Being unable to meet this basic need can significantly alter the lives of those who are affected as they are forced to find alternative means, which may often pose health risks.

Having seen the need for sanitary products, particularly for young girls, Babalwa Mbuku (40) from Mthatha started her own sanitary pads company, Ntombam, in 2017. She was inspired by a young girl who once said she preferred to get free sanitary pads from government instead of a free education.

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Babalwa then decided to do her research in the Eastern Cape to assess how many schools and children have the same problem. “I discovered that around the Eastern Cape some children use pieces of cloth, aloe and others would use cow dung as sanitary pads to absorb the flow of their monthly menstruation due to high sanitary costs. None of those methods are good for sensitive areas,” she says.

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Babalwa is congratulated by Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi for her work at Ntombam. Image supplied by Ntombam

Babalwa started the brand from her pocket, making whatever sacrifice was necessary to get started. “I went as far as selling my car. We do not need funding from major corporations to start investing in our companies," she says.

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Ntombam imports the pads from South Korea and they are sold in 37 retail stores in the Eastern Cape and Western Cape. The company hopes to expand to other parts of the country. Ntombam also has sanitizers, wet wipes and a fashion label.

During her research, the 40-year-old business woman also noticed that many girls do not have proper panties to wear while others do not have them at all. She plans to address this issue soon. “We are planning to add one-size-fits all panties to our range of products," she says.

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Babalwa has received some support for her business, having partnered with Vodacom in a CSI project in the Eastern Cape and being part of an incubator programme by the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities.

Ntombam is in the process of building a hi-tech sanitary towel manufacturing plant in East London through an Eastern Cape Development Corporation (ECDC) facilitated deal in partnership with South Korean investor, M.view Global.

The R67m facility should be operational in June next year.

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Babalwa's journey has not been easy but she is proud of what she has achieved so far.

“I have failed here and there, but I am a very patient person. I want to create jobs and empower youth even if it takes me 20 years to get there,” says Babalwa.

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Babalwa teaches girls about menstruation. Image supplied by Ntombam

Babalwa is also a menstruation coach to teenagers, and says many girls are not educated about menstruation and their bodies while others develop insecurities and start having low self-esteem.

“They do not understand the change in their bodies, and they need guidance. We teach them to take pride in their girlhood. I have a personal relationship with my clients. In the morning, others wake me up with video calls to talk about what they are going through, and I have had parents say they can see improvements in their children’s lives,” says Babalwa.

Babalwa was in the top 25 of the 100 Most Influential Young South Africans of 2019 for social enterprise and philanthropy.

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