In July, Joanna Bichsel left a high-level job at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to move from Seattle to Kigali, Rwanda with her husband and two young children.
She was chasing a calling to help women in Africa access critical healthcare products — a calling shared by Amanda Arch. The two met years ago when they were working for Microsoft. Earlier this year, they reconnected and realized they shared a common goal. Together they launched Kasha.
Kasha is an e-commerce startup that sells and delivers women’s healthcare products, like contraceptives and tampons.
These items are in high-demand, but women in many African countries face barriers and stigmas that prevent them from purchasing what they need. The population of middle-class women in African countries is growing, as is the percentage of people who own cell phones. Bichsel
and Arch see this inflection point as the perfect opportunity for Kasha.
“There is a lot of talk about women and how they’re catalytic in global development but there are too few solutions really built for women from a woman’s perspective to be able to solve some of these challenges, such as social stigma,” said Bichsel. “Kasha really came about because the mobile phone is this perfect tool to be able to order confidentially and receive information confidentially and then we can also plug into a lot of these supply chains to get these products to people.”
Customers can access Kasha’s products in several ways. They can order them via the smartphone app or website, employees at Kasha’s call center can take order’s on the phone, or women can place orders using a tool called Unstructured Supplementary Service Data (USSD).
USSD, also sometimes called shortcodes, allows people to communicate and access dynamic content without a smartphone or Internet connection. All telecom companies offer USSD; it’s used for internal, operational purposes in developed countries.
But in the developing world, shortcodes are open to the public. If a Kasha customer has a basic cell phone, without Internet, she can call a shortcode and it will access Kasha’s menu so she can place an order. Their goal is to make it possible for any woman to purchase products from Kasha.
“Something that’s so ingrained in the fabric of our lives in Seattle and San Francisco is when you get your Amazon package on your doorstep, it could be a book or it could be a health-related product,” said Arch. “There’s anonymity in that people just expect to see these packages. That people are able to get the things they need delivered direct to them, especially in Kigali where we’re launching, that’s a new concept.”
Bichsel and most of the Kasha team operate out of Rwanda full-time. Arch splits her time between Kasha’s headquarters and San Francisco. They chose Rwanda because of the high premium the country places on technology and innovation.
“I was just really impressed with the innovation strategy that they were driving here and I’m really excited to be a part of the ecosystem here in Rwanda,” said Arch.
Confidentiality is crucial to Kasha’s approach.
In many traditional societies in Africa, social stigma prevents women from accessing the products they need. Girls often stay home from school when they are menstruating and women can be deterred from visiting clinics for contraceptives fearing public derision. Sometimes, even the health workers will send young unmarried women home or call their parents when they ask for contraceptives, according to Bichsel.
“I think every woman in the world can relate to the uncomfort (sic) and embarrassment of getting access to women’s health products … In traditional societies, it’s just magnified and there are serious consequences as a result,” she said.
Kasha has eight full-time employees, including the co-founders, and has raised $200,000 from U.S. and Rwanda-based angel investors. The startup’s board of advisers includes execs with experience at Amazon, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, Yammer, Starbucks, Unilever, and Porch.com.
Although Kasha is starting with markets in Africa, Bichsel and Arch have ambitions to build the company out into a global endeavor. Their mission is to democratize access to women’s healthcare products. Bichsel is dedicating the project to her daughter, Kasha’s namesake.
“Every mother wants her daughter to have access to the things they need to live a healthy life,” she said.