Karo Omu is the founder of Sanitary Aid Initiative, a non-profit organisation dedicated to addressing the needs of the Nigerian female population without access to sanitary pads. We recently caught up with her, and she gave us an account of her personal career progression and offered advice for anyone looking to establish a non-profit.
How far away from what you studied are you now?
Very far! And I am going farther every day. I studied Mass Communication, and I am currently a project manager. Communication still plays a role, though.
What was your first job?
I got a job at a radio station in Plateau, but I wasn’t getting paid. The only time we saw money was when we went out to cover something and got brown envelopes. It could contain anything from ₦500 to ₦5,000. It was surprising because the money didn’t change anything; I still wrote what I saw.
At this point, brown envelopes are probably just tradition.
I guess. I then worked as a volunteer teacher for some time. But my first job out of school was at a bank during NYSC. It was good. We were getting ₦35,000 and the NYSC allowance was ₦19,800 or something. People would give me tips, too. I never knew that banking was so complex. You will be pulling strings to get your own money out of the bank.
Welcome to Nigeria…
[Laughs] That was my introduction to corporate culture and led me to know I didn’t want to work in a bank. I then worked in Dulux as an assistant brand manager. I’d travel around to check that the branches were displaying the products well and keeping to other guidelines.
I was 21 and just going with the flow. It was very good exposure and now that I think back, it was an important role in the company.
What was the pay?
I think it was under ₦100k. It was when I moved to Konga that I started seeing big bucks. Well, it was big bucks to me — about double my old salary.
How did you negotiate that?
My husband, who was my boyfriend at the time, told me to tell them ₦300,000 or ₦350,000. I was like, “Eh?!”
[Laughs] Did you ask for that?
No o! When they asked for my salary expectations, I just couldn’t say it. I said ₦250k and they offered me that.
I spent the next year in regret. I really should have just said ₦350,000.
We all have those regrets.
Yeah. But it was a great job. I was working with so many young and intelligent people. There were lots of parties. A lot of the people I was working with were earning more than I was, so there was money. I had a good time.
How long did you stay there?
Fore than a year.
What happened next?
I left for the UK in 2016. I didn’t really have a job when I moved. I was doing freelance social media work for companies I knew when I was in Nigeria. Then, in January 2017, I was up all night in a discussion about sanitary pads and I thought it was ridiculous.
I remembered that there was a guy I gave ₦200 to buy me a pack of sanitary pads and a bag of pure water. The former was ₦150 and the latter ₦50. He came back with one pack of pads because it was ₦200. In my head, I was like, “Nigeria is spoiling o!”
During the discussion, I was thinking, “It can’t be more than ₦200.”
I checked online and I saw ₦450. And so, in true Karo fashion of acting before thinking, I sent out a tweet saying I was going to buy pads to send to IDP camps. I asked people who were interested in joining me to reach out. I also added my account number.
I went to bed by 1AM. By the next morning, I had received over ₦500,000.
By the third day, it had reached about ₦1 million. People were reaching out asking how they could help. That was how SANG [Sanitary Aid for Nigerian Girls is registered as Sanitary Aid Initiative] was born. We set up a board and got a lot of support at the beginning.
My initial goal was 1 million girls, but I soon realised that if you give 1 million girls pads this month, you have to give them again next month and the month after for the next 30 years. I hadn’t thought about this aspect.
We continued fundraising and started going to places. People introduced us to other organisations. Even Microsoft got involved.
How did that happen?
A friend of mine was working there. And they do a lot of non-profit work. They didn’t give financial support, but they did give us other kinds of support and their staff contributed.
What’s the structure of SANG like?
We have a board of 9 people, including me. We have over 100 volunteers. We have only one paid staff at the moment.
What does this person do?
She is our outreach coordinator and, I’ll say, executive assistant. She keeps everybody in check and makes my life easier.
How does money work for SANG?
When we began, we were crowdfunded. 99 percent. We have people who donate monthly from the beginning. But we realised it wasn’t sustainable. We had fast fundraising when the topic was hot. Then it dwindled. So we have a partnerships director that goes out to organisations asking them to be our “Period partner”. We are now moving to almost 50 percent corporate partnerships.
And these are financial partnerships?
