‘Customs officers thought they were car parts’: the woman bringing menstrual cups to Ethiopia

Sara Eklund hopes the cups will help reduce stigma and shame in a country where a quarter of women lack access to period products

“Car parts,” says Sara Eklund, shaking her head. “They had no idea what they were, so they took a wild guess.” Eklund had hurdles importing the first menstrual cups into Ethiopia, but she hadn’t anticipated having to explain to confused customs officials what the small, pink silicone cups were used for.

She had finally got a green light to bring an initial 200 Noble Cups into the country, only to have them confiscated by the Ethiopian Revenue and Customs Authority (Erca) – over apparent paperwork issues. But Eklund was not deterred. “I thought: go big or go home.” So she went for 5,000 in her second shipment.

Sara Eklund is the founder of Noble Cup.
Sara Eklund founder of Noble Cup. Photograph: Jesimiel Boh/Noble Cup

There was a new hitch. Erca categorised the product as a luxury item, and imposed a 69% tax. “It was madness,” says Eklund. “The system is made to infuriate and frustrate.”

With some determination from Eklund, Noble Cup is now on sale in more than 30 shops across the capital, Addis Ababa, with plans to expand.

At 230 birr (£3.50), the cups are prohibitively expensive for most women and girls in Ethiopia, where only 28% of women report having “everything they need” to manage their periods, and 25% do not use any form of sanitary product, relying instead on whatever they can find: rags, newspaper, even cloths filled with ash.

Eklund hopes that promoting the product will help encourage a more open discussion, and reduce the stigma and shame around menstrual health. “This is something every single woman goes through every month,” she says.

But shame is deeply embedded, says Mekdim Hailu, campaigner at WaterAid Ethiopia. “Pharmacists still hand sanitary pads to customers in newspaper and a plastic bag. Even as young women in an urban area, my friends and I still use code words for periods.”

Hailu welcomes cups as an eco-friendly alternative but says even those who could afford to buy them – and have access to clean water – may avoid them for cultural reasons.

“We want girls and women to have many choices, but it’s a foreign concept to put an external product inside your vagina – even tampons are not used here – so there is a lot to be done in terms of awareness of this [product].”

Born in Virginia to an Ethiopian mother and American father, Eklund went to high school in Ethiopia but returned to the US for college. She was inspired to start her business after her own discovery of menstrual cups, a “eureka moment” in her freshman year.

She considered launching a charity to provide cups for free, but her mother, a businesswoman, knocked that idea down. “She told me, ‘If it’s going to be anything, it has to be a business – this concept that Africans just need free stuff is wrong.’”

Noble Cup billboard ad in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
A billboard advertising Noble Cup in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Photograph: Noble Cup

“She was right,” says Eklund. “I don’t think donating the cups would have had the same power. When women choose to buy a product, they are more invested in it. They will share stories about it. That’s when behavioural change comes.”

Eklund’s team runs basic biology workshops in schools, introducing children to period products. They are also active on social media.

“It’s no coincidence that the rise of the menstrual movement has coincided with the growth of social media,” says Eklund. She cites a woman from Hawassa who contacted the team after watching a TikTok video. “We sent her some, and she’s become a sort of unofficial ambassador for us,” says Eklund.

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Isabel Choat

The GuardianTramp

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