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Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator cohort

Duke and UNICEF—who partnered in May 2019 to form the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator—have announced the Accelerator’s inaugural cohort of six social enterprises.

Building on UNICEF’s 70-year history of innovating for children and Duke’s track record of success in entrepreneurial education, the Innovation Accelerator aims to support social enterprises tackling the most pressing challenges facing children and youth around the world.

On April 3, Duke will host a global conference of social entrepreneurs, academics, philanthropists, business leaders, activists, and students. This summit will spotlight the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator entrepreneurs in conversation with other experts and practitioners on the front lines of social innovation and international development.

“We look forward to hosting this extraordinary group of entrepreneurs on the Duke campus for an intensive residency where we will connect them into expertise, resources, and mentorship across the Duke innovation system,” said Jon Fjeld, director of Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative (I&E). “Duke has a long history of educating and supporting social entrepreneurs, and we are proud to partner with UNICEF to maximize the impact of these important social enterprises.”

The first cohort of six social enterprises will join the Innovation Accelerator to develop and scale innovations addressing menstrual health and hygiene (MHH) in East Africa and beyond.

Why MHH?

In many developing countries, when girls begin to menstruate they can face an array of challenges at school and at home. These issues can range from a lack of knowledge about how to manage their periods, to insufficient access to menstrual hygiene products, to a shortage of private facilities where they can wash, change, and discreetly dispose of used menstrual materials. As a result, menstruation may become a source of stress, shame, confusion, or fear, thereby impacting girls in myriad ways, from self-esteem to educational success.


Photo courtesy of Grace Francoise Nibizi / SaCoDé

By emphasizing local solutions that put girls and women at the center, the Innovation Accelerator cohort will collectively bring much-needed MHH solutions to communities and in turn, help empower the next generation to be healthy, happy, and educated.

The innovators’ solutions—which range from digital apps, to reusable and disposable pads, to community health models—all aim to strengthen menstrual health and hygiene while tackling pervasive cultural taboos and educational barriers surrounding menstruation.

“Given that it’s 2020 and menstruation is experienced daily by some 800 million people globally, it’s about time it mattered,” said Jennifer Rubli of Femme International, one of the selected enterprises.

Meet the Innovators

After a rigorous application process, six social enterprises were selected to receive Accelerator support in order to increase their impact in East Africa.

The inaugural cohort includes five social enterprises from East Africa, including Kenya, Tanzania and Burundi, and one project is from UNICEF’s East Asia and the Pacific Regional Office. More than half of the innovators (71%) are women, all of whom have undergraduate or master’s degrees.

Lily Health is an interactive mobile chat service that provides girls and women in Kenya and across East Africa with private, trusted, and discrete sexual and reproductive health advice. Through messaging on Whatsapp, FaceBook Messenger, and SMS this innovative solution uses artificial intelligence to ensure a personalized experience for every young woman seeking help. Lily Health’s team works to provide a future where all menstruating girls have the information and support they need to navigate menstruation with dignity and confidence.

Kasole Secrets, based in Tanzania, makes the Glory Sanitary Napkin, a disposable pad engineered with ultra-absorbent and naturally antibacterial and hypoallergenic bamboo fiber. These biodegradable pads are distributed to schoolgirls at a discounted and affordable price. Through an interactive menstrual health and hygiene curriculum that engages boys alongside of girls, Kasole is challenging period taboos and demystifying menstruation for a new generation.

Oky is the world’s first period tracking app that provides reliable, evidence-based menstrual health information, created for girls and with girls. This remarkable digital solution delivers girl-centered, culturally appropriate menstruation education and individualized period tracking directly into the hands of girls, in the way they want. Developed to meet the needs of girls’ digital realities, Oky is accessible on low end phones, can be accessed offline, doesn’t necessitate a high level of digital literacy to use, and is discrete and private. Originally created by UNICEF in East Asia and the Pacific, the app will be introduced in Kenya as a first entry to Sub-Saharan Africa, through UNICEF Kenya.

