Alumnus targets health, education for girls in Nairobi

Jade Lai didn’t see it coming.

When the 2012 Ivey Business School grad, looking to do some charitable work, recently visited Kenya, she partnered with local not-for-profits. Soon afterward, she found herself teaching in a handful of schools in Nairobi’s slums, including Nibera, the largest slum in Africa.

There, Lai quickly noticed something: A lot of girls were dropping out of school.

“That was when the principal said a lot of girls didn’t have access to sanitary napkins, and because of that, most girls miss on average 50 days of school, each year. I never saw the connection of how that could impact their education. My mind was boggled,” Lai said.

“The girls, who did insist on going to school, end up using very unhygienic alternatives; they use tissues, rags. A lot of them cut up their mattresses because it absorbs better. Some girls said they went through the garbage to find used sanitary napkins and they’d wash that to use,” she explained.

Lai and other volunteers immediately reacted, calling home, looking to raise money. They gathered $1,400, went to every supermarket and cleared sanitary napkin stocks to distribute to local girls.

And that’s how the Wasichana Fund was born.

Lai co-founded the organization, named for the Swahili word for ‘girl,’ in partnership with a local not-for-profit in Kenya, to distribute sanitary napkins. She found a local manufacturer to supply them and now works with a handful of other Ivey and Western graduates to raise funds and awareness to maintain the charity.

Lai also has a full-time job at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Toronto.

“What we do now is we pretty much distribute sanitary napkins and conduct health classes to introduce health curriculum to a lot of girls,” Lai said of the foundation.

“Many girls mentioned they couldn’t ask their parents why their body was changing, what HIV was, if it’s OK to have a boyfriend. A lot of the health-related topics were never taught. We focus on those two services,” she continued.

Held every two weeks, the health classes are taught by a local woman whom the foundation now employs, paying her $100 a month.

“The local not-for-profit we partner with provides storage space and we buy three-to-four months worth at a time. It’s a simple operating model,” Lai explained, adding the plan is to grow the program to include 25 local schools by 2015.

As of last month, the foundation has distributed nearly 60,000 sanitary napkins to local girls.

At home, her employer has supported her efforts, awarding her $10,000 toward the Wasichana initiative, Lai added.

“To put that in perspective: In Kenya, when we fundraised $1,400, that lasted seven months and supported about 250 girls. So, it doesn’t take that much money to support a girl,” she said.

“It costs 4 cents per pad. On average, we distribute 15 pads per girl. With $10,000 alone, if I scale up to 25 schools by the end of the year, I would still have money left. It just shows it doesn’t take a lot of money to support this initiative.”

Lai and her Wasichana colleagues are now promoting the charity by building up its marketing and looking for corporate sponsorships. They plan to deliver presentations in high schools as a way of reaching out for support at home.

The foundation plans, as it expands, to measure impact by looking at attendance rates and academic records.

“This is something I’m very passionate about. Once you start working in the corporate world, you can get frustrated,” she said. “But this is something I’m building up.”