By Valentine Iwenwanne
It wasn’t your typical summer camp. In August, Lolo Cynthia, a public health specialist and sexuality health educator, taught some 250 girls in southwest Nigeria how to sew their own reusable menstrual pads from linens and cloth. Each teenager went home with two washable pads, materials to make more at home — and straight talk about sexual health that is hard to come by here.
Backed and funded by the first lady of Nigeria’s Ondo state, Betty Anyanwu-Akeredolu, the camp is just one example of how the 24-year-old founder of social enterprise LoloTalks — an online channel that has attracted more than 1.5 million views — is changing the conversation in Nigeria. Cynthia’s period pad initiative has become a powerful symbol in a conservative country where discussions around menstruation and sexual health are often seen as taboo.
Cynthia during her adopt-a-community initiative, where she shared free pads.
A 2015 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) study in three Nigerian states revealed that many school girls “believed that menstruation was a secret and unclean experience.” With their periods, they experienced anxiety, abdominal pain and cramps, nausea and vomiting, dizziness and a loss of appetite — which in turn took a toll on their studies. Nigeria is one of many countries that place a heavy tax on menstrual products; a pack of sanitary pads costs an average of $1.30, even as an estimated 44 percent of Nigeria’s population (87 million people) live in extreme poverty, earning less than $1.90 per day.
“Lolo’s eco-friendly pad is a viable business that should be replicated across Nigeria,” says Oritseweyinmi Erikowa-Orighoye, a friend of Cynthia’s and project manager at the Coastal and Marine Areas Development Initiative. “If women learn how to make reusable sanitary pads, they can also use it as a means of livelihood, turning it into a wealth-creation avenue.” Indeed, women in Ondo have already started to make money since the training.
SHE TOOK WHAT SHE CALLS A TRIPLE-A APPROACH TO PERIOD POVERTY — ACCESS, AWARENESS AND AFFORDABILITY.
But to make Cynthia’s work more widespread, challenges abound, from cultural beliefs around sex to raising funds and making contacts to penetrating certain corners of society. “Most times I reach out to people to donate for projects, and we haven’t been able to get proper grants and sponsors,” Cynthia says. She partnered with Ondo’s first lady and her friend Dolapo Olaniyan, executive director of the Gender Equality and Empowerment Network, when she realized she couldn’t raise enough money on her own for the camp.
“As a woman, when you grow up in Nigeria, you would see so many things that are unacceptable and you would see real big issues that affect every single woman,” Cynthia says. “We sometimes look at it as a conversation that doesn’t matter and prefer talking about the economy, so I decided to do something about it.”
A training on eco-friendly pads in Ondo state.
Born and raised in Lagos, Cynthia relocated to South Africa in 2009 for post-secondary studies. She earned two degrees at Monash University by age 19, in public health and sciences and HIV-AIDS and health management.
But instead of academia, she ended up in media. She worked as a medical social worker with an assisted living facility in Lagos, but she performed well on a TV screen test in 2017. She then joined Nigeria’s Rave TV as a broadcaster on a live breakfast show about current affairs, politics and lifestyle. She also produced an ongoing documentary series called Stories Unheard, focusing on the lives of street children, abuse of anti-malaria medication and other issues that affect women in Nigeria.
“Broadcasting was just a platform for me to air my own views and opinion,” she says. She launched LoloTalks back in 2013 while still living in South Africa, but her true passion has always lay in sexual health and social inequality — from tutoring 2,000 students with her MyBodyIsMine comprehensive sex-education curriculum to delivering free condoms and sexually transmitted infection tests to sex workers around Lagos.
Cynthia comes off as melancholy yet bold and hardworking. Perhaps her greatest weakness is her frank style of speech and willingness to delve deep on issues surrounding menstrual and sexual reproductive health, which can be off-putting to some audiences.
Cindy Ikpe, program manager at the entrepreneurship incubator Fate Foundation, first met Cynthia when she was applying for a job at the assisted living facility. Then as now, Ikpe says, Cynthia was “a target-driven person” with smarts and energy.
The target on menstruation began when Cynthia was studying in South Africa and came across girls complaining of expensive and unhygienic sanitary pads. Upon her return to Nigeria, she took what she calls a triple-A approach to period poverty — access, awareness and affordability. It started with the NoDayOff Campaign, which distributed more than 1,000 disposable menstrual pads to women and girls in her local community of Festac Town.
As the work has taken off, it’s earned Cynthia broad recognition, from the UN Refugee Agency to the “New Establishment List” by Nigerian news outlet YNaija to the continent-wide “Social Good Awards.” Her long-term goal is to partner with Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Health and Education to make six reusable pads accessible to each female student every new school year.
In her free time, she devours books and loves travel to new places, for the opportunity to strike a conversation with anyone.
Cynthia takes on consulting work to help fund her initiative and is always scrambling for more donations and partners. Her goal is nothing less than a nationwide behavioral and mental shift. Aside from making sure more women get reusable pads, she is designing a sexuality education syllabus so schoolchildren across the country can get a frank, fact-based conversation at last.