Karly West, founder of Mamatoto Cloth Diapers, photo courtesy

Most people say disposable diapers are convenient but at what cost

People born in the 90’s and before, had their bums wrapped with nappies when they were babies, just a few used disposable diapers. You’d see the nappies hanging on the clothesline to dry, today many parents use disposable diapers, when soiled, they throw them away.

Most people say disposable diapers are convenient but at what cost?

I had a chat with Karly West, founder of Mamatoto Cloth Diapers Enterprise based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Karly West, founder of Mamatoto Cloth