Two years ago, nurses Nicole Brassington and Dr. Angelina Strickland flew 36 hours from Kentucky to Sierra Leone to talk to school girls about menstrual cycles and hygiene health. They carried with them a bag containing 500 sanitary pads and tampons and illustration cards on how to use them to pass out. In Sierra Leone, where more than 60 percent of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, menstrual pads are expensive and hard to come by. Brassington and Strickland planned to distribute them for free.
From Kenya to Zambia, Botswana to Uganda, several African countries have launched programs to distribute sanitary pads to girls who can’t afford them. However, period poverty is not just a challenge in Africa, Asian and Latin American countries also face the problem. Even European countries have an in issue. Last year, Scotland announced that it would be the first country to provide free menstrual products to women of all ages. The goal is to help girls manage their periods at school. Studies have shown that the fear and the embarrassment of an "accident" kept girls away from school each month.
But as Brassington and Strickland quickly found out, free pads did not deliver the silver bullet solution they expected, “We were not prepared for the questions from the girls,” remembers Brasington who thought it was simply an issue of affordability. "How to dispose of the sanitary napkins if you don’t have a trash can? 'If these are disposable, what do we use when these run out?'" were issues the young women posed to the American duo.
These questions made the pair think differently about what was supposed to be a one-off volunteer trip to a country that is still recovering from a decade-long civil war as well as Ebola. “We got on the plane and we said three things,” remembers Brassington. “First, we are coming back. We got to come back. These girls didn’t have much but they were there. I told Angie, ‘I cannot even grasp their resilience. They were excited. They were hopeful. And they are optimistic and want to be educated and think of the future. We have to figure something out.’“
Next the pair had to consider an engagement strategy that would be far reaching and sustainable. Lastly, the two needed a funding solution “Because we're nurse practitioners. We make good money, but we don't make a lot of money where we can’t just give, give, give. So that's what we did,” recalled Brassington.
In May, they went back to the capital of Freetown with three separate but interrelated business plans to build a renewable energy factory plant to manufacture sanitary napkins, launch a women’s business development initiative and build a rustic luxury campground.
To understand why these two single teen moms who’ve overcome struggles and strife with the help of strong Black women in their lives, and who have no direct connection to Sierra Leone, wanted to invest their time and money to help Black teenage girls out of poverty on the other side of the Atlantic, it is important to understand how Brassington and Strickland became friends.
“We were both working in the ICU at a local hospital [UofL Health-Jewish Hospital] in Louisville. I was the only Black nurse in the cardiovascular ICU and Angie was in the cardiac ICU, where all the Black nurses work,” shares Brassington. One of them saw Brassington and went back to her unit to spread the word that the newbie in the cardiac unit was a Black woman. They all went over to introduce themselves and invited Brassington out to dinner. “At that meeting that night, they said, you know, it's different for us as Black nurses. They're not going to make it easy for you. You are going to have the worst patients; you will have the worst assignments. Nobody is going to help you. But keep your head up, and you will get through it. And we over here. If you need us, call us. We got your back," continued Brassington.
This group of 13 strangers has supported, inspired and encouraged each other ever since. In many ways, Strickland took the lead in helping everyone strive for a better job title and higher pay grade. She was the first to go to nurse practitioner school and systemically pulled everybody up; within a year or two over 70% of the group became certified. Now Strickland has four titles behind her name—DNP, APRN, FNP-C, PMHNP-DC—and owns her own practice, Strickland, Cox & Associates Primary Care Center, and its mental health component, HaveHope Counseling & Consulting.
After work, the group signed up for volunteer activities with Black Nurse Practitioners of Louisville, founded by Strickland, to conduct health screenings and back to school physicals.
At one event in 2018, they ran into a colleague from Sierra Leone who had just returned from her native country. The woman talked them about how folks in her homeland “didn’t have access to basic health care, biometric screenings and those things,” Brassington noted. “We thought, that’s not too difficult. Angela has her own practice. Let’s go and see what we can do to support them.”