Yes. We now give sanitary kits — pads, underwear, detergents. We also believe in sustainability so we give reusable pads now and there is a company that makes them in Nigeria. Our kits cost about ₦3,000.
How long do the pads last?
You can use reusable pads for one to four years. We have 5 pads in one kit. We spend a lot of time explaining that cloth pads are not just about not having money. I switched to cloth pads and now have less cramps. That’s a personal thing, but we educate the recipients about the benefits.
I wanted us to not switch to cloth pads until I could use it. I did that after I gave birth, but I am not forceful about others using it.
What’s the goal now?
1,000 girls every month. So that’s about ₦3m every month. But we do more than that because we now have a partnership with a pad company that gets 1,000 pads to 1,000 girls. They also take care of logistics. We have a one-year agreement with the company.
How do you choose recipients?
Depends. Sometimes people come to us. Other times, we go where we haven’t been.
Do you ever run into problems even as you are trying to do good?
Yes! It can be complicated. We have had to go to a district office to get access to the schools. You get a letter from the district and take that to the school, which then gives us a date for when they are ready. We order the pads and pray it gets to us in time to make the date.
Outside of schools?
We went to Jos in our first or second year, and were told by an IDP camp leadership that they weren’t interested. We said we had spoken to the women in the camp and they had no products, but their response was the same.
I got a number for the man and he told me they had a waste management problem in the camp. Pads were going to worsen the problem.
That’s an interesting problem.
Yes. So, we got them a truck that would pick their waste twice a week and then we said we can buy bins for the camp, which we did. It was the first time we incorporated education into what we were doing. We were assuming everybody knows what to do.
After that, we realised we had to tell recipients about the process, including how to dispose of the pads. We have also learned that we need to think about people with disabilities when we give pads. We have incorporated those learnings into our outreach programmes.
So, things are always evolving. We now recognise we need to think about logistics when we ask someone to go somewhere on a Monday morning. That’s how we arrived at the need for paid staff. We are going into policy now. If Nigeria has a sanitary policy, it would make things easier.
Does SANG pay you?
No. I donate money and my time. I’ve always had a job. Currently, I work in a non-profit in the UK and I have a business selling books and toys for kids. It’s called Play by Kay.
Did it help that you were doing SANG when you got a job in a non-profit in the UK?
Not really. They kept asking for non-profit experience, but I could still never land a job. I did a project management course, and I finally got one.
Sounds like Nigeria. They wanted paper.
How is the books and toys business doing?
It’s fine enough to sustain itself. We want to expand and do more branding, but the naira is useless.
Story of our lives!
Yeah. Sometimes it feels like I should be doing it in the UK. But, you know, sometimes, the idea is to replicate something you have seen in the UK in Nigeria. It would consume my life if I did it here.
What would you say to people who look at SANG and want to replicate it, given your experience so far?
The first thing is to have some structure. Crowdfunding is not a model way to run your organisation. That can’t be the primary source of your revenue. You also need to think about how long you are willing to address the problem. Is it for a year? Is it for as long as the problem exists? That should guide how you think about funding it. Do I get to pay myself a salary? If I had approached SANG that way, maybe I would have made different decisions. And if I realised we needed someone to do something, I could have figured out how much salary she would earn and then get a corporate sponsor to fund that salary. These are things I didn’t think about.
You need to have specific goals. When I said we could do this for one million girls, it was ridiculous. If you want to do something for 10,000 girls, you should be able to come up with how much it would cost to do that. Have a number.
Always try to have commitments from people and speak to people who know better than you. I was lucky enough to have people who were doing some kind of non-profit work, so I could speak to them. Of course, there is space for learning but the problem with jumping into things without really thinking about it is that you may have gotten people to join you and when it doesn’t work out, you have to let them go. Have a Plan A and a Plan B but follow Plan A very well.
What happens in the future?
Maybe I will become a designer one day. I learned UX design recently. Right now I’m moving to an exciting role with an increase in pay and responsibility.
Thank you! It’s a project management role in a university.
What’s next for SANG?
We want to see what is out there in terms of creating our own products. We want to evolve into a social enterprise. We want to get to a point where it sustains itself.
I also really want us to do more in terms of policy. We would like for the Nigerian government to come up with a proper period poverty policy or a menstruation hygiene policy. Kenya has it. So instead of just giving pads, we can go to schools to check if they are doing what the law says they should.