SaCoDé (short for Santé Communauté Développement), is a Burundi-based startup that takes a holistic, wrap-around approach to the menstrual health of girls and women. SaCoDé’s novel innovation is a washable and reusable sanitary pad, branded Agateka, which means Dignity in Kirundi, is uniquely designed with special straps that allow them to be worn with or without underwear. Bundled alongside the product is comprehensive menstrual hygiene management and sexual reproductive health programming for adolescent girls.

Tai Tanzania‘s The Jali Project, an initiative that uses storytelling in the form of animated videos to raise public awareness and change prevailing attitudes and behaviors around menstruation. The videos, which are geared toward adolescents, depict real-life experiences collected from members of the community while providing evidence-based MHH information.

Femme International seeks to make quality, reusable menstrual products available, accessible, and affordable in local markets, and along the last mile, throughout East Africa. Through a project called the Twende Initiative, Femme takes a comprehensive, community-based, and educational approach to tackle issues surrounding menstruation. Twende ambassadors are trained to engage girls and women on a grassroots level, connecting with community groups and other local stakeholders, and going door-to-door to sell safe and affordable menstrual products, provide health information, and offer support. These frontline ambassadors are destigmatizing periods by dispelling persistent myths and addressing the lack of knowledge that too often hampers women from being healthy and safe during menstruation.

Their Passion Is Personal

The majority of the innovators in the Accelerator’s inaugural cohort are African-born women inspired by their own experience.

Kasala Secrets Innovator

Photo courtesy of Hyasintha Ntuyeko / Kasala Secrets Co. Ltd.

“I realized that bringing quality pads was not enough to solve the magnitude of the menstrual hygiene crisis,” said Hyasintha Ntuyeko, founder of Kasala Secrets Co. Ltd. “Even in my own community, women and girls were struggling with social taboos, access to water to wash, infrastructure for pad disposal, and limited knowledge, and many could not even afford buying sanitary pads every month. I became an entrepreneur to find a better way.” Kasala invests 10 percent of its profits in puberty and MHH education for both boys and girls.

Grace Francois Nibize, Executive Director of SaCoDé, said, “I grew up in Burundi, and in my culture, menstruating girls and women are considered impure and are systematically excluded from participating in everyday activities, such as education, employment, and cultural and religious practices. More than 80% of Burundian schoolgirls and women lack adequate facilities for menstrual hygiene management.”

Finding Local Solutions to Local Challenges

The local solutions developed by the innovators enable them to provide tailored support and resources for girls.

“Local solutions to MHH are important because they consider all the specific needs, conceptions, and context related to MHH of the given population,” explained Grace Francois Nibize, Executive Director of SaCoDé. “For example, the Agateka pad I have innovated can be worn without an underwear, because I know the majority of Burundian girls and women in rural areas do not wear underwear.”

“When we launched our first pilot chat service, we were shocked by the amount of misinformation and lack of basic information around menstrual health and hygiene,” said MacGregor Lennarz, cofounder of Lily Health. “Everyone deserves to have accurate information that can improve their lives.”

Tailored Support From Duke and UNICEF

Through the Innovation Accelerator’s two-year program, the entrepreneurs will have access to a multitude of resources, including UNICEF subject matter experts, mentorship opportunities, Duke University faculty and students, monthly capacity building webinars, and a week-long residency at Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative.

“The Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator means an opportunity to access a global platform to learn, develop, network, and improve our solution for a bigger and better impact in the community,” said Ian Tarimo, Executive Director of Tai Tanzania.

On April 2, UNICEF’s 8th virtual Conference on Menstrual Hygiene Management in Schools will share the latest research and programming from around the world. This year’s theme, “Innovation in MHM: Putting Girls at the Center,” aims to highlight national examples of programs that found new way to identify and address barriers to safe and dignified MHM. The virtual conference is expected to bring together online over 1,000 participants from around the world.

To learn more about the Duke-UNICEF Innovation Accelerator, visit

For more information about the April 3 summit at Duke, contact Taylor Conger.

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