It was that conversation and the subsequent trip to Freetown that inspired them to hone their resources for what they call a bigger impact.
When they told friends and family about going to Sierra Leone, almost everyone had questions. Most were disparaging and discouraging but not surprising. Historically and unfortunately, it is that common negativity that has kept Blacks in the diaspora from discovering their roots before slavery.
Where is Sierra Leone? (West Africa) Is it dangerous? (No more than the U.S.) Isn’t there a civil war? (No, it ended 20 years ago). Isn’t there Ebola? (No, the outbreak ended in 2016). Why are you doing this? (They have a skill set, knowledge base, resources and a desire to help.)
Brassington and Strickland returned to the States from the 2019 trip to create both Nspire Enterprises and Bespoke Global Health Initiatives (BGHI), a non-profit organization dedicated to changing the world by empowering young women with health literacy, wellness and self-confidence. In fact, poverty research tells us that empowering a young woman has the ability to impact five generations.
The new vision and mission in Sierra Leone was not about simply volunteering or community service, says Strickland. “When we visited Sierra Leone, I identified with the young women because even though life may have dealt them a hard hand they still see a way out. They know they are not only helping themselves but that they are helping to build generational sustainability for their families too."
"That's how you have true impact and true change. When we band together, we support each other," adds Brassington. “When Black women support and invest in each other, everybody wins. We’re all successful. We don't know best. We know that we have resources and from things that we've done here in the United States that have worked. They learn from us and we learn from them.”
When Brassington and Strickland said "yes" to Sierra Leone, they didn’t know that a growing number of countries in Africa have been working to find ways to encourage Black folks to realize that FUBU is much more than a brand slogan. African-Americans can be a power force for African countries through impact investments, entrepreneurship, promotion of trade, research, thought-leadership, innovation, and knowledge and technology transfers.
Enter people like Brassington and Strickland who want to be part of the solution to help stop the spiral. Sanitary pad manufacturing is just part of their story in Sierra Leone. “It's beyond humbling for us to think we're two teenage moms—Black girls from humble beginnings from the state of Kentucky—and we are now in a situation where we are helping women rebuild a nation for the next generation,” says Brassington.
Sounds like an overly ambitious mission for two former hospital nurses? Yes, it is from the outside looking in. That’s why the two spent more than three years planning, googling, calling, emailing to find the right partners in the girls and women empowerment space. This stage of building trust was very important.
The first person they contacted for the next level impact in Sierra Leone was a friend of a friend. Ninie Unachukwu worked on the documentary for the Hands Off Our Girls campaign to ban early child marriage and sexual violence in Africa. During the height of the #MeToo movement, the First Lady of Sierra Leone Fatima Maada Bio launched the campaign with her husband and President during the 74th United Nations General Assembly in 2019. “A lot of advocacy had been done to ensure that it became a criminal offense but in spite of the fact that that was the case, it was not widely known that it was a criminal offense,” says Unachukwu. “The movie chronologically shows what happens to a man who rapes a young woman or a girl or his daughter, or his wife, taking them through the process of the law so that everybody who watches the movie knows that it is a criminal offence.”
For sustainable long-road change, Unachukwu believes it is important to work with both girls and boys. She is co-founder of My Father’s House Foundation Sierra Leone, which works to create space where young people can go and feel secure “like you are in your father’s house.” The foundation started mentoring clubs in schools and literacy classes for those who had to drop out due to the death of a parent. It morphed into job training and mentorship for leaders in the community to make the transition from student to worker. “Fortunately for me, most of the young people we are working with are not girls. They are boys. I believe that you can really empower a girl. But if she marries a fool, she goes back to square one.”
When Unachukwu was booking 20 speakers for a three-day National Youth Conference in 2019, she invited Anita Koroma, whom she met online about her work to empower girls. “I noticed this woman was always the one calling people out and making them accountable. And I said to myself, this is a kindred spirit.” At the time, Koroma had already started manufacturing recyclable menstrual pads. It was fate.
