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FEATURE STORY June 3, 2019

Meet the Innovator Battling Plastic Waste in Samoa: Angelica Salele

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Marine plastics have put our oceans in danger. By 2050, it is estimated the volume of plastic will be greater than that of fish in the sea. Countries in East Asia and the Pacific contribute the most to marine plastic pollution. For World Oceans Day 2019, we are shining a spotlight on innovators working to stem the tide of marine debris in the epicenter of this crisis.

Angelica Salele works for SPREP, the regional Pacific’s body for environmental management. Together with her business partner, Angelica runs MANA Care Products, which is the first organization in the Pacific to make affordable, sustainable and reusable cotton sanitary pads for women.

 

What inspired you to create Mana Care Products?

I came across the idea of reusable pads by accident, as I had an interest in ‘period poverty’, which is something so many women in developing counties face when they can’t afford to buy disposable pads and there continues to be a stigma around menstruation and the use of cloth rags. It wasn’t until I met Isabell, a work colleague who is now my business partner, that I learnt more about the experiences of women in Samoa and realized just how common period poverty is. How can we alleviate poverty in Samoa or advocate equality when we have women and girls who can’t go to school or participate fully in society when they have their period? I realized that many Samoan women could really benefit a product like a reusable pad.

It became apparent, too, that a second major issue with single-use pads is the environmental burden and accumulation of plastic waste. In developed countries, it is estimated that every woman uses around 16,000 plastic pads in her lifetime. That’s a ridiculous number of pads – and plastic – which can take centuries to biodegrade. I realized a hygienic, reusable cloth pad could help solve not only the poverty issue but also the environmental damage that comes from single-use plastic pads.

 

How did you turn an idea into reality?

In early 2018 I won the Asia Pacific Low Carbon Lifestyles Challenge. Of the 12 winners, I was the only one from the Pacific. I invited Isabell to join me, as we brought complimentary skills and backgrounds.

After winning the award we only had one month, from funding to launch, so we had to move fast. We made our own prototype based on online reviews; we joined forums and read recommendations from people making reusable pads for their family. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a tangible product we could take apart to examine, so we made our own prototype and tested it on ourselves. There were a lot of late nights, a few small failures, but overall success. Our first prototype is what we still use today.

Because of the stigma around menstruation, many women who use menstrual rags are ashamed hang them out in the sun to dry properly, which causes issues around hygiene and can lead to poor reproductive health. The difference with our pads is that we use lovely cotton prints that are more appealing for the Pacific; they have an island style and are colorful and bold. We are hoping to remove the stigma of using rags, and at the same time make an environmental contribution.


How has your product been received in Samoa?

We thought it would take time for women to covert, as it’s such a significant change, but there has been a bigger demand than we expected. Our first adopters were young women, many of whom can afford plastic pads but chose the reusable option to be more environmentally friendly. As we expand, we’re training rural women how to make their own pads through hand sewing, which keeps costs low for those who have traditionally used rags.

What motivates you?

Samoan people and Pacific Islanders have a natural affinity towards helping one another. In my own household, my parents are a big influence and have always taught me to think of others and help people who are less fortunate. That’s not to claim we have all the solutions, of course, but I know I speak for Isabell as well when I say we have a special place in our hearts for helping others.

The environmental aspect is also a big motivator. For my part, I want to leave a better planet for my children. At the end of the day, we could still be doing so much more to help our environment. The narrative from previous generations means it can sometimes be hard to push for environmental awareness and actions. I believe if you can make the change with yourself and your own family, then that’s a start. Everyone has a voice and the ability to create change; we just need to lead by example.

If there’s one change you’d like to see every person in Samoa make to reduce plastic pollution, what would it be?

I’d love to encourage women not just in Samoa but everywhere – to get out of your comfort zone. I can’t force everyone to try reusable pads; all I can do is ask you nicely to please give it a go. There are so many reusable products you can use – bags, bottles, cups. We need to say no plastic at every opportunity and stop being lazy. Time spent washing reusable products is not wasted.

Samoa banned plastic bags and straws earlier this year, which has caused a really important shift in people’s mindsets in terms of plastic waste. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include plastic pads, as we can’t marginalize women trying to manage their periods, but it’s important we promote alternatives, such as reusable cloths pads.

For an island like Samoa, I want to share the message that what you do on the land impacts the health of the ocean. Whatever happens in your back yard will end up in the sea, so it’s not enough to safely dispose of our waste; we have to take responsibility and know that our choices are impacting our planet.

 



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