Innovation That Matters

Kara Wong and Ruby Maky on designing products for social impact

Wise Words

Co-founders of Waveee Design, Kara Wong and Ruby Maky, discuss issues surrounding period poverty in refugee camps and how committed product design can have a significant impact

For many women and young girls around the world, menstruation products are still extremely difficult to access. According to the Borgen Project, at least 500 million women around the world experience period poverty every month.

Designed by Waveee Design for women in refugee camps, Looop Can is a portable kit to wash menstruation pads. Each Looop kit contains a recycled steel container for cleaning, 70 grams of baking soda—which acts as a natural cleaning agent—and a reusable Looop Pad. All that is needed after that is 500 millilitres of water. 

Waveee design was founded by two product design students with the aim of incorporating social and environmental impact to design work. To understand how period poverty affects women’s lives in refugee camps, we spoke to Waveee founders, Kara Wong and Ruby Maky. Kara and Ruby share with us their thoughts on how and why they think design can play a role in creating opportunities for humanitarian support. They also discuss  some of the challenges that come up when incorporating sustainable elements into design.

Introduction and interview by Katrina Lane

1. Where did the idea for Looop Can come from and what does it aim to achieve?

Looop Can is Kara’s final year product design project, which was carried out from September 2020 to March 2021 in Central Saint Martins. At the time, there was news about a fire destroying Moria Camp. This is the largest refugee camp in Lesbos Island, Greece, and it left 130,000 people without shelter. 

The refugee crisis is still one of the gravest humanitarian disasters, with rapid climate changes forcing at least 26 million people to flee. Women suffer more vulnerabilities on this insecure journey, with issues such as period poverty and widespread gender-based violence being prevalent in camps. Period poverty is especially overlooked in refugee camps due to the lack of data collection about menstrual health. This affects women’s ability to access opportunities such as education, or fetch water and food resources. Moreover, in order to avoid unclean and sometimes unsafe toilets, menstruators often change pads in their shelter where there is little privacy. They need to have privacy, safety, security space and access to water and soap to clean. 

Looop Can is an affordable cleaning kit for washing reusable menstruation pads, with the aim being to reduce period poverty in water-scarce regions. Almost 60 percent of female refugees suffer from period poverty. Kara was inspired to design a product that could protect fundamental human rights to water, sanitation, and health for menstruators from 12 to 24 years old. The pad could also be an opportunity to bring financial security to refugee women by paying livable wages for pad manufacturing. 

2. What can you tell us about period poverty, how this affects women’s lives in refugee camps and why sanitary pads aren’t the best option?

Menstruation is time-consuming and costly. For many, in addition to presenting an add-on financial burden, menstruation is still associated with social stigma and cultural taboo. 

People spend an average of 7 years menstruating and are estimated to spend around £5,000 to £18,000 on managing their menstruation. Period poverty is an inability to access or afford sufficient sanitary material. 

Five hundred million people live in period poverty. Those from low socio-economic backgrounds use homemade blood-collecting substitutes to manage their menstruation – such as tissue paper, socks, newspapers, unhygienic clothes, pieces of mattresses, rags, leaves, etc. This leads to an increased risk of reproductive and urinary tract infection, and also immobility due to embarrassment and anxiety about blood-leaking.

Period poverty is especially overlooked in refugee camps owing to the lack of data collection about menstrual health. Disposable sanitary pads aren’t the best option either.  Refugees are often not willing to spend on pads when there is already limited financial support to provide water or food for their families. Moreover, to avoid conflict, many NGOs won’t give out resources unless there is enough for everyone. 

The environmental impact of using sanitary products is another reason to promote Looop Can. The average user in the global north uses 11,000 pads/ tampons in a lifetime, creating 125 to 150 kg of waste, and accounting for 7 kg of carbon dioxide emissions each year. Furthermore, disposable menstrual products that are made out of plastic take 500 years to biodegrade. 

Finally, it must be remembered that menstruators are still faced with the culturally sensitive disposable methods in the camp. Washing menstrual blood in public areas requires a positive attitude against old menstrual stigma. This is why Looop Can was designed.