“When Nicole contacted me via WhatsApp [pre-COVID], she told me they were very interested in health and asked if I knew anybody because they wanted to open a clinic. And they wanted to come and do some hygiene products. I said I was not into health but I knew somebody. So I recommended Anita,” said Unachukwu.
The Manufacturing Plant: From 50 to about 1 Million in a Month
Like Brassington and Strickland, Koroma too thought disposable pads were the solution to menstrual hygiene. When she launched her organization in 2011 to help girls orphaned by the war in her hometown of Lunsar, east of Freetown, she brought disposable pads in her suitcase when she flew back and forth from the U.K., where she had been living as a social worker. “I knew it was difficult for the girls,” says Koroma, who used to create makeshift pads with her grandmother’s coffee filters when she was on her period when she was a young teen in her home country. "So I know the constraints; the confidence that they’re lacking and realized, yes, not every girl can afford it. So I was going around the U.K. begging friends to give me disposable pads because I understood.”
It wasn’t until Koroma was invited to Geneva for International Women's Day, when the world gathered to talk about menstruation, did she see the reusable sanitary pad option. “When I got there my eyes opened. I met Indians and Asians and they displayed their products that were eco-friendly, cheap, safe and how they can clean them; how they can keep it sized.” She left the conference and started a social enterprise, LaLa Posh Enterprise, to locally manufacture her own reusable sanitary pads product line, EcoJC Pads. The two-year kit included soap, one washcloth, one wet bag, instructions, five pads and one underwear. It sells for $11 and comes in three different sizes. A percentage of profits goes to support the livelihood of African girls in school and at home. “Organizations that want to fundraise can come and say can you give to my village, to my school? We want to move around West Africa to do the business. We want to give more money to women and girls, especially those dropping off school for them to survive.”
For that first year, the cloth pads were sewn by hand and her team made 15 kits a month. Koroma took pictures of her employees sewing the product and posted them online when they finished. A doctor from Ireland saw the Facebook posts and fundraised for three sewing machines. EcoJC Pads went from producing 15 kits a month to making 100,000. In 2018, EcoJC Pads signed a $70,000 two year contract with UNICEF to distribute pads in Sierra Leone.
Brassington and Strickland, who ordered 300 of Koroma's kits to distribute while they were in Sierra Leone, are investing in a larger factory and purchasing 16 industrial size machines for mass production. Koroma estimates she will be up and running by the end of this year, producing close to one million kits a month. “The demand is out there,” says Brassington who is getting order requests from Guinea, Liberia, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria but has turned them down because they are still figuring out how to serve Sierra Leone’s demand. ”We have not done nationwide inside. We are still working to finish my target and to finish the factory this December because they are coming back in March,” explains Koroma.
“We can scale this, absolutely,” says Brassington. “It shows us that you can set up this same type of operation throughout multiple provinces, so that you've got access; and now, you're employing people in the different provinces as well. So we definitely see it as a model that we can replicate and expand and help her with the replication and the expansion. We focused our attention and energy there in the know that whatever we do in Sierra Leone, we will likely replicate it in other nations because we know that the need is there.”
However, their biggest fear is not thinking too big but rather too small. Currently, the materials for the kit come from outside the country. All of the fabrics are from China or India. That’s not only unsustainable, it also doesn’t make sense considering the Mother Continent represents 5% of global cotton production and more than 9% of the world's cotton exports. Due to shipment delays during COVID, EcoJC Pads has been waiting months for materials which means pads are not being made. Enter Nspire Enterprises. “That's part of what we have to help them work on. Like I said, we're buying the [press] mold,” says Brassington, pointing out that the soaps in the kits are being manufactured in the country. In fact, they are adding a new location for soap production by buying a new soap table and press mold. The goal is to have all of the raw material needed to make the kits sourced and manufactured within each country as possible. “So how can we help them be able to have those resources? Either identify them in the country or to be able to have a significant stock for them to be able to fulfill the orders. Because the last thing we need is to push this out here and we don't have the capacity to be able to fulfill the order. The goal was for us to manufacture for them to have a sufficient supply in the country,” explains Brassington.
