Saving money, saving the environment, and breaking boundaries of things once taboo. What’s not to love? Wā Collective, a New Zealand social enterprise founded in 2017, is doing all three things at once. I caught up with founder Olie Body over tea and jaffa hot chocolate to chat about how a grassroots Wellington enterprise is creating change, one menstrual cup at a time.

Wā Collective started in at Massey University’s students’ association when Olie was still a student there. “I was staring at the bowl of free condoms, and wondering why there were no free menstrual products nearby. I mean, sex is a choice, and periods aren’t, right?”

Olie and her friends then put out a survey which gathered a thousand responses – and a third of the students who responded said that they had skipped classes because of their lack of access to menstrual products. Suggested solutions such as traditional menstrual products like tampons and pads were quickly rejected – they were seen as a 4 to 8-hour temporary fix, with huge consequences for the environment.

So Wā Collective was born out of the need to address the problems of students while still holding true to a clean, green, New Zealand. Not pads, not tampons, but menstrual cups. Olie called it a “bleedingly important social enterprise” with a three-pronged initiative – ending period poverty, period waste, and period taboo. “Menstrual cups are a money saver, they’re kinder on the environment, and they are healthier for bodies. What’s not to love?”

Within eight days of their release, they had sold out of their first batch of 100 cups. Olie never thought that Wā Collective was going to get this big – at first, it was just going to be a project at Massey. It was run out of the advocacy room on campus, before moving to kitchen tables in workmates’ flats. But within a month, the team realised how scalable the idea was, and how desperately it was needed throughout the country. “We are on the cusp of menstrual cups being viewed as the fantastic solution they are, rather than merely an ‘unusual alternative’ to tampons and pads. They’re certainly a massive disruptor to the industry!”

Founder Olie Body

“We chose the name Wā because we wanted our collective to echo and speak to New Zealand.” In Te Reo, Wā means, time, or season, and it’s also the prefix of wāhine. “It’s subtle, it doesn’t scream in your face as hugely feminine, as women aren’t the only ones who get periods.” Olie said that the branding was definitely a conscious decision. “We’re sick of how the marketing industry is always telling us how to perform our genders. We wanted to be focused on something grounded – not the pink wash you see on the supermarket shelves. We are a blank slate, meaning people can decide who they want to be, without us dictating that to them.”

Olie credits their success to the strength of their team. “Most of our team are young people, aged 18 to 28, and we’re wonderfully diverse. I think it just reflects the melting pot of New Zealand, especially our generation.”

Now, Wā Collective has a presence in nine university campuses across New Zealand, and they have a waiting list of institutions that want them. They’re also looking to expand into secondary schools, and have secured partnerships with other social enterprises such as United Sustainable Sisters and NopeSisters. “To address issues about menstruation properly, we have to be able to talk about it first before we can fix anything. That means making sure we’re heard in as many places as possible.” That involves other initiatives such as setting up workshops around the country, with a focus on growing awareness to break the taboo.

One of the huge focuses of the collective is sustainability. They have zero waste in production Wā Cups, and all are ethically made, with transparency throughout the production line. “There are so many knockoff products now – you don’t know what’s in them, where they’re coming from, how they’re made. It’s not only that you’re putting things you don’t know about in your body, but also you don’t know how other people are affected by your actions as a consumer.”

There were a couple of nuggets of advice that Olie had for those who were hoping to start up their own enterprises. The first tip was to know the people you’re talking to. “Know your audience, what types of media they like consuming, where they spend their time and what their needs are.” She emphasised that nobody wants to waste their time making a product that wasn’t actually wanted. By finding out what their audience wanted, Wā Collective could tailor what they were doing to fit the community.

The second tip was to make no assumptions, “or at the very least, validate your assumptions.” The key was persistence: doing trials, getting feedback. Wā Collective went through fifteen different models before they settled on the cup they have today. “It was tricky because we could only trial once a month.” Olie laughed. “That was a bit of a disruption.”

“We all were all drawn into to business without this being our direct field of study, but being young, passionate and in Wellington means that you can be part of this unofficial network. It gives you the exposure to start-ups and to other entrepreneurs who are making a mark in your field. Instead of being a capitalistic ladder climb, we have a different view of partnering with other organisations.” Olie reckons that this is what has made their partnerships so strong – there were underlying values of working with each other, instead of against each other.

“We started out from our back pockets. We didn’t have any grants, we were on shoestring capital. I think that our grassroots background strangely gave us a bit of an edge.”

Olie says she sees the future of Wā Collective of being more than just menstrual cups. “We are taking on a more activist standpoint, and a voice for empowerment and equity. It’s just about getting there in a sustainable way.” She was quick to add that they also wanted to be a voice of fun. “Lots of companies are boring in their comms. We’re young, we’re making change. There’s nothing boring about that.”

JOANNA LI is a queer woman of colour and first generation Chinese New Zealander studying Law at Victoria University of Wellington. Loves her friends and tearing down the white heterosexist capitalist patriarchy. Her musings can be found here.