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A photo of Francoise Nibizi distributing Agateka pads to students

3 entrepreneurs, 3 big ideas: Meet the winners of the Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge

From helping stop the spread of disease in public bathrooms in Uganda to supporting local farmers in Liberia, these savvy troubleshooters have devised simple healthcare solutions with serious impact.

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If you live in America, there are certain conveniences that are easy to take for granted, like affordable feminine hygiene products, hands-free faucets in public restrooms and entire stores devoted to healthy skincare.

But for people living in certain parts of Africa, these are considered luxuries. It takes innovation, passion and dedication to come up with solutions to fill these needs with few resources at hand—qualities that the three winners of the recent Johnson & Johnson Africa Innovation Challenge have in spades.

The challenge was created as part of Johnson & Johnson’s commitment to help strengthen public health programs and systems in Africa—a commitment the company has bolstered with the recent opening of operations hubs in Ghana and Kenya.

The overarching goal: uncover entrepreneurs in Africa who might have a creative solution to a pressing local healthcare need that could help empower young girls, improve family well-being or promote early child development and maternal health.Each of the winners will receive funding—along with mentorship from scientists, engineers and operations experts from Johnson & Johnson Consumer Research & Development and other areas of the company—to help bring their ideas to fruition.

Read on to learn how their inventions are designed to help create a stronger, healthier continent.

The big idea: reusable feminine hygiene products

Francoise Nibizi, founder and executive director of SaCoDé, Burundi

Africa Innovation Challenge: Francoise Nibizi

Francoise Nibizi

My winning innovation is …
More than 80% of women and girls in Burundi can’t afford to buy sanitary pads. They try to use random pieces of cloth or filling from old mattresses instead, but doing that can lead to infections. So every month, they’re forced to stay home, missing out on school and work.

Our product, Agateka, is a pad sewn out of flannel that you can wear, wash and wear again. They even come with straps to tie around your waist, so the 89% of girls and women in Burundi who can’t afford underwear can still be protected.

I got the idea from …
My team at SaCoDé—a Burundian not-for-profit organization dedicated to promoting community health—and I were going around the country educating young women about sexual health and we kept getting questions from girls in rural areas about how to deal with periods. They wanted to know how they could stop getting so many infections, and how they could keep going to school.

I think about how many girls have missed chances in their lives because they didn’t have a simple pad.

So we did a survey and found that most of these girls and women couldn’t afford to buy disposable pads. We bought a bunch and distributed them, but realized we were just helping these girls for one month—we needed something that they could use every single month.

That’s how Agateka was born.

AGATEKA SaCoDe pad distribution

Nibizi with Burundian schoolgirls

This is a passion of mine because …
As I spoke to the girls, I realized how ashamed they all were about their periods. And they were missing so much school that it was impossible for them to catch up. The majority of girls were getting discouraged and leaving school to get married at the age of 14 and 15. I think about how many girls have missed chances in their lives because they didn’t have a simple pad.

The money from the challenge will help me …
So far we’ve distributed kits to more than 10,000 girls, but we need to be able to create more of them, and do it faster. I was just contacted to see if we could start distributing pads to refugee camps. We could—if we were able to up our production capacity, and buy sewing machines and other equipment to create more and more. This money will help us do that.

The big idea: hands-free faucets to fight the spread of diseases

Grace Nakibaala, CEO and Founder of innov/asepsis, Uganda

Africa Innovation Challenge: Grace Nakibaala

Grace Nakibaala

My winning innovation is …
If you wash your hands in a public sink in Uganda, you have a 60% chance of contracting an infection because of how dirty the handles are. It could be a simple cold or the flu, but it could also be Ebola.

People know this, so they just don’t wash their hands! They decide dirty hands are still cleaner than whatever is on the handles.

PedalTap fits on any existing sink and allows people to operate faucets without ever touching the handles. It’s so simple yet so effective.

