• Transitioning from having a good life to living in the slums was one of Wanjiku's stressful moments while in high school
• She pursued her childhood dream of being a cabin crew, tried her hand at farming before founding Binti Pads
Sometimes one doesn't need an organised army in a battle. You can become the greatest warrior by fighting with what you have to win your battles. Being brave, focused and resilient will put you in a better position.
“If you can't go back to your mother's womb, you'd better learn to be a good fighter.” These words by Anchee Min in her book 'Red Azalea' are what can describe Joyce Wanjiku's life after she lost her mother on October 11, 2010. It was one week after she had celebrated her 18th birthday.
Joyce Wanjiku, a flight attendant, CEO and co-founder of Binti Pads, has grown as a person and in her career over the years since losing all her family members one by one at an early age.
Binti Pads, which she co-founded with Beth Wambui, is a company that provides quality and affordable sanitary pads to young girls and women and those who can't afford them through partnerships with NGOs and charity organisations.
“The reason for starting Binti was when a video surfaced online of a young girl from Kitui being molested by the guardian in exchange for sanitary pads. That's what pushed me,” Wanjiku says.
Wanjiku was born and raised in Nairobi in the early years of her childhood. “It was amazing. We lived a good life. The person I knew as my father was a policeman. Due to the nature of his work, we moved to different towns,” Wanjiku says.
This prompted her parents to enrol her in a boarding school in Murang'a when she was in class 5. “I can say it was more of an approved than a normal primary school. I have traumas from my time there, but in some ways, I learned things that shaped my life,” she says.
Growing up, other children made fun of her skin tone being different from her parents' and younger brother. It made her curious and she questioned her parents. Her mother only promised to explain after she was done with Class 8.
She learned that the person she knew as her dad was not her biological father but was the one who took care of her since she was born. From her mother's revelation, her father was an Israeli citizen she met while in Mombasa. That's where Wanjiku got her skin tone and hair texture.
In 2006, she joined Kahuhia Girls High School. This is after her parents had personal issues and separated. Her mother went back to Nairobi, while she and her younger brother, Arnold, opted to live with their father in Eldama Ravine.
LOSING DAD AND SIBLING.
It was during the second term while in Form 1 that her life turned upside down. Wanjiku lost her father. At that time, he was an OCPD. He was murdered and his body left by the roadside in Nakuru.
“When my mother came to school, I knew something was wrong. I found her in the staff room crying. The only thing she said was, 'Amekufa'. I thought it was my younger brother because he had been in hospital.”
Her father met his death while travelling to Nairobi to settle a medical bill at Kenyatta Hospital, where Wanjiku's brother was admitted.
At the end of that term, Wanjiku lost her younger brother days after arriving home. While fighting tears, she says, “I didn't know his health had deteriorated that much. He was in ICU, he looked frail, he couldn't talk. Those are the only images I have of him.”
“I hope you rest well.” Those are the last words Wanjiku said to her brother as she left the hospital. “I had a feeling he won't be with us for long.”
Wanjiku's mother had been a stay-at-home mum as their father was the only provider. Now with both gone, they had to open a new chapter of their lives.
Living in Ruai, life was difficult. Wanjiku says it was the most stressful life transition she had to experience.
Her mother was confused. She didn't have a job and was struggling to keep her in school. They relocated to live at a nearby children's home, where her mother was a volunteer. In turn, they were offered food and a room to stay.
In 2007, while she was in Form 2, her mother became an alcoholic. The loss was taking a toll on her. The drinking became worse and they were ejected from the children's home.
They sought shelter at her Mum's sister, who lived in Mukuru Kwa Reuben.
Living in slums, Wanjiku says, gave her a different perspective on life. “This is where your friends are thieves, cons. A place where everyone is trying to survive. It's where you'd have a budget of less than Sh100 to feed a household of five. Some days, you go hungry.”
Wanjiku attributes her mother's strictness on education and still being in a boarding school as the factors that kept her from picking up bad habits.
Along the way, the government came in to settle her school fees, and later on, they got their late Dad's pension, which helped them move from their aunt's house.
Her mother bought a small plot in Mukuru with the money. She built some iron sheet houses, lived in one and rented out the rest. The income from the rent is what sustained them till she did her KCSE at Kahuhia Girls.
Growing up, Wanjiku always wanted to work as an airline cabin crew. On two different occasions at the airport while in primary school, seeing how the ladies worked and looked meticulous was enough motivation for her to pursue that later in life.
She joined Nairobi Aviation in 2010.
In September, the same year, her mother called. During the conversation, she said, “I have seen you've grown up and you need to be more mature because I don't see myself being here for long.” Wanjiku couldn't understand what her mother meant.
