Meet our 2022 Finalists - Marie-Claire, of Kuja Ecopads
On the opening day of the HMN Accelerator retreat, the energy permeating Dubai’s light-flooded office room had been tangible from the very start: the conjunction of both depth of humility and fierce courage. Each of the women present had a story to tell, disclosed through a dignified bearing, the sunshine of a smile, or the sharpness of gaze. I have been fortunate to have had a candid conversation with them on the last day of the retreat, and here are their stories.
Marie-Claire Kuja is the founder of Kuja Ecopads, a social business specializing in the manufacture and distribution of low-cost, eco-friendly sanitary products made from banana stem agricultural waste. These products are made for women and girls in low-income communities in Cameroon and help create a brighter future for school girls and increased productivity for women.
Can you tell us about that moment when the idea for your SE first emerged?
I remember when I had my first period as a little girl. I did not have any prior knowledge about menstruation, so I didn't have the appropriate material at hand. I improvised with rugs and foam and other little things that caused a lot of rashes. And then, sometimes I would miss school because of it. I ended up getting pregnant at a very early age just because of that lack of knowledge, which changed the course of my life forever.
Fast forwarding: my parents sent me to school and I earned a scholarship to study in America. When I made it there, I realized that things were very different: there were sanitary pads and we could talk about it with my classmates, it was not an issue. I started asking the question, “why is it taboo to talk about menstruation in Cameroon?”
That question just really stuck in my mind and was really bothering me when I went to school and finally started working as a nurse in New York. I traveled to Cameroon for the first time after 10 years for a vacation and I realized that girls were still turning to the same makeshift pads that I had been using. They had neither access to menstrual pads nor to any knowledge. I decided to do something about it. The idea started in 2015 when I would buy pads from America and take them to Cameroon to donate to vulnerable girls, especially because the ones that don't have the knowledge are the ones living in rural communities. Many girls —more than 5 000— benefited from that first project, and it inspired me to do another. In 2016, I created a 1-million-parts campaign with the aim of collecting 1 million parts by 2022 for more girls in Cameroon. Doing research, I discovered that conventional parts are made of 99 % plastic and other chemicals that are detrimental to women's health and the environment. I didn't want to bring that back to Cameroon. So I continued the research. One day, in a New York public library, I found out that 18th-century Japanese women had used banana stem fibers to hold menstrual blood. That was a real discovery for me. I didn't have money to have the machines for manufacturing them made because when it comes to sanitary products, appliances are within the million-dollar price range. I tried to apply for funding but nobody believed in my idea.
As I had been blessed to be a nurse in America, I knew how to work a 12-hour shift. At this point, I committed myself to working 16 hours a day. In two years, I raised the money for my first machine. And that was the birth of Kuja Ecopads!
Why did you choose to apply to HerMeNow specifically?
At this time, I was looking for training, for opportunities to scale up. I stumbled on HerMeNow Accelerator on LinkedIn and decided to give it a try. I applied, I took a chance, and was selected for the sprint phase. Then after the pitch competition at the sprint, I was selected for the Accelerator program, which has been very life-changing because I learned what I wanted to: how to pitch, how to write a good business plan and many other parts of the social entrepreneurship language that I wanted to acquire, I got it from the HerMeNow program.
What keeps you going everyday?
Gratitude is what keeps me going every day, I think. I've had a lot of challenges, switching from nursing to social entrepreneurship, not making any money… I have a lot of war-displaced children who stay at home with me, their parents have died or something, so they live with me and as a result, I have a big family to feed. There are times when we don't even have money for food. But then I just keep a grateful attitude. I just believe that by some miracle, things will be fine.
Can you tell us what brings you the most joy in being a social entrepreneur?
What brings me the most joy is that I'm able to live my dreams. I have been blessed to be an American and it has given me the education, and a lot of things that I have done because I'm an American, it gave me the opportunity to be educated, and it opened my network. I'm using all that knowledge now to empower other women. I don't think had I stayed in Cameroon, I would have had those opportunities. So for me, I feel like I've been blessed. I'm living my passion and I'm helping a lot of women and girls. Women are also more productive at work because they are using our products. Women who work on farms are earning a salary for the first time through Kudja Ecopads. It really makes me feel like I'm a vessel of love for many vulnerable women.
Conversely, what are the biggest challenges you face?
Solitude. I didn't have any support. I had to work by myself to raise the money. I felt alone because I didn't have support, especially financial, but even moral support. It was really challenging, but I had to get to a point where I had to self-motivate and remind myself of the benefits of the impact. I think that was the challenge for me.
What legacy do you wish to leave in your community?
I would like people to look at me as that woman who broke all barriers, who was told she could never amount to anything, but amounted to a lot of things because she has managed to become an inspiration to so many people in her community. Back in Cameroon, and more generally in Africa, when people go to America and come back, they feel like they have gone someplace and start looking down on people. But in my community, I'm the simplest of human beings. I treat my workers with integrity. I make sure that I treat them with kindness and respect. I'm loving them. This is how I want my community to look at me, like that woman who was beaten down, who was broken, but who was able to pick up those broken pieces and make something out of her life. For herself and others.
What does "women’s empowerment" mean to you personally?
An empowered woman is a woman who believes in her dreams, who believes in her strengths. We have a lot of strength in us, but sometimes many women don't believe in themselves. I am an empowered woman. I know that I'm confident in myself. If I was talking to 10,000 people, I'd pick up the mic and say what I want to say. I am empowered, I am educated, and I feel that even if I may come as only one person, I stand for 10,000 or 10 million women who need that energy from me to become something.
When you have the courage to be able to stand and ask questions and talk and share things, it makes you empowered because you get to learn from other people. And here, on the HerMeNow Program, I get more empowered being with the women as we share a lot of things in group sessions. You share your project and get feedback from them. It empowers you because you learn other ways of doing things. You're not just in a cocoon thinking that you know everything on your own. That's how I feel about an empowered woman.