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Pulse speaks with Karo Omu: The founder of Sanitary Aid Initiative

Karo Omu, is the 27-year-old founder of the non-profit organization Sanitary Aid Initiative, was featured in ‘Women Who Inspired Us,’ 2018 edition in Pulse alongside exceptional women, doing great things like Abisoye Akinfolarin, The women of #MarketMarch, Chimamanda Adichie. Sanitary Aid Initiative, is the humanitarian and advocacy body that has aims to promote sanitary health of the girl-child across Nigeria.

Sanitary Aid Initiative has given out near 11,000 pads to girls and women across 9 Nigerian states – all in under 24 months.

Alongside her team, Sanitary Aid Initiative seems to be soaring and looks set to do some impressive things. What’s more impressive is that, Omu is not even based in Nigeria at this time. Yet, with the help of her team, great things are happening.

Omu and the students she distributed pads to in Jos, Plateau State. (Karo Omu/Pulse)

On February 6, 2018, Pulse sat down with Omu after another fulfilling visit to Jos, Plateau State to distribute another set of pads to hundreds of girls. We discussed the rise, initiative, team and direction of/at Sanitary Aid Initiative and its future after some banter;

Omu also founded the Foundation for the Eradication of Child Labour and her background is in core marketing and social media.

Pulse: How did you conceive the idea for Sanitary Aid Initiative?

Omu: So, there was this conversation on Twitter in January 2017, and everyone was talking about how prices of pads had increased. There was a debate on what was more important; free pads or free condoms – to clear the air, I don’t think either of them is more important. They’re both important at different levels. At the time, I wasn’t in Nigeria, so I was like ‘how much do pads cost now,’ and people were saying somewhere between N450 and N800.

I was surprised because before I left, just a year before, I bought pads for N200 and I thought it was outrageous. So I said, I would just put some money together and give out pads to a few girls, maybe a couple of IDP camps. I remember I used to go some IDP camps before I left and I never really thought of taking hygiene products, it was always food, clothes, but I never really thought of pads in that way.

So thinking about it, it was like people who are in public schools where their school fees are N1,000, where are they going to see pad money? People in IDP camps, where are they going to get pad money from? So, I was like let’s just do a few people, so I put out a tweet and said, ‘Oh, I would be going to this place, and this place and this place. Who wants to send money for it because I was going to put my money it.’

Just overnight; I went to sleep and I woke up. It (donations) had gone up to N400,000, so the pressure was up. In a couple of days, it was like N1.2 million, so, I bought my ticket, came to Nigeria the next month and I went to Gaskiya Heights College in Ajegunle – that’s the school my Mum went to, it was sentimental for me.

One year later, we are almost at 11,000 girls and women all over Nigeria.

ALSO READ: Women who inspired us in 2018

Pulse: Has the journey so far, with Sanitary Aid Initiative been fulfilling?

Omu: I think it’s just been a lot of learning, for me. Like I don’t take it for granted and I feel really blessed to be part of this and it has opened my eyes to a lot of things, a lot of people and a lot of experiences. So many people have shared their stories, and people have asked questions on thing you would take for granted.

Like, I grew up expecting my period, I grew up knowing that at some point I would see my period; I knew what to do when I saw my period; I didn’t panic when I saw my period, and I have been able to manage it, but there’s people who don’t know what to do on their periods, they don’t know how to deal with period pains (and so forth).

Omu going for a high five with a student on a Sanitary Aid Initiative outreach. (Instagram/TheKaroOmu)

There are so many myths; there are people ashamed of their periods; some people don’t go to school when they’re on their periods; some people have never used a pack of pads before. We went out and we gave out pads and somebody was saying it was her first time ever to own a pack of pads and it’s not something I would have thought about.

I have known about people with no or low income all my life, but this has just opened my eyes to something different and the feedback has been amazing. I am selfish enough to feel that this does so much for me as a person, I can’t explain what it has been to me, it’s been great; it’s been amazing. It’s been work, but I want to keep doing this for a very long time.

But at some point, I really hope we don’t have to do this anymore. At some point, I hope it (sanitary pad) is just a basic thing that girls have and that one day, we’re extinct and there’s no more Sanitary Aid Initiative because everybody has sanitary pads.

Pulse: How did you gather the team at Sanitary Aid Initiative?

Omu: We have hundreds of volunteers, but we have a board of seven people. It was quite interesting, I went to my board; Cynthia worked with me on my other organization which deals with education, so Cynthia was a no-brainer, she was going to be on the team – she’s amazing.

At the time when I came, there was Mide – she loves the work, she likes the legwork, she wants to do everything. When we started, we used to fight a lot, but she’s grown so much and she’s great. Everybody else was ‘what skills are you bringing to the table?‘ so I had someone come in and say, ‘I’d design the website,’ ‘I have this skill,’ ‘I would do financials,’ or that skill.

So there’s Alexa, Tife, Gabby – who designed the website, and Ify – she wasn’t in Nigeria, but was like I would handle social media. So when people do shout-outs, I promise, it’s not me shouting myself out, it’s Ify shouting me out. (laughs). Tolani Thomas is someone else that wants to work and she has a lot of vision, coming into Sanitary Aid. She had a vision for Sanitary Aid; the now and the future.

We also had an Admin person, Lade. Everybody works together well, not everybody works together, but I have to work with all of them. So, it was important that we liked each other and we do.

Pulse: How do you select schools and students you give free Sanitary pads to on missions?

