Interview: Sara Eklund On Reshaping The Narrative Around Menstruation in Ethiopia With Menstrual CupsBy Aida Solomon
Published: February 19, 2019
Radiant Health Magazine sat down with Sara Eklund, founder of Noble Cup, for a raw chat on modern menstruation practices, cultural stigma, and the future of menstrual cups in Africa.
Tell us about your background
I’m mixed (Ethiopian & American), and I’ve been hopping around East Africa my whole life. I lived in Kenya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh all before I was 18 (years old). I graduated high school in Ethiopia, went to New York University for school, studied film, and was working in the art world for a bit.
What piqued your interest in the menstrual hygiene industry?
The genesis for Noble Cup came after I first tried the Diva Cup. The industry is interesting because the design of the menstrual cup is very much trial and error. There hasn’t been that much development into it until recently.
If you do research, it really is fun reading into the history of menstrual products. We all have our menstruation every month, every woman in the world. The technology and perception of the way that is viewed directly correlates with the individual experience and the way the individual feels about herself.
How much does a girl know about menstruation? How much does a boy know about menstruation? It’s a global issue, and an economic one. There is still a tampon tax in California. Ethiopia taxes menstrual products through an expensive luxury tax. And it’s just nature for women.
I remember watching a clip when a journalist was interviewing President Barack Obama, and they asked why there are all these taxes on menstrual products, and Obama replied by saying something like, “probably because men wrote all the laws.”
The cup gives women the ability to know their bodies better. That understanding is so deeply empowering to one person’s viewpoint. The reason why we are using pads and tampons is because capitalism wanted us to.
Pads and tampons have pesticides on them – they are bleached out. They don’t give a f— about the female body, and the amount of polluting that is going on, and the amount of money spent.
Why is it when you get your period, your first thought is, “I have to go to the store and buy products.” Why is that? Why do they double bag [menstrual products] as if it’s a bottle of alcohol? Why are tampons placed next to diapers?
My other question is, what about the girls here [in Africa]? For me, the concept of menstruation has changed. It’s beyond starting this menstruation cup company. Menstruation has to change conceptually.
I want to change the negative sentiment I had about menstruation as a child. I hope if I have a daughter, I can share knowledge on menstruation and let her know, this is normal.
Take me back to your first experience using a menstrual cup, and how you decided this would be a good product to produce in Africa
I got it online, used it, and thought it was dope. I read something about the number of women that don’t have access to sanitary pads on global level. It was a low percentage of women that have access, where buying [menstrual] products wasn’t an economic burden.
I thought about my own experiences with periods, and the deep-seated shame I had over it. Growing up overseas, I used to travel to California, and then back to Ethiopia with half a suitcase filled with pads and tampons.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked for tampons [in Addis Ababa] and they were extremely hard to find. That’s why I always request family to send them to me.
It’s insane. Even the disposal of them. Growing up in Ethiopia, there is a shame associated with disposing menstrual products.
Imagine living in a household where you have a dozen family members, all sharing one disposal unit that may be placed in the kitchen. People must manage their own disposal. Girls end up missing school. Girls are not comfortable using the bathrooms in their schools.
On top of being a teenager, which is already hard, you also have to navigate this.
The Noble Cup solves a lot of these things. You can use it for 10 hours. If you are living in a household or refugee camp where water is rationed, you don’t need to use dirty water to wash cloths [substituted for pads]. You can just use less than half of a water bottle, and boil it in the water to clean the Noble Cup.
What barriers have you faced trying to introduce the Noble Cup to Ethiopian society?
Before my Masters, I was living here [in Addis Ababa]. Two or three years ago, I tried setting up a company, which was really difficult. It’s part of the process. I had to make the import tax law for menstrual cups to be imported into Ethiopia.
I had to introduce the cup to everyone, which was such a tough barrier. Every step of the way, people were asking, “What? This goes into the vagina?” They wanted me to put [Noble Cup] in the same tax code as something to fix a car, which actually has a lower tax rate than menstrual products.
How has the response been since your official launch?
It’s been good, and I’ve had good feedback. I’ve had people come back and buy more cups. I need to do a better launch, and I aim to target universities next.
The Noble Cup launch was more of a soft opening to introduce the product. In business, you figure out your license and registration, which took me around eight to ten months to set up. Then you order and package the products.
But I know the cup works, and I have enough responses that are positive. I went to Sodo in April of last year with this girl’s summer camp organized by the Peace Corps, and was able to pass out the cups. I really like being able to go to different parts of the country sharing our testimony.
But it’s definitely been a learning curve. You need a community. I had YouTube, where I watched every single video on menstrual cups reviews. Here in Ethiopia, you need to do community work.
A girl will only manage her vagina the way that she’s been told. You need to see some sort of cultural reference for it.
In the Western world, you see that they use blue dye as ‘blood’ in commercials for pads. It’s like, whose gaze are we saving? Men? We’re not aliens, we don’t bleed blue. It’s bullsh*t.
I’m always thinking—how can I create media about this for people that think differently than me? I think first things first we need to push the idea that periods are here, periods are normal, periods are natural.
Where do you hope to see Noble Cup within Ethiopia and the rest of the African continent?
I want Noble Cup to be the menstrual cup for African women, that addresses their concerns and issues and looks for solutions, whether it be technological or communication-based. I want Noble Cup to be a cute brand, that’s accessible, fun, and informative.
I want to be able to create a language to discuss menstruation that can reach the masses. I want to reshape the way menstruation is perceived. Once menstruation is perceived differently, they are going to have safer practices for management.
Girls are using rags, washing it with dirty water, living with vaginal infections. We’re perpetuating a culture that doesn’t give enough information about menstruation.
Even in schools, they are not getting proper information. I’m hoping that Noble Cup can be a sturdier platform for menstrual education. The education system is burdened; they already have a lot on their shoulders.
Where can we buy the Noble Cup?
Customers can buy it from the Noble Cup office in Addis Ababa. We’re hoping to launch an online store early this year. If a customer buys one cup, three cups will be donated in Ethiopia.
Any last words?
Our Noble Cup mantra: Every Queen Bleeds.
For more information on the Noble Cup, check out the company Instagram or visit noblecup.org. Like what you're reading? Sign up for our free newsletter and never miss a post! Plus get a FREE digital version of our Issue No.10 with sign up.
Like what you're reading? Sign up for our free newsletter and never miss a post! Plus get a FREE digital version of our Issue No.10 with sign up.
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