Dr Liita I. Cairney is the creator of the Koree, a uniquely designed, externally worn, re-usable feminine hygiene product. With this creation, Dr. Cairney aims to support and help solve period poverty across the globe. To assist her product, she has also created First Period, a website dedicated to supporting young women who are just starting to menstruate. The site also includes lots of educational materials to help educate girls about their menstrual cycle
Q1. Tell us about your own education experiences in terms of menstrual health whilst growing up.
I grew up in Namibia with a passion for reading and biology. As a result I educated myself on women’s health issues and felt prepared from a scientific standpoint. What did surprise and humiliate me however, was the fact that like so many young women in the country, I didn’t have reliable or affordable access to menstrual products. I frequently used toilet paper and sometimes took pads from my friends to cope. There was also no education. I had to piece together information from different sources because nobody ever sat me down and talked to me about what to expect or do when my period came.
Q2. What are the biggest struggles for young women in Namibia with regard to learning, understanding and coping with their periods?
The need for good personal hygiene is universal. Yet, even though menstruation is a predictable monthly event, the solutions available are often determined by what an individual girl or woman can access and afford. The menstrual hygiene market is well established and highly monopolised by pharmaceutical companies – but only in the world’s wealthiest countries where it is commercially viable. That means that the needs of large segments of the global population are not being met by existing products and companies.
In countries like Namibia, the dignity of girls during menstruation is often not viewed as a household financial priority even though, without the right products, menstruation can hinder girls from engaging confidently in public life. This is why my focus for Koree has been to make a product that is reusable so that they it does not need to be purchased every month.
Education is equally important. Parents and guardians often don’t understand how menstruation works and the subject of experiencing your first period just doesn’t get discussed. At most schools, it’s only mentioned as a general part of reproductive health biology.
Q3. Can you tell us a little bit about the process behind developing the business? What were the main hurdles?
I was inspired to take action during a trip to a school in Namibia in 2012 when I was gathering data for my PhD at the University of Edinburgh. While talking to a teacher at the school, I discovered that the same menstrual health challenges I faced were being experienced by many female pupils today. I thought about how to empower the young woman that I was at 12 or 13 years old, and created Kalitasha, the Koree product and the www.firstperiod.org educational framework as a response.
The first challenge was creating a prototype of the Koree – an externally worn and reusable menstrual hygiene device. Then we had to get the tone right for the firstperiod.org website. It features a 12-year-old character called Koree who provides girls with tips on their bodies and the menstrual cycle. I’ve had some really good feedback from young girls in Namibia who loved the idea of the little black character Koree, because they are not used to seeing themselves portrayed in such a relatable way.
Funding has been the main hurdle. I have been helped by a Scottish Government SMART proof-of-concept grant, a Royal Society of Edinburgh Enterprise Fellowship, private equity investment and the University’s entrepreneurial support department Launch.ed. Scotland has been an amazing place for me to start a business. The University of Edinburgh, Scottish Institute for Enterprise, Royal Society of Edinburgh, Scottish Enterprise, Lancaster Capital…these organisations have all been invaluable in bringing my business vision to life.
Q4. Alongside the info on your website, you’re running menstrual cycle 1-day workshops and 10-week courses in Edinburgh, Berlin and Nairobi. How did you decide what to include in the courses and do they differ depending on location?
From February 2019 www.firstperiod.org will be hosting ‘Harness Your Menstrual Cycle’ workshops and 10-week courses in Edinburgh, Berlin and Nairobi. The Africa Yoga Project in Kenya (https://www.africayogaproject.org/) and Ombetja Yehinga (OYO) in Namibia (https://www.ombetja.org/) are key partners in developing the curriculum around these workshops.
This is all about empowering young women, and helping them to get used to the menstrual cycle and its different phases, positively harnessing the physical and emotional aspects of each phase, through techniques such as stretching and breathing exercises that originate from yoga.
Q5. Your products sound a lot more environmentally friendly than standard pads and tampons, on account that they are reusable. Any plans to develop for a UK market?
From the very outset, the UK market was always in mind. All women want well-designed, attractive and effective products to manage their period and Koree Kits are available for sale in the UK now. All the details are on our website.
And just for fun…
Q6. What’s your fondest memory from when you were a child?
As a child in Namibia, I loved to read anything and everything that I could get my hands on. I loved hanging out with my sisters Ester and Tangeni, and my brother Ndeu, playing house while living in Okatope; staging plays and fashion shows while living in Windhoek; and generally loving family life and reflecting on the meaning of existence!
Q7. If you didn’t have to sleep, what would you do with the extra time?
I would hate not to sleep. Rest is important!
Q8. What is something you think everyone should do at least once in their lives?
I don’t know about doing something once, but on a daily basis, I think people should live life to the full and try to enjoy being in the moment.
Q9. Who is / was your most interesting friend?
Life has been very good to me and I have met many interesting people and I have made great friends from different countries and cultures. Top of my list though would be my husband Mark Cairney. I find him amazing. We met on the 2nd of March 2011 at a whisky tasting in Edinburgh and we married in Windhoek, Namibia on the 1st of November 2013, my 30th Birthday. Mark and I have awesome adventures together. We are the proud and happy parents of a magical child, Henrik Omepo Cairney, who was born on the 21st of July 2017. The other key people in my life who make me very happy and help me enjoy life are my brother Ndeu (Johannesburg) and friends Blerina (New York), Ben (Berlin), Isola (Windhoek) and Petrina (Windhoek).
Q10. What are the top three qualities that draw you to someone new?
- People who question the meaning of their own life and seek to help others find their own happy meaning.
- People who are fun and make me a more fun person
- And most importantly, kindness
You can learn more about Dr Liita I. Cairney and her work on her website: www.firstperiod.org