Business management

Alison Wood, Lilypads

The co-founder of Lilypads, a low-cost sustainable sanitary pad brand that also provides menstrual-health education, discusses her mission to ensure no one is disadvantaged by their period.

Spurred into action by the lack of sanitary provision and sexual-health education in Kenya, Wood launched a sustainable sanitary pad company, which manufactures reusable pads for women in the UK and worldwide as well as providing educational programmes centred on menstrual health. Despite the pandemic, she raised £10,000 of her initial funding in just one week.

What’s your background?

“I gained hands-on experience with a charity in Kenya that’s linked to the School of Economics at the University of Edinburgh, where I studied for my master’s. When I first went out as a volunteer, I was sitting there listening to the sexual-health training and could see they were struggling. It was a case of if they prioritise sexual health, they would have to de-prioritise something else.”

What spurred you on to start Lilypads?

“The moment I knew I wanted to change things was when one of the 14-year-old girls I was working with looked at me and said: ‘We need sanitary products.’ Most had no idea why their period was starting, what it was, and they said: ‘Men in the village give us presents – books, stationery and sanitary products – if we sleep with them, and we need sanitary products to stay in school.’ Hearing that made my hair stand on end.

“I asked myself: ‘What is a practical solution – give them all disposable pads?’ The school we were in had 1,000 girls. That’s a lot of pads. So that’s when I thought of making a reusable pad that would last two years rather than four weeks.”

Did you change your initial business plan?

“We realised very quickly that it is not just schoolgirls who wanted the product – it was so many other people, too. Suddenly we went from: ‘Can we fundraise?’ to: ‘Can we sell these products, and, if so, how low does the price need to be – and how do you get a price that low?’ It depends on how quickly you can manufacture.”

What surprised you most about the UK menstrual products market?

“I made everybody I could think of try various iterations of pads, and the consensus was that they were impressed by the results. These are people who had been using disposables since they were very young and I wouldn’t expect them to say they were comfortable – I just expected them to say they worked. We have a real problem in the UK of people really not liking the products and not wanting to talk about them – and we’d inadvertently made a product that was more comfortable and, with a couple of tweaks, would fit this market much better.”

How long did it take to develop the product?

“Within three months we had our first prototype pad, but it’s taken about two years from that date to get a workable product. It’s exactly like your normal disposable pad – it attaches to your underwear and lasts at least as long as the disposable. You stick it in the washing machine with your normal clothes, put it on the washing line and you’re good to go again. In countries such as Kenya, they can be washed in cold water in a bucket and hung up to dry.”

Why did you start your education programmes?

“When we started talking about periods, it became very obvious that there was confusion – for instance, someone said to me in Kenya that period pains are a sign of infertility. So we put together an education programme on the basics of how menstrual health works and taught the local women selling the pads this information so they could disseminate it while selling, and in schools. 

I recommend finding somebody else to partner with, another entrepreneur going through the same journey, so you can talk about what’s going on. My co-founder appeared almost when I wasn’t looking

Alison Wood
Co-founder and CEO, Lilypads

“When we surveyed people in the UK, we found that many students can’t remember having periods covered in school or, if it was, it was to cover the biological aspects. The practicality wasn’t covered – what products are available, how to use them, what their period blood will look like, what period pain is and how to cope. This is the part that I think is particularly important because it is students’ lived reality but is generally not covered. We put lessons in building blocks that can be taught in stages in schools by final-year secondary and university students, as peer-to-peer lessons were most effective and raised self-esteem.”

Has the pandemic affected your funding?

“I was amazed the initial Crowdfunder to raise £10,000 went as well as it did. People were saying: ‘Don’t do it in July. People are being laid off. Furlough is ending. This is the worst time to do it.’ We reached it within a week, and I don’t think I have ever danced so much every time different amounts came through. It’s not for the faint-hearted. We are now aiming for our stretch target of £15,000.”

What’s your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

“Find your ‘Why?’ What’s going to get you up in the morning when it has been a really tough day? Knowing that I was in it because it made a real difference to people’s lives made it easier. Also, I recommend finding somebody else to partner with, even just another entrepreneur going through the same journey so you can talk about what’s going on. My co-founder [Mhairi Cochrane] appeared almost when I wasn’t looking. Having someone to help problem-solve or say: ‘This is really tough but there will be a solution,’ makes a huge difference.”

Why are Lilypads better for the environment than disposables?

“The average disposable pad contains up to 90% plastic, and a woman will go through 11,000 – 16,000 [menstrual products] in her lifetime. Friends of the Earth calculates that a typical menstrual product has an annual carbon footprint of 5.3 kilogrammes’ CO2 equivalent. Our pad is designed to last at least two years, and we calculate that using eight of our pads over that time produces roughly 10% of the carbon emissions of a disposable product.” 

What are your aspirations for the future?

“We aim to be the organisation that can supply affordable products to any charity or business around the world who wants and needs sanitary products or period products for women at an affordable cost. Money from every pad sold in the UK supports our core work in Kenya.”

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