Power to the People
The story would have ended there if building a factory with industrial size machines didn’t require electricity. Rural Sierra Leone is not connected to the power grid. That means the new location needs to have a renewable energy source to keep the machines running. Brassington and Strickland also thought that through before their return trip. They scheduled a walking tour of the Sierra Leone chapter of Barefoot College, a college in India which has trained a group of 12 women in the frontline of a battle to bring solar-powered electricity to rural parts of the country. After the four-month solar residential course in India, sponsored as part of a south-south cooperation program between the Indian and Sierra Leone governments, the women are now installing solar panels across rural communities. Word on the street is that you can’t talk about solar engineering in the country without mentioning the Barefoot Women. The Chief Solar Engineer Nancy Kanu couldn’t read or write before her training in India and now she is one of the most renowned engineers in Sierra Leone, teaching and training women to do electrical work across the country. Many of the graduates used to be subsistence farmers, living day-to-day. “That was what was the most impressive thing to me about the whole thing,” says Strickland.
She is Wealth
Brassington, Strickland, Unachukwu, and Koroma have agreed to work together to co-found She is Wealth, a local organization that works with women-owned SMEs (small to mid-size enterprises) to create, build and expand their marketplace capacity to export their products to the U.S. The idea started when Brassington purchased fabric to have a long coat made. “It was $35. I would have paid $200 for it hands down, not even batted an eye because of the quality and the design of it," shares Brassington. "We can work with women and entrepreneurs so they can be able to scale their products and export because right now no products have been exported out of Sierra Leone besides what the Chinese are taking.”
She is Wealth will be an umbrella organization for Sierra Leone business women, with a three-tier membership program. The first level is a quasi-incubator for early stage and startup businesses who need mentorship, expertise, and training. The second tier is for those who are looking for expansion in the global marketplace; it will provide export logistics to sell abroad but specifically to the American consumer. The third level are members who also want to expand their marketplace but need access to investors, and in some cases, working capital in the form of a loan." From hair and skin products, food and clothing, we have a lot of people that do so many different products here and they’re looking to expand their market,” says Unachukwu. “Maybe instead of having 50 acres, they want to own 100 acres and need that kind of investment. That’s the highest tier.”
In five years, Nspire Enterprises, BGHI and She is Wealth want to see and measure their work to reduce the number of African girls and teenagers dropping out of school to help support their families. “If I can give a mother the ability to start a market or the ability to export and make more income, she doesn't need her child to leave school to help sell and walk back and forth to the market. We expect to see higher graduation and education rates,” says Strickland, regarding the group's goals. “We’re empowering women to make enough money to raise their whole family out of poverty."
Dream big and believe that there’s no table that you can’t sit at. “Because of that, we’ve walked through doors that neither one of us really knew existed when we started on this journey, shares Brassington.
Want to Contribute to the Vision, but Don't Have Time to Travel to Sierra Leone?
Book a camping trip or a getaway weekend at a rustic luxury campsite in Williamstown Kentucky. Camp Bespoke was created as a special purpose vehicle (SPV) which allows a percentage of revenues to be redirected to fund investments in Sierra Leone. North of Lexington, Camp Bespoke has 36 eco-friendly accommodations ranging from refurbished shipping containers upcycled into cabins and cottages to large Native American Sioux-style tipis and sits on 31 acres. Each unit has an en suite bathroom with stand up shower, kitchenette, electricity, Wi-Fi, air-conditioning, controlled heat, and fire pits.
When finished next year, it will be the only Black women-owned campground in Kentucky. “We’ve had our own set of challenges because we're Black women coming into this space. And people don't look like us in this space,” says Brassington. “But we’ve learned from the women in Sierra Leone to have hope and resiliency and push through. We have first world problems. When these women get up every day and fight every day to have food on the table, how can we give up? How can we not persevere? How can we not figure this out?”