NINE YEARS AGO, Elizabeth Scharpf MC/MPA 2007 was working in Mozambique with local women entrepreneurs when she began to notice something troubling. The women she worked with were missing a lot of work. The reason, she soon discovered, was that they couldn’t afford the sanitary napkins they needed when they had their periods. She also learned that this was a problem affecting women around the world. Scharpf committed herself to finding a way to produce a cheaper product.

Elizabeth ScharpfAlthough she was uniquely qualified to take on this challenge (Scharpf earned both an MPA and an MBA from Harvard in 2007 and had worked for several years in the global pharmaceutical industry), the task before her was nonetheless daunting. With colleagues, Scharpf searched for an indigenous resource that would be an effective substitute for the cotton found in ordinary napkins, thus eliminating the transportation and import fees that drive up costs.

After much trial and error, and with funds from Harvard Business School and the Echoing Green Foundation, her team found what it was looking for. The banana tree, a plant ubiquitous in Rwanda, consists of a fiber that can be turned into a light, highly absorbent material much like cotton.

Today, Scharpf’s company, Sustainable Health Enterprises (SHE), produces sanitary napkins at a facility in Rwanda that cost women almost 40 percent less than the least expensive alternatives. Scharpf intends to bring the cost down even further—ideally to 60 percent below the cost of current options. “It’s still not cheap enough,” she admits, “but at least now girls and women can have protection for some of the most important days, so if they have a test in school, they are not forced to stay home.”

For 2017, plans are in the works to add facilities in Uganda, Kenya, and Southeast Asia. Scharpf says her entrepreneurial adventure has taught her an important lesson. At different points in development, her team sought advice from pharmaceutical R&D experts. In the end, she says, they were not the people who made the breakthroughs.

“It was the students, colleagues, and the consumers themselves who gave the deep input,” says Scharpf. “It’s wonderful to bring in experts from different fields to solve problems, but sometimes you need an outside point of view that doesn’t have a preconceived notion of how it should go. That actually opens up the door to innovation.”