Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

She leads an underwear revolution for African girls

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Rachel Starkey has the enthusiasm of a travelling evangelist when she talks about her African-based textiles company.

"We're part of something. It's the next Google in terms of women in emerging worlds," says the Calgary native. "Transformation Textiles is the last thing I think about when I go to sleep and the first thing I think about in the morning," she says. "We have developed an incredible product that is revolutionizing girls in Africa."

And what's the product that will challenge Google for world dominance?

"The next great thing is underwear. And you're going, 'OK, what does this have to do with anything?' One in 10 girls in Africa, they don't have a pair. And all of my female counterparts, if you just let your imagination run with you a little bit until the middle of the month, what would you do without a pair of underwear? That's exactly what they do. They stay at home."

The former nurse says more than 850,000 Kenyan girls miss six weeks of school every year and women miss time at work. Girls drop out sooner, and many then marry very young.

"Something that gives them the ability to stay in schools transforms lives."

Starkey and her husband moved to Egypt 14 years ago. She started a small textiles company, employing 300 people. They began making cloth diapers but expanded into clothing. She says a light went on for her when she was walking through her city's textiles zone and saw all the scrap fabric destined for landfills. She estimates 60,000 kilograms of scrap are tossed each week.

"I thought, 'Isn't there something we could do with this? Can't we recycle it somehow?'

"When you're making mass production with a million T-shirts for Walmart or some big-box store, there's a million neck holes that are thrown away. When we did the math on a million T-shirts, you can get a quarter-million underwear without having any more waste of fabric."

Starkey already knew African girls and women have limited access to sanitary hygiene products. If they're available, they can't afford them. Even if they had them, many women don't own underwear.

She came up with a tie-on design that will fit every woman but doesn't depend on elastic that can break down in the African heat. Reusable cloth pads slide inside. A full kit of two pairs of panties and six pads costs about $5. They'll last three years.

The panties are easy to make, using the cut-out scoops of fabric from T-shirts and other clothing. She says 16 of her staff have produced 500,000 pairs of underwear.

"We're not making Gucci bags here. It's very, very simple."

Transformation Textiles has two pilot projects underway. The first has 10,000 kits packed into rain barrels and sent to Malawi. The barrels keep the underwear safe from pests and rain and can be used by communities when they're empty. The second pilot has 30,400 pairs arriving in Kenya for distribution. There, Starkey's company is working with Zana Africa, a non-profit dedicated to helping African girls thrive.

Any proceeds from the pads will fund health, education and policy initiatives.

Starkey says she pays her workers not just a "fair" wage, defined as comparable to other factories, but a living wage.

"I ask them their dreams. That's the second question, after their name."

She would like to see the menstrual kits work as a micro-financing program, with profits being turned back into production. She says she isn't planning to get rich from the next great thing.

If you're interested in learning more, Starkey will be speaking at an African-themed dinner at 6 p.m. today at Calvary Temple.

A Winnipeg chapter of Transformation Textiles is in the process of forming. Their email is transformationtextileswinnipeg@gmail.com.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 11, 2013 A10

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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