3. What was your background prior to this, and how does it shape your designs?

Both of us grew up in Hong Kong, one of the most unequal and expensive cities to live in.  Seeing the impacts of poverty and weak social safety nets is the main reason we pursued a degree in product design. We think it can make a direct impact in less time compared to policy changes. 

Kara studied in London, a cultural hub for Europe creatives, and Ruby studied in Hong Kong, an inclusive melting pot where East meets West. After graduating from university, we founded Waveee Design to bring social impacts with multidisciplinary design works. In addition to Looop Can, recent work includes vision-loss friendly Poppu Go Chess, which just won the best Red Dot Design Concept.

4. What change do you want to foster through your designs?

Looop Can aims to provide an actionable solution for a problem experienced by millions worldwide, developing products that can be made sustainably, repackaged, repaired, rewashed, and reused at extraordinarily low costs. This is a piece of work that provides not just provocation, but a real-world solution. We want Looop Can to be a tool that empowers gender equality and helps understand the importance of menstrual activity. For example, it could be used as a stepping stone to promote hygiene awareness campaigns in refugee camps. People who join the 30-minute menstrual hygiene management session can get 2 units of Looop Can to make sure they learn how to use it properly. It also reduces gender-based violence in the camp as users don’t have to travel long distances at night for toilets.

5. Who inspires you? 

For Looop Can, there are lots of product designers that bring significant inspiration during the design journey. We have taken inspiration from Nightloo from Anna Meddaugh, Arunachalam Muruganantham a.k.a. The Pad Man, L.I.C.K from Irina Samoilova, Tampon Book from Ann-Sophie Claus & Sinja Stadelmaier and Carrie from Amelia Kociolkowska. I wanted to put a highlight on Liz Ebengo who is the founder of HNST.CO, a London-based Human Security Design Studio. She really inspired the design of a cost-effective product that provides sanitary security for refugees. She also offered useful contacts for Kara to reach out and collect research information during lockdown.

6. What role do you think design plays in creating opportunities for humanitarian support?

Design plays an integral role in filling the gaps that bring improvement to humanitarian support. Waveee Design sees design as a powerful action tool to shift better user experience and create opportunities for marginalised communities. For example, designing products/services that fit in a global context strengthens the scaling impact and benefit from utilising local resources. 

7.What role does sustainability play in your designs? And what are some of the challenges that come up when incorporating sustainable elements in design?

For Waveee Design, sustainability serves as a guide for making decisions about material selection, system services, manufacturing methods, and community involvement. 

In Olaf Diegel’s article for the Journal of Sustainable Development in 2010, he states, “designers have a moral and ethical obligation to be responsible for their designs and the impacts of their work.”  We always need to consider public affordability and fit the design outcome to a low-cost budget. 

Moreover, how can we make people accept the concept that they need to learn and adapt in using the green product? And how can we make sure the product will have the same performance in different regions with different locally-sourced materials? These are the decisions that we need to process and balance at every stage.

8.What is one book you’ve recently read that has inspired you

Invisible Women Exposing Data Bias in A World Designed For Men by Caroline Criado Perez is the main book that inspired Looop Can. In particular, Chapter 16—It’s Not the Disaster that kills you—acknowledges more female-specific injustices. Caroline points out some of the invisible women’s problems that have been ignored for a long time, such as maternity in a war zone setting, long-hour unpaid caring duties, sex disparity in natural-disaster mortality and so on.  We were shocked by the fact that hygiene kits are distributed without calculating adequate menstruators’ needs in each household. 

And currently we are reading Our Bodies Their Battlefield: What war does to women by Christina Lamb. It is another inspiring book that points out why socio-economic support and education will empower women to regain financial security.

9. Do you have any other thoughts or wise words for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Business is a direct way to bring a social and cultural win-win to the world, especially when governments need more time to debate, process and deliver impacts.

The primary goal of entrepreneurship, of course, is to simulate alternative consumer power with brand influences, and to generate profit. Hence, we see more startups that are born under the name of human rights concerns, while aiming to impact ethically within their market scale. It is an honour for Waveee Design to join the journey towards ending gender misinformation by bringing marginalised people together through entrepreneurship.

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