The Root Of The Science Podcast

EP 133: Asonele Kotu, Tackling Period Poverty and Empowering African Girls

February 11, 2024 Anne Chisa Season 5 Episode 133
The Root Of The Science Podcast
EP 133: Asonele Kotu, Tackling Period Poverty and Empowering African Girls
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Prepare to be moved by Asonele Kotu' s work is rewriting the narrative for young girls in Africa. 
Asonele Kotu from South Africa is the founder of Femconnect and  a Social Impact Entrepreneur.
 She talks about period poverty, the transformative education Femconnect provides on menstruation and family planning and tackling the deep-rooted stigmas surrounding sex education in Africa.

LinkedIn: Asonele Kotu

Support the show

Follow the show on:
Twitter: @Rootofscipod
Instagram: @Rootofscipod
YouTube: The Root Of The Science Podcast
Facebook: The Root of The Science Podcast
LinkedIn: The Root Of The Science Podcast
Website

Anne Chisa:

The Root of the Science Podcast with your girl, Anne with an E. Hello everyone and welcome back to another episode of the Root of the Science Podcast with your girl, Anne with an E. If you are new here, welcome, welcome, welcome. It's always such a pleasure to have new guests on the show For the returning fans. Thank you so much for tuning in once again. Usual reminder that you can follow this podcast on all social media platforms. You can follow on Instagram, tiktok and Twitter at Route of the Science Podcast, or you can follow on Facebook and LinkedIn YouTube as well, using the name of the Route of the Science Podcast. Make sure that you also subscribe wherever you listen to a podcast so that you are notified that a new episode is live. Remember that you can also suggest guests for me to talk to. You can do that by sending an email at the Route of the Science pod at gmailcom, or you can send a DM, because we would really love to chat to some really amazing people who are doing really amazing things. In today's episode, I'm happy to host Asonele Kotu, founder of Femconnect and a Social Impact Entrepreneur. Asonele is from South Africa and is empowering girls through menstrual and sex education. Let's go. Hi Asonnele, welcome to the show. Hi Anne, Thank you for having me on the show it is such a pleasure to chat to you today and I'm so excited to get to know more about you and what you do. Just briefly for the listeners out there, would you kindly introduce yourself?

Asonele Kotu:

So I'm Asonele Kotu. I am from Cape Town, South Africa. I'm the founder of Femconnet and I started an organization. We wanted to focus on advancing goals or helping goals that were going through period poverty, but also we needed to understand that it's not just period poverty. They go through period poverty and then they get to a point where they want to understand how do I do menstruation or how do I do family planning and everything. So we wanted to take them through that process. So we started with period poverty and then, after we started with period poverty, we said let's take the goal child through the whole process that they need to go through it. And that's what Femconnect is about. We provide an online platform that allows them to go through the whole process, whether we are there or not, but they can do it online and that's who we are.

Anne Chisa:

Fantastic, that's absolutely so amazing. And I like how you said that you're taking a holistic approach, where it's not just one problem but it interconnects with a bigger issue, and really taking them through the whole process and, in your experience, how has that empowered the girl, child or the women who are involved in this initiative?

Asonele Kotu:

We've been working with plus 2000 girls right now that are in different schools and we've realized the conversations that we have with them and it starts from menstruation and then, after menstruation, they're like, Sissy, okay, look, I'm so scared to talk about the actual stuff with my mom that can I talk to you? And I'm like, yeah, you can talk to me, but if you don't want to talk to me, you can do the WhatsApp line or you can go online or you can talk to an online at the taxi. You know, at home it's like a taboo when we speak about these things and I'm like look you don't have to feel scared. The reason why we started and we came in and we said, okay, from the time that you start your period, because we realize after your period, you're going to go through a process and then, after you go through the process, you're going to be like oh, now I want to experiment with sex, but I don't know who to speak to. So we want to be the people that are there, right, and it's amazing how they come back to us and they say to us look, I don't know how to speak to my mom about this problem. I don't know how to speak to my brother about this problem. I don't know how to speak to my sister about this problem. And that's what we've realized is that they come back to us and they say to us please help us. We don't know who to speak to, we're scared to go to the clinic because there's an auntie in the clinic that's going to tell our mom that we are doing family planning and we don't want that. And it has been so amazing that they've opened up to us and, like, what I can say is that we're having the last session with them, but we've realized that they trust us. They really trust us. There's a trust relationship that we have. And then that trust relationship is the trust relationship that they should have with the public clinic, but they don't have it with the public clinic and we're trying to figure out a way as to how do we link them to a clinic so that they can trust the clinic, because we don't have the contraceptives. The clinic has contraceptives and we're trying to figure out a way as to how we can work out around that.