I got the idea from …
When I was in my third year of architecture school, I worked with an organization that was improving the design of a tuberculosis ward at a hospital. The focus was all about infection prevention and control. This was so new to me!

I was used to the idea that architecture was about making beautiful buildings, but this was about designing something that could prevent people from getting sick.

I was used to the idea that architecture was about making beautiful buildings, but this was about designing something that could prevent people from getting sick. I knew that’s what I wanted to work on. When the Ebola outbreak happened the very next year, I kept thinking about how important hand washing was, and how there were flaws with the current way it’s done here. I had my problem that I knew I needed to solve.

Africa Innovation Challenge: Mobile PedalTap in use

This mobile PedalTap in a Kampala suburb serves 50 people a day

This is a passion of mine because …
When I discover something that isn’t working, I have to figure out a solution. When I see the PedalTap out there and people using it, that’s a huge thing. I want my life to be about something bigger—I want to leave a positive footprint. I always ask myself: If my life ended now, what would people remember about me?

The money from the challenge will help me …
We just concluded the pilot study where we installed PedalTap on 10 taps. It worked perfectly. Now we need to do things like apply for certification and a patent, and we need to rent an office to run the company out of.

We’re a lean team—there are just three of us—and we can only make two taps per day. To expand, we need to be able to hire subcontractors, like welders.

We also want to keep innovating! Our next challenges: creating a PedalTap that can be used on a water drum in refugee areas, and a hands-free soap dispenser.

The big idea: natural skin products that support small farmers

Mahmud Johnson, founder and CEO of J-Palm, Liberia

Africa Innovation Challenge: Mahmud Johnson

Mahmud Johnson

My winning innovation is …
In Liberia, most people can only afford cheap, imported makeup—and the products that are most popular tend to be made with potentially toxic chemicals. It’s not uncommon to see women with bleached skin because of how harsh their products are!Even though most people in Liberia are low income, they still deserve the same level of dignity that comes from taking care of your skin and hair. Kernel Fresh is an organic beauty line that uses cold-pressed palm oil to create products like body moisturizer, hair conditioner and skin oil. Not only are the products affordable, but we help support 1,000 local women farmers who supply us with the palm oil.

I got the idea from …
One Christmas, during my senior year of college, I was talking to an aunt who sold palm oil. She was complaining that she couldn’t find enough palm oil to sell, which didn’t make any sense to me—palm trees grow in abundance all over Liberia.

I started doing some research and realized there is a shortage because small farmers who have palm trees on their land don’t have the machinery to make the palm oil. They use their hands to harvest the oil from the tree, which takes an incredibly long time, and they throw the actual kernels away, even though that’s another good source of oil.

I knew I wanted to create jobs for women, so they could take care of their children the way my mom took care of me.

I realized that if we could supply them with machinery, we could increase how much oil was getting produced, and how much income these farmers were making. Something that took eight hours would take less than 30 minutes.

Africa Innovation Challenge: Kernel Fresh

Palm kernels sourced from Liberian farmers

Then once we supplied the machinery, I had to think of a way to package the oil for consumers. As someone who had been using the oil on my skin, and knew how well it worked, Kernel Fresh was the obvious solution.

This is a passion of mine because …
I went to school in the United States and studied economics, but while most of my classmates went into investment banking and consulting in the U.S., I wanted my future to be in Liberia. I wanted to make more opportunities for people here. That’s exactly what Kernel Fresh does.

My real motivation comes from my mom. When I was a little kid, she got a loan from a family friend and started a small business—earning enough money to send me to school. I knew I wanted to create jobs for women, so they could take care of their children the way my mom took care of me.

The money from the challenge will help me …
Most people here shop in local markets in their communities, so we need to hire a sales force, which will be all women, who can go into communities, educate people about skincare and show them our products. We are ready to expand so that our products are available in more parts of Liberia and in other African countries.

To learn more about the Africa Innovation Challenge, check out this behind-the-scenes video from the recent Global Entrepreneurs Conference, where the winners were announced:


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