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RubyCup: making intimate healthcare products available to woman in East Africa

Good ventures solve real problems. One would expect that the reusable silicon menstrual cup is invented as a product for women in the developing world. The opposite is actually true; it started in the Western world as a sustainable alternative for environmentally conscious women. Three Danish girls decided it was time to bring down the price and target women in developing countries with the Ruby Cup. VC4Africa spoke to one of them in Nairobi: Veronica D’Souza (on the right in the picture below).

Please describe the RubyCup, why is it ideal for a country like Kenya?

“Ruby Cup is a healthy, high quality and long-lasting menstrual hygiene product made of 100% medical grade silicone that can be re-used up to 10 years. Ruby Cup is for every girl and woman that wants to ‘spoil’ her body with a superior menstrual hygiene solution. Women and girls living in developing countries face problems when they menstruate, because often they cannot afford sanitary pads. As a result, girls are absent from school and women from work. This amounts up to 20% of career opportunities and quality of life missed. UNICEF and UNDP identify menstruation as an overlooked barrier to reaching the Millennium Development Goals: education, gender equality and economic development.”

Why did you choose the name RubyCup?

“Menstruation is a taboo in many countries and with the name ‘Ruby’, we wish to destimatize menstruation and brand our product as something to treasure, something valuable.”

How did the three of you meet and how did the idea of RubyCup emerge?

“We met at Copenhagen Business School six years ago. We always shared a common vision of wanting to challenge the existing ways of doing business and development. After years of doing different projects together, we were confident that our complimentary skills were a strong foundation for starting our own venture. When we learned about the problem that menstruation causes, and that it has been overlooked for years, the idea seemed obvious and we went to work!

Menstrual cups have been widely sold in the Western world and we were all three users of different brands. Since the product is re-usable for 10 years, uses very little water for cleaning, and is extremely convenient, we thought: why should a menstrual cup be expensive? And why is this solution, that we as women prefer, not available in developing countries? This is why we started our own production to lower the selling price and moved to Kenya to start up our social business.”

Can you briefly describe what has happened since you started?

“We started a bit more than a year ago with researching the problem, different solutions and with designing our product. We are business students and not engineers, so we called the Danish company Coloplast, a world leader in intimate healthcare products and asked them whether they would help us with their know how and expertise. They bid us welcome, and today we have a very strong partnership were Coloplast is our technical advisor on the whole production and quality control side. Without them, we would not have gotten this far this early.

In addition, we were awarded Develop Prize in the Danish Foreign Ministry 2011, and the first seed capital came from SIDA, the Swedish development organization’s Innovations Against Poverty Grant. This allowed us to move to Kenya and getting started.” What are you working on now? We are building partnership with many international organizations and NGOs. We have developed our product and tested it amongst our customers and in March. Also, we won the Grand Prize of the Global Social Entrepreneurship competition from the Forster School of Business in Seattle.

Today, we are awaiting our first commercial shipment of 10.000 products within the next weeks, and are ready to start selling our products through a direct sales distribution channel. People contact us from many different places in the world, where menstruations is also a problem, and we are currently working on developing different kinds of partnerships in several countries, as Ruby Cup can be a solution for women all over the world.”

The RubyCup lasts for about 10 years. How is it to operate on a ‘one time sale market?’

“This is a classical question that we have gotten since the beginning. The answer is, that in today’s economic system, there is actually not much ‘economic’ sense in creating sustainable products, as it is almost a ‘one time sale’. Some have even suggested that we should just communicate that our product only lasts for 1 year in order to increase sales. But the whole point is, that by purchasing one Ruby Cup, we can actually solve the problem entirely long-term, and that we need to find ways to overcome the old paradigm of creating non-lasting solutions. However, our market is extremely big.

So the day we manage to reach all women and girls globally that are in need of sustainable menstrual protection, the mission is competed and we will feel extremely proud and happy about moving on to solving another societal issue. But it will take a while before we have saturated our market!”

As starting entrepreneurs you are constantly learning, what have been the biggest lessons so far, and what advise do you have for others?

“In the beginning, we were told to be careful with sharing information, as our idea could be copied. After a short while, we decided that we need all the ideas and insights we can get, and with that attitude, we have now managed to build an extensive team of advisors and people who are willing to help us. Our network us our greatest asset, and this is how we believe we can continue to develop and innovate. So for other entrepreneurs, I would say that picking up the phone and asking for advice constantly, is the smartest thing you can do. Almost anyone is willing to help a person that is open-minded and passionate, so make sure that you actively use all the resources that are around you!”

At the moment you are looking for additional funding. What are you looking for and what how are you planning to use the money?

“We are grateful and happy that we have been awarded SIDAs Innovations Against Poverty Large grant of $160.000. It is a matching grant, so we are currently looking for philanthropic funds who will help us match the $160.000. In addition, we are looking for investments over the next years, that will help us scale and reach break-even.”