Anne Chisa:

Amazing. So we touched on the idea that there's some stigma that these young girls face when talking about issues of sex period etc. So talk me through how FIMConnect works practically. You mentioned about a WhatsApp state. I mean a WhatsApp chat. So how does if I'm a young child? I have a 13-year-old sister, by the way, so it's that fun time where she's at that point where she's wanting to ask a young question. So how does someone like 13-year-olds could do it?

Asonele Kotu:

So how we work, we've got a couple of schools that we work with and we've also got an online platform. So we go to the school on a monthly basis, quarterly basis. We are at the schools and we drop off some senator heads and we talk to the girls, but also we've got an online platform whereby girls can ask the questions. Right, so it's not restricted only to Cape Town girls. Just because we go to Cape Town schools, it doesn't mean that it's restricted to Cape Town schools. So when you go on our online platform or on our app, right, when you download our app, you can ask questions and be like okay, fine, I am Uli from SOA2. I just want to find out about the synthesis and the synthesis. We will answer you right there. And then, because it's either through WhatsApp or it's either through the online platform, right. And then what we're also working on is that we have partnered up with a couple of schools in Joburg, so we will be doing work in Joburg.

Anne Chisa:

Yes.

Asonele Kotu:

We will be in Joburg physically. We will be in Joburg physically. We're doing interpops, we're doing school visits and everything, but for now all they can do is online WhatsApp and the EECore platform they can call.

Anne Chisa:

I think that's a great start. You know that you're utilizing technology, because we do live in the digital era and just because okay, pardon me, can you hear the rain, or is it?

Asonele Kotu:

I can hear you.

Anne Chisa:

Okay, you can hear it. Is it too bad? No no, no, I can hear you clearly. Okay, perfect, yeah. So let me just start again. I love the fact that you are using technology to really help children or the young girls into accessing this type of information, because we really do live in a technological era and also I think there's that ability where it's the being a little bit anonymous can allow them to maybe open up Do? You think that also helps, as opposed to the school visits alone.

Asonele Kotu:

No, they want to be anonymous. Yeah, what we figured out. They want to be anonymous. They don't want the parents to know, they don't want. They don't want people to know what they busy doing, Even the family planning staff. They want to be anonymous. So it's such a discrete service that we are providing to young people because they don't want to be known. That's the thing. They don't want to be known. Yeah, they don't want to be known.

Anne Chisa:

Sorry, go ahead.

Asonele Kotu:

We need to respect the privacy because they don't want to be known, and we need to give them the right information to say to them as much as you don't want to be known, but know that, okay, when you're doing family planning, do this, this, this, this, this. When you're doing a portion to this, this, this, this, this. When you're doing whatever you're doing, this is the information that we give you, but they don't want to be known. The discretion the discretion is the number one thing that they want and what. That's what we figured out for the past three years and we've compared ourselves to other people that are also doing the same work and all of them say the same thing. The young people don't want to be known, they don't want to go to the clinic, they want to do it online.

Anne Chisa:

Yeah, so it's like they don't want to be known, but they still want the information and.

Asonele Kotu:

I think that's the most important part they want the information, but they don't want to go into the clinic because they feel at the clinic they are stigmatized and, you know, discriminated and everything. So they don't want to go to the clinic, they would rather do it online.

Anne Chisa:

No, completely understandable. You mentioned that you've been doing this work for a couple of years now, and the Fame Connect app has actually been recognized and awarded for the wonderful work that you're doing. You won the Apps for Africa competition in 2019. But I just want us to now talk more on the technicalities of building an app, particularly a woman's health app, and you know so. How for you, has that journey been in developing a successful startup, like you have over the years?

