gates.’

She says "If you want a Ruby Cup for yourself please visit our facebook page or our website . We are currently sorting out our distribution here in Kenya and would love local partners. We want to see a Ruby cup in every woman’s hand."

Asked what their favourite aspect of their work is, each girl has her own answer. For Veronica it is when girls are excited about Ruby Cup. ‘Kindi is a 16 year old living in Kibera and we gave her cup last year and she recently told me it has changed her life.

I also love that we got this idea and we didn’t waste time, we got off our butts and got to work. We didn’t wait for perfect conditions because if you do then nothing gets done. We committed fully. I am also really enjoying Nairobi. This is a future-focused city and people are very cool.’

‘I have learnt so much in the last year,’ says Maxie, ‘how to set up a business in Kenya, how to import stuff, raising capital, research in slum and rural and urban areas. Also instead of getting a job and being part of a machine, we have created our own machine where we are the pilots, the engineers and the captains. We are re-branding menstruation, working really hard and having a lot of fun doing it.’

For Julie, the journey is her favourite part ‘I like that we were student buddies studying and partying, then we got this idea and really went for it. Then moved to a foreign country and are seeing this revolutionary idea through to the end. I love our product and really believe that it will change the lives of so many women.’

Have there been any huge mistakes? The girls all pause to think of one and finally Maxie breaks the silence admitting that they listened to entirely too much advice when they first got here.

Julie explains ‘we asked other Danish business people how to do certain things and believed certain promises that were made but people were scared of the authorities and stories of corruption, while others were really slow to deliver. When we finally stopped relying on others, then things started moving and we have received a lot of goodwill.’

Of course it cannot all be a picnic with 3 young women in an equal partnership. Maxie laughs and says the first thing they realized was that they could not continue living together, ‘When we first arrived, we moved in together and it was fun in some ways but it wasn’t working in others.’ Veronica adds, ‘The worst part was never leaving work alone. There was no separation of home and office plus we were socializing together. We would be having dinner and talking about work, it was too much.’

So what works best about the partnership, Julie says ‘We trust each other and respect each other’s expertise. We all have different strengths and we are very different people. Together we are one great entrepreneur. We have also split our responsibilities more clearly and that will continue to happen. I am finance, supply chain and legal issues plus operations. Veronica is strategy, communications and business development; then Maxie is marketing, sales, field operations and PR.’

Veronica adds ‘We keep focused on our values which are openness and cooperation. We believe that diversity is fruitful and openness is the source of innovation so we try and respond to all communication and form partnerships where we can. You don’t know where a good idea will come from so even amongst ourselves, we listen to each other.’

The girls are not all about work, ‘It is important that we have our own lives, friends and hobbies,’ says Julie who practices yoga and dances regularly. Veronica sings and writes music while Maxie also practices yoga, enjoys running and goes horse riding once a week.

Women across the planet have been enjoying menstrual cups for years and it is great that these young women have finally introduced them to Kenyan women in an affordable and sustainable way. If you would like to be a distributor, check out their website for more information.

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