“She advised me on many things, on who to trust, what I should do and shouldn't. Looking back, I think she was preparing me for that life where I'd be alone,” Wanjiku says.
A month later, Wanjiku's Mum asked her what she would like her to do for her during the period she was at home. Wanjiku's choice was to have a birthday party as she had not celebrated one before.
Her mother was sick but still managed to pick herself up and head to town. They bought a cake, snacks and invited friends. Everyone was happy.
The following weekend, she got a phone call saying her mother was really sick. Upon arriving home, her mother assured her they would visit the hospital the next day, on Monday.
“That morning, she looked weak. She started saying things randomly that we couldn't understand. She leaned back and her eyes rolled up. I had to scream and more neighbours came by. We managed to get her to Coptic in Industrial Area, but it was already too late,” Wanjiku says.
Her mother was the only family she was left with and the only person she would feel safe and confide in as they struggled through life, and now she was gone.
Despite the blow, Wanjiku says she was already prepared many months back.
Armed with the little information she had about her biological father, Wanjiku decided to go find him at the Coast. As bad luck would have it, she was informed that the man had died in 2002 but had a son back in Israel.
With the money she was getting from the rental houses, and the little savings her mother had left behind, Wanjiku got a better house in Umoja Estate and finished paying her college fees.
She also juggled doing product promotions in supermarkets and later did sales for Multi-Choice, while applying for opportunities in airline companies.
Her breakthrough came in 2012, when 748 Airline called her for an interview after seeing she had applied several times. “This was it for me. I think I had sent my CV about 10 times. In two weeks, I got the job,” Wanjiku says.
This opened the horizons for her.
“Being a cabin crew has taught me a lot as it entails doing humanitarian work in Somalia, Congo and remote places like Wajir,” she says.
“I have witnessed people die, the effects of war, seeing a bomb going off while on the runway. This is different to what people associate with those who work with airlines that go to exotic beautiful places.”
After her experience in Somalia and encouragement from her colleagues, Wanjiku decided to invest in farming. In 2018, she leased 4 acres in Nyeri and cultivated garlic onions and watermelons.
“It was a total disaster. We made huge losses. We had invested Sh1.5 million and only made sales of Sh15,000,” Wanjiku says.
“The mistake we made was not learning about the weather pattern of the area, so our produce was destroyed by rain.”
She decided to get into a different crop. Everyone around was farming French beans for export. “Why not do the same?” Wanjiku said. Another mistake she learned during this period, one had to have an existing contract with an export company before you start planting.
In her case, the crop was already germinating. In two months, it was harvest-ready but with no buyer.
No one was ready to take the risk of buying a product if they had not verified the seeds used or known if they sprayed any chemicals. After realising the potential of the crop, Wanjiku decided to let the current crop dry and harvest the seeds to use in the next plantation.
Kenya Fresh offered to buy their next harvest after signing a contract with them. “The first cheque we received was for Sh700,000. A year later, our investment started to break even,” Wanjiku says.
Come 2020 and Covid knocks. Every country is implementing lockdown measures. French beans didn't have a good local market. So Wanjiku decided to venture into cabbage farming.
Come October, the harvest was ready but buyers were offering Sh5 a piece, which she felt was too low, considering cabbages in the market were retailing at between Sh30 and Sh40.
After posting her challenges on social media, someone offered a truck for transportation purposes.
Wanjiku says she didn't make enough money to get back into farming.
A NEW VENTURE
After a period of soul-searching and trying to come up with a new business idea, which would be more of a social enterprise, the video she watched online gave birth to Binti Pads.
“The difficult part was getting funds, but we needed to start. The market was flooded with cheap pads, which are of low quality. The good ones are expensive for those with low incomes to afford. Binti was the balance the market needed,” Wanjiku says.
“Beth and I started the company in May 2021 by using savings from our employment. To have pads of good quality, we had to get the right manufacturer. On March 26, 2022, we received our first shipment,” Wanjiku said.
With no marketing strategy in mind, they started by making door-to-door sales, online and they have grown from having four employees to 12.
Wanjiku says Binti has grown through favour, hard work and a lot of support from friends.
“Our aim is to ensure women have the best healthy product during their menstrual cycle. We also do awareness talks to young girls in schools on how they can take care of themselves.”
Binti also looks at ending period poverty, whereby every woman can access pads, ending the stigma and shame, while educating men on the same.
One of the challenges they have experienced is getting space in the big markets.
“As a business which is still growing, the payment period (of 3 months) being offered is disadvantageous to us. On the positive side, we are the first company that does home deliveries for free to our clients,” Wanjiku said.
Their slogan, 'Bold, Beautiful and Fun', is to ensure African women feel beautiful, comfortable, special and unique.