Asonele Kotu:

It's been difficult. I want to try it. Because a regulation in our country is not yet ready for telehealth.

Anne Chisa:

Okay.

Asonele Kotu:

So if we talk about the regulation around SAPRA, if we talk about regulation around every other regulatory body, they're not ready. They have not been ready. Even at the time of COVID they were not ready. So now startups have moved forward and startups have gone forward, but the government is behind. And yeah, I really don't want to talk too much on this topic, but what I can say is that the government is not ready.

Anne Chisa:

It's not ready?

Asonele Kotu:

They're not at that point yet. Startups have moved forward. The government is five steps behind.

Anne Chisa:

So how do you navigate this? You know, given the fact that you've had experience. So if somebody's starting out, what advice would you say? Like listen, these are the landmines that you're going to face.

Asonele Kotu:

It's difficult. For example, if I can talk about time, connect right. It's very difficult. For example, with time connect right. We want to do distribution of contraceptive products, right. And then, if you want to do distribution of contraceptive products, they asked me and they said, okay, fine, how are you gonna do distribution? I said I'm not gonna keep any products with me, but we are just facilitating the process. And they said, okay, you're facilitating the process. You need a distribution license. But they never had a process in place as to Okay as a distributor. This is what you have to do, this is what you have to apply for. You know, the law is not ready for us. The technology is moving forward, but the law, the government, is not ready for us. I Can imagine how frustrating that must be For you and all and all the people who want to do all the work that you want to do, what I really we come with all these innovations but the government is not the legal that they need to be at to meet us at. So we come with these innovations and they're like, oh, we're not ready, we're not ready. And then we have to wait for them. We can't get regulation because they're not ready for us. Oh, man. Yeah, I.

Anne Chisa:

Can I, can, I, can, I, can, I can, I can hear the, the frustration, but I hope, I'm not sure what, what to say.

Asonele Kotu:

No, it's been three years. Yeah, it's been three years. It's been three years. It's been three years of me communicating with them. You, you can communicate with them again. They know it's been three years of me communicating with them and saying, okay, where do we go from here? There is no Slate point, that's it. Okay, you need to go this direction. They don't even know the direction that I need to go.

Anne Chisa:

Hmm, so is it? Is it that they Okay, maybe you can't answer this, but maybe this is not necessarily a question of if you can, maybe, but do you think it's a matter of them not having the knowledge on how to do it? Or just in terms of some, oh man, what a difficult place for wonderful like work like this, that is, is caught up in such a lot of red tape.

Asonele Kotu:

They just don't have the looming face so.

Anne Chisa:

So in the meantime, you have to find other means of of working around this, right? Hmm, yeah, no, I can. I can understand, I can understand and I I wanted to chat on another conversation, but just speaking on the role of technology. We spoke on the challenges, but now I want to look at it on the flip side. So, as innovators, people and startups, they, we, they are five steps ahead of government, like you said, but on the positive end. If this was a perfect world, what do you? How do you think technology, and even innovation, plays a role in addressing these needs of family planning, you know, as a, as outlined in SDG 3, for example, 3.71 and, and in terms of just the future, if everything worked well, how do you think technology is just gonna be that Possible I don't know what the word is saviour for in terms of women's health and family planning services, in an optimistic way?

Asonele Kotu:

That's my dream. That is my dream and and you know what I hope it happens. At the end of the day, the clinics in South Africa Are not equal the clinics in South Africa. People in the most disadvantaged areas do not have access to the clinics in South Africa. Let's start the yeah. They don't have access to the clinics in South Africa. 60% of people in South Africa Go for family planning in these clinics that do not have access to them. Okay, so what do we do? We need to open the doors for people to come into these clinics Monday to Sunday, not Monday to Friday, monday to Sunday. They need to come into those clinics Monday to Sunday. Number two the other thing is that the government tells us oh, four to five, okay, these people can. No, we need to make 24 hours clinics open and we need to have online facilities Like Fem Connect, so that people can be able to Can be able to do online family planning services. So if they can't come during the day, they can do online. That's what we want to do. Right, that's what we want to introduce. Yeah, and then, at the end of the day, I cannot speak on South Africa's disparity. We are such a disparate country. Everything is just I'm doing it with my hands and you can't see it but everything in this country is just disproportionate. The poor are poor, the rich are rich. That is how South Africa is, and that is why health care in South Africa is the way that it is. That is why education in South Africa is the way that it is. That is why a lot of things in South Africa are the way that they are, and FEM Connect is just trying to bridge the health care part Not that we're trying to do menstrual health, period, poverty and everything that is the educational part but there are many things in South Africa where we are disparate, right.

