Plant-based pads to tackle period woes

In the second of a four-part feature on winners of the Young Social Entrepreneur (YSE) 2012 Programme, Be an Idea speaks to a young woman who is developing a biodegradable sanitary pad for underprivileged women in India. YSE is an initiative by the Singapore International Foundation to help young people embark on social enterprises and nurture a network of entrepreneurs to create businesses that benefit communities.

For Ho Yen Yee, a final-year linguistics student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the year has been a filled with numerous peaks of learning. At 22, she is one of the driving forces behind I.M.Pad (Innovative and Manageable Sanitary Pad), a social entrepreneurship project that addresses issues related to women’s health and personal dignity in the developing world.

“In many rural communities, women don’t have access to basic items of sanitation such as sanitary pads,” explained Ho, who felt disturbed after reading about women who turned to alternatives like ashes and dried leaves and were often made to feel ashamed about menstruation. “This can pose serious health risks and I wanted to see how I could help.”

While volunteering with NTU’s Welfare Services Club, Ho met Andrew Yin, her partner who shared the same passion as her about helping the less fortunate

They decided to focus the project on India, which has the lowest level of sanitary pad adoption in the world. An ACNielson survey conducted in 2010 showed that as many as 88 per cent of menstruating women in the country did not use proper hygienic sanitary products during their periods.

Their guiding principles? It had to be effective, eco-friendly and low-cost. “Besides access, affordability is one of the key reasons for the lack of use of sanitary pads in many rural areas,” said Ho. “So we began by exploring low-cost alternatives.”

One intriguing possibility was the use of water hyacinths as a source material. Besides being indigenous to many rural areas in India, water hyacinths also have highly absorbent pulp fibres.

Utilising the plant also helps to alleviate an environmental problem as they can choke irrigation canals and contribute to the spread of waterborne diseases.

“As a woman, this issue is especially close to my heart because I know how uncomfortable and dreadful it can get during menstruation,” she said. “It is actually something that can be managed effectively with a simple sanitary pad and should not be allowed to disrupt a woman’s life and become an impediment to education.

Especially meaningful was a study trip under the YSE banner in June 2012 to Mumbai. Over nine days, the team got to learn more about operational conditions and speak to women there.

With $10,000 seed funding from the YSE, Ho and Yin are now immersed in the research and industrial design stage of their project. Next up? Producing a prototype by mid-2013 followed by a another trip to India to meet with NGO representatives and local self-help groups.

“Inclusive innovation is important especially in the access to basic necessities because all human beings should be allowed the opportunity to live with dignity,” Ho said.

“I really hope to help these women lead normal and healthy lives during their periods, just like everyone else in the developed world.”

The Next Chapter

The local education scene took a long, hard look at itself to make sure no child left behind. Be an Idea discovers individuals who are helping to write the pages.

Want to know which item on Singapore's agenda that - calls for a national conversation aside - is already jumping ahead by leaps and bounds? Look no further than Singapore's education scene. A number of key developments rolled out recently promise to help Singaporean students cram less and think more.


Stronger accreditation requirements; a renewed emphasis on child welfare; higher teaching standards; and improvements in curriculum and facilities - these are just some of the goals of the government's Implementation Committee for Enhancing Pre-School Education.

While there will be no immediate changes to the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE), a rite of passage for generations of Singaporeans, what can be expected are fresh ways to help young students cope. A stronger consensus between educators, parents and students looks set to lift the weight off those young shoulders.

To go a step further, the government recently decided to abolish academic banding for secondary schools and focus on a more holistic education to help students realise their full potential.

"It is less about content knowledge, as content will have to be re-learnt and even un-learnt during one's lifetime," said Education Minister Heng Swee Kiat. "It is more about how to process information, discern truths from untruths, connect seemingly disparate dots, and create knowledge even as the context changes."


Beyond the government's grand plans and aspirations, an active community of social entrepreneurs and educators has stepped forward to help shape Singapore's learning landscape.

Hearty SPIN, a new start-up that uses technology to create learning solutions for people with autism and special needs, is one such example. It recently released an app for low-functioning individuals with autism called Picture AAC that is used in more than 15 countries.

Founded by Koh Kheng Wah, a mobile technology and IT specialist together with his wife Carol, a special-needs teacher, who felt the need to give back to society after spending time with her students.

"I hope it encourages other passionate individuals and let young people know that there are other paths out there besides being a lawyer or banker," he said.

Although there is a long way to go, Koh is determined to help other parents cope with the challenge of bringing up a special-needs child.

"Everyone should reflect on their strengths and use it for the community instead of being keyboard warriors," he said. "There is a lot to be done."

Then there's Open Lectures, a fresh spin to online learning. The fledgling web platform, which went 'live' in August 2012, provides "free, online lectures for anyone who wants to learn." Supported by the North-East Community Development Council as well as three junior colleges, it is run by a team of 80 to 100 student volunteers and currently hosts around 300 free lectures on economics, chemistry, mathematics and biology online.

"Giving back becomes easier and more meaningful if you love what you do," said Kenneth Lim, project CEO at its launch.

Over at The School of Thought, its curriculum emphasises socially responsible education as much as it does test scores. Launched in 2002 by a group of ex-teachers who want to combat youth apathy by empowering students to bring about positive change. Through General Paper classes, where students discuss local and global affairs, it aims to make them more knowledgeable and empathetic.

"Kids, whether they were 'A' or 'F' students came out not caring about the community, only themselves," said Kuik. "We felt that education was meant to do much more than that."

Undergraduate Stanley Chia, who manages Envisage Education, often works with schools on community involvement programmes. He observed that most students were participating without a deeper conviction and involvement.

"It has to go beyond volunteering," he said. " Volunteering fulfils needs but with social entrepreneurship you become involved in creating solutions."

The educational enterprise committed to promoting compassion among youths, conducts programmes where students role-play to experience poverty, then come up with solutions for it. Students also get to work with non-profits on projects and learn how to do more for people from disadvantaged groups.

"Our culture is traditionally focused on academic achievement and it's not something you can change overnight," he said. "This is a way of showing students that you can be financially stable and do something for society at the same time."

"I hope that we can remind people that social change is not the sole responsibility of the government, but that of the community, and each and every individual."