Omu: Most times, we go to these schools before to obtain permission and know how many they are. In the beginning, one of our biggest problems was funds in the sense that we didn’t have a scope when we started.

I remember that the first interviews I did, I was saying ‘we want to reach two million girls,’ because at the time, I had read that six million girls had no pads and I was like, ‘Imagine if we could reach one-third of the girls in Nigeria?’ and I thought we could reach them.

But at the time, I was thinking about giving them a pack of disposable pads. So, even if I had reached to them, what would have happened to them the next month?

In the beginning, there was no foresight at that level, we had not thought everything through. It was what we didn’t expect to blow up and now that it has blown up, we have to do the work. At one point (earlier on), we realized that we needed a better model to make sure that if we went somewhere, the girls won’t have to worry about pads for a long time.

So, we had to start small. When we go to Borno (for example), we had two people in Borno – one now. One of them is Tobi. What she would do is go to an IDP community, find out how many people are in that community, and then we would check our pockets before knowing if we can afford to go there and meet these people or this age group, then we buy for that or we’ll go to schools, survey before going.

Most times, the places we go, we try to give everybody pads and now, we give reusable pads. So, we’re certain that, if we give them pads, they are not going to think about pads from one to four years.

Now, we’ve brought our scope down to say, ‘Now, we’ve done 10,000 girls this year, let’s push ourselves and do 12,000 and that’s how we have been taking it.

People come to us and say they want to collaborate and we’re like, ‘Yeah, how do you want to work?’ and they offer a place, or someone on their team has gone to a school and done the ‘pre-work’. Then, we’re happy to go there and distribute pads and talk to them about sanitary hygiene.

Pulse: How do you guys raise funds for Sanitary Aid causes?

Omu: 99% of the time, we’re crowdfunded. I don’t know how, but people give us money. I have actually never seen anything like this and I am saying that because I have being involved in other social causes, but this is something that has been very organic. People come to us and; I don’t know if it’s how we share it (pads) or how organic it is, or maybe it’s because people can see what we’re doing.

OgheneKaro Ibada Omu [The Guardian Nigeria]

So a lot of time, people say I want to give you money for this, and I am always shocked no matter how many times it happened, I’ve not stopped being shocked that people genuinely believe in this. One thing I always try to do for accountability is that, I always want to give feedback to show what we do and I share pictures a lot. Basically, people give us money and we buy pads.

We can do more with more money, but we are working with what we have and we haven’t had an empty account in a long time.

Pulse: What other reasons do you share these pictures and media files?

Omu: In the beginning, people had a problem with this (sharing pictures), questioning why we share pictures if we’re ‘truly’ helping people. But it’s not really about helping somebody, it’s that since we started doing this, so many others have started doing it as well – people are doing it in their local communities. If we were not doing this, I don’t think people will understand the story behind our work and the identity when it’s us.

Recently, we visited a school for special needs children in Ibadan. After we had given them pads, we went there to check on them and they were so happy. We had this video that I didn’t share for a long time, because it was like my personal thing to go back, look and be like, ‘these girls were happy.’

Like, it was emotional and fulfilling because you don’t think people will be so excited that they have pads. People always have pads, but then, there are people who don’t have pads.

Pulse: From here, what’s the vision for Sanitary Aid Initiative?

Omu: Currently, what we want to do beyond giving girls reusable pads and teaching them about sanitary health, what we want to do is start little workshops where we do and women how to make their own reusable pads. It’s in the works, but it’s a really big commitment and that’s what we want to do.

I did find out about a social enterprise that’s in Gembu, Taraba State. Some missionaries came here to work on (I think) an HIV/AIDS project, but what they ended up doing was teach the women in that community how to make pads and that’s how the women sustained themselves. So they’re happy to teach any other group of women that we want them to teach.

That’s like their own labour of love. We’ve bought pads from them, which they make in Gembu Community, Taraba State. We’re looking to start something like that especially in IDP communities so they can sustain themselves and move out of those areas where they’ve been forced to stay.

So, if the women can start making their own pads, we can buy from them, or we can have other people buy from them. Then, they can have money to sustain themselves and their families.

Pulse: How demanding has Sanitary Aid Initiative been as against other commitments?

Omu: It’s really demanding, so what I do is, I put in a number of hours everyday for Sanitary Aid work. It’s in my calendar, but it’s been part of my routine for over a year now and I have very a supportive family and friends – my team is very supportive. When something happens, there’s someone I can call. I’ve had tight deadlines and I know my brother can just quickly go do this for me.

I know my husband can quickly do this or somebody. I am nothing without my support system; my friends would write proposals to apply for grants like everybody in my life. It hasn’t been ‘Karo Sanitary Aid,’ it has just been a village to make it work and it balances out in the end.

Sometimes, I have to do a Skype call, my child is in the other room with her father and I’m able to have a couple of hours to do my work. My support system has been good, the team is amazing – Cynthia gets up in the middle of her own job and does things at different times. It’s been great, I don’t see it as a challenge because it gets handled by people who support me.

Pulse: On the issue of taxation and pads last year to take out a certain percentage away from the costs of pads, what is your take?

Omu: I wasn’t really involved in that conversation and from a Sanitary Aid perspective, the people that I deal with cannot afford pads even if you take out 50% of the cost of purchasing a pad. It’s great to take out the taxes in pads, I would never stand against anything that’s going to make things cheaper for everybody.

But a lot of people that we work with can’t actually afford pads.

Karo being goofy at Ringier Building. (Instagram/Duchesskk)
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