Anne Chisa:

Yeah, yeah so.

Asonele Kotu:

Go ahead so, so, so. So what I'm trying to say to you is that I can explain to you, if you want to ask questions as to the business model and everything I can explain to you, all that stuff. But at the end of the day, what I'm trying to explain to you is that this is where we are as a country. This is what we want to solve is FEM Connect, and this is the drive that we want to do.

Anne Chisa:

Hmm, I hear you. I hear you and we still have a very long way to go, but I think it takes organizations like yourselves, who are against all odds, against all the cards which are stacked against you. You're still motivated to make a difference and hopefully one day in the near future government in South Africa you know, helps you get to where you need to because, like you said, you're only doing the one small aspect of a very big problem.

Asonele Kotu:

We can only do a small aspect Exactly.

Anne Chisa:

Of a very big problem, hmm.

Asonele Kotu:

I mean, there's seven million goals. There's seven million goals that suffer from period poverty. We only do an aspect of that. There's over 500 million goals menstrual health problems in the world and we're just doing a fraction of that. And I ask myself, okay, where are we now? What are we doing? We've only reached 2000 goals, but we want to reach more.

Anne Chisa:

So yeah, there's still a long way to go, so is there?

Asonele Kotu:

a there's still a long way to go.

Anne Chisa:

Is there ways? If somebody's listening, or people who might be interested in helping you reach your mission, who are inspired by the work that you do? How can people get involved?

Asonele Kotu:

We'd like to reach a million goals in Africa. Look, the problem is not a unique case of African problem. Our problem, it cuts across East Africa, west Africa, northern Africa, wherever in Africa. But whoever that wants to assist FemConnect can come onto our website and say okay, I want to assist in West Africa, I want to assist in East Africa, I want to assist in South Africa, wherever you want to assist. We are looking for people to partner upwards Because, at the end of the day, our problem is not uniquely South African. It is an African problem. It's a global problem. It's a global problem. It is not a uniquely South African problem. So everyone that is everywhere that is listening right now, I reach out to you and I'm asking you if you can help a million goals in Africa, okay, connect with FemConnect, let's do the work together and then let's see how we move forward together.

Anne Chisa:

No for sure, it's definitely not a problem. You need to South Africa and I think it needs collaboration, you know, and it needs partnership. Pioneering something amazing like this will require partnership and not working in a silo, and I believe, with the amount of passion that you sound like you have, I'm sure, with collaboration and the right support, even despite the odds, I think you might be very close in reaching that number of one million and, I'm sure, from that, so many young women.

Asonele Kotu:

Yeah, so I really hope so. I really hope so. And that number is not strictly for South Africa, it is an African number. It means we reach every African community. It doesn't matter whether you East Africa, West Africa, wherever in Africa. As long as you are a goal in Africa, if we reach you, if we touch your life and if we help you, that's all that matters. That's all that matters. It doesn't have to be South Saharan Africa. Everywhere where we can go, let's touch every single goal and let her be emancipated.

Anne Chisa:

I absolutely love that no amazing, and I look forward to following you and following the work that you do, and I hope even from this conversation right now somebody is listening or they know someone and hopefully they can connect them or themselves to Femme Connect. It's been amazing chatting with you this afternoon, although short, but it's been amazing to learn about what you do. Despite these challenges, I honestly had a great conversation and I really enjoyed chatting with you today. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me today it's an absolute pleasure and, to everyone who's tuned in, thank you so much for tuning into another episode of the Root of the Slimes podcast with your girl, anne, with an E. Until next time, goodbye.

Empowering Girls Through Online Platforms
Healthcare Disparities in South Africa