Women making waves: Female social entrepreneurs in the Fight for Access to WASH

Women making waves: Female social entrepreneurs in the WASH sector

March 8, 2024

Despite being the primary stewards of water and sanitation in the home, women continue to make up a small percent of leadership roles that shape the Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene (WASH) sector. According to a study across 28 economies done by the World Bank, women are underrepresented in both technical and managerial positions, with less than 25% of licensed engineers and managers in the WASH space being women. We saw these numbers reflected in our call for social business applications at the Nigeria Fight for Access Accelerator which produced a share of just 23% female applicants.

WASH, among other male-dominated sectors, faces challenges in attracting, training, and developing female leadership for a number of systemic reasons. In 16 African countries including Nigeria, the tendency remains for girls to avoid going into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) due to socio-cultural norms and lack of role models. Similarly, a lack of gender-sensitive policies and the prevalence of discriminatory workplace environments tend to keep women from taking long-term careers in the sector. These trends are problematic because they perpetuate the limitations of gender imbalance in the sector, including underrepresentation in decision-making which can result in policies and projects that do not adequately address the specific needs of women. For example, the development of sanitation facilities that do not cater to female hygiene and safety requirements. 

Increasing women’s participation in the WASH sector has been shown to benefit not only women themselves but the larger communities and organisations that they take part in. Gender diversity in the sector has been found to improve water supply maintenance systems, increase customer satisfaction, and lead to greater innovation.

Together with our partners at Reckitt, we see it as part of our Fight for Access to WASH to promote the representation of female leaders in the space. Our work at the accelerator is ultimately about scaling the innovations that move us forward, and nurturing the people who ensure we are going the right way.

Stories from the two female founders in our Fight for Access Accelerator Nigeria mirror the reality of the burden of young girls without proper access to WASH, but also shine a light on the impact that empowered women in the sector can create.

Nneka Osili, Founder of Kiddies & Brands 

“What keeps me going is passion to see the children well and to see them in school”

As a child, Nneka was obligated with the task of fetching water for her family - a typical reality for many young girls in areas that lack adequate access to water utilities. She had to find far-off streams, take dirt roads, and risk dangerous encounters as a child. The weight of the water she had to carry on her way back was symbolic of the toll it took on her development. “I often missed my studies and couldn’t keep up with my education,” said Nneka.

Years later, Nneka Osili has become the proud founder of Kiddies and Brands, a social business focused on promoting behaviour change and the adoption of proper hygiene practices in primary schools. “Introducing hand washing practices in primary schools is crucial for promoting hygiene and preventing the spread of waterborne diseases such as diarrhoea, cholera, and typhoid fever.” says Nneka. 

The Kiddies & Brands approach speaks to their young audiences in fun, memorable, and informative ways. Their work includes storytelling and the distribution of over 100,00 hand-wash & oral hygiene books, interactive demonstrations with UV-light, creative signage in hand-washing stations, and partnerships with parents, teachers, and communities. 

“We aim to promote proper hygiene and hang-washing in 300 primary schools in the Alimosho local government area of Lagos. Hygiene challenges are changed one child at a time and we are not just raising them now, we are raising them for the future.” says Nneka.

Sarah Kuponyi, Founder of Alora Reusable Pads 

Alora Reusable Pads are eco-friendly sanitary napkins and especially designed for tropical African weather.

Alora Reusable Pads is more than a movement towards empowering women and girls to break the barriers of period poverty, and Sarah Kuponyi is the driving force behind it.

“We have recognized the immense challenges faced by girls from low-income families who struggle to access menstrual products and are forced to resort to unhygienic alternatives. To address this pressing issue, we have developed a comprehensive solution.” says Sarah.

Alora Reusable Pads offers a range of eco-friendly reusable pads, carefully crafted from specialised fabrics to ensure comfort, durability, and suitability for tropical African weather. These pads provide a sustainable and cost-effective alternative to disposable pads, breaking down the financial barrier that hinder girls from managing their periods with dignity.

Taking a holistic and systemic view on her work, Sarah says that “addressing menstrual health is not just about products.” Which is why her team delivers training sessions on proper hygiene practices, sexual and reproductive health rights, and advocacy for hygiene and sanitation facilities. 

Female leadership at Alora Reusable Pads

While Alora Reusable Pads is a female-led social business, they are also a female-powered workforce. Their reusable pads are locally manufactured and distributed by women. This means that while the girls who purchase Alora Reusable Pads can observe their periods with dignity, the women who sell Alora Reusable Pads can also gain economic independence - a beautiful example for women supporting women with positive ripple effects that spread throughout communities.

Striving for gender diversity in the WASH sector is an ongoing initiative of Reckitt and Yunus Social Business through the design of the Fight for Access Accelerator Nigeria. We hope that Nneka and Sarah serve as inspiration and a welcome invitation for more women to take leadership in WASH. 

Interested in learning more about the barriers and opportunities for women in WASH? Here are 2 suggested resources for further reading:

  1. Women in Water Utilities: Breaking Barriers by the World Bank and the Global Water Security & Sanitation Partnership 
  2. Women’s Network Initiative to Empower Female Professionals in WASH by the International Water Association 

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