As a new mother struggling to afford disposable diapers, Danielle Adétola Adanlawo, 29, had a business idea that would change her life.
“Two months after the birth of my child, I realized that the cost of disposable diapers was huge, not to mention the [environmental concerns] after use,” says Danielle.
“I turned to cloth diapers, but the ones I had found didn’t really fit.”
So Danielle decided to take matters into her own hands. In 2018, she began making her own reusable diapers. She drew sketches, chose fabrics – and struggled to find the right raw materials. “Finding breathable waterproof fabric and 100% cotton fabric is a real challenge in Benin,” she explains.
But she persevered – and soon she hit upon the idea of expanding into reusable menstrual pads for women. Eco-friendly, reusable feminine products would help women reduce their costs while limiting environmental waste. She named her brand Iléwa, which means “our land” in the local Yorùba language.
Danielle worked constantly – waking up at 5 :30 a.m. to do chores and take care of the children (which include her fatherless niece and nephew, who live with her family). She would devote her day to managing her business before preparing dinner and helping the children with homework.
But it was getting to be too much. “Being the boss, the employee, the accountant, the salesman, etc. – I could no longer keep up with my company,” she recalls.
She was also struggling to find new customers and to solve her ever-present raw materials shortage. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Danielle thought she might just have to close Iléwa for good: “I wasn’t sure that the company would be able to live another year, especially with COVID-19.”
Entrepreneurship Training Brings Direction to Iléwa
It was while looking for solutions to these challenges that she discovered a TechnoServe program during an awareness session in her neighborhood.
BeniBiz is a business accelerator that – in collaboration with the Dutch nonprofit Bopinc, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Trade and Development, and the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC) – aims to provide entrepreneurs in Benin with the skills they need to quickly build prosperous businesses, and by extension, local economies.
Danielle decided to seize the opportunity to improve the management of her business before it was too late.
With the training and individual coaching she received, Danielle’s business skills improved quickly. She particularly took to heart training on:
- Supplier management
- Go-to-market strategies
- Business and competitive analyses
Danielle decided to analyze her situation and take action. She rethought the structure of Iléwa, developed a new market penetration strategy, diversified her clientele, and ultimately increased her sales.
Iléwa went from sales of about $260 to $350 in the first three months after the TechnoServe program, while she kept working on her new business plan. Now, she’s selling anywhere between $530 and $710 a month. These sales have doubled Danielle’s income.
“With BeniBiz, my business has been reborn and my sales have increased enormously,” Danielle says. “I was able to solve my raw material problem, buy a new machine, better develop my market, and gain new customers.”
More to Iléwa Than Business: Menstrual Equity
Benin has made strides towards better rights and privileges for women, but there’s still work to be done. The U.N. recently reported that, “women of reproductive age [in Benin] often face barriers with respect to their sexual and reproductive health and rights.”
As a result, Danielle’s work in menstrual equity is more important than ever. In 2021, Danielle initiated a fundraising campaign to offer 500 underprivileged teenagers reusable sanitary pads in the locality of Parakou, Benin.
Her initiative aims to reduce the school dropout rate among teenagers. At present, less than one-third of secondary school age youth attend school – and only 23% of them are girls.
On June 8, 2021, Danielle launched her plan: a fundraising campaign that offered 100 menstruation kits to disadvantaged teenagers, followed by a session to communicate the importance of menstrual hygiene.
The event was a huge success.
This campaign allowed the teenagers to be involved in a dialogue about a topic normally taboo in Benin. They had the opportunity to ask questions about menstrual hygiene that they may not have felt comfortable asking a family member.
Emilienne, 16, said she was excited for the event “primarily for the explanations that I could finally have on menstruation and especially to have the protection kit. Today, I was not disappointed, now I will be able to take responsibility for myself during my period and not be afraid to go to class.”
Planning for the Future: Empowering and Educating
Danielle’s work is not only helping young women overcome social barriers – it’s giving them a role model for their own lives.
“Now I hear fathers telling their daughters around me that they had better do well in order to become great entrepreneurs like me,” she says with a smile. “My success has had an impact on the perception of my community members.”
Danielle now has her eyes set on a new target that will help empower more women and girls across Benin.
“In the near future I plan to set up an NGO to protect the environment, to educate girls on the importance of menstrual hygiene, and to give autonomy to women,” Danielle muses. “Women are becoming more and more emancipated and eager to take on big challenges, so they are increasingly holding positions of responsibility.”
Danielle thinks this can be achieved through awareness, empowerment, and, above all, education.
“There are still many women who do not yet understand that they can hold the same positions as men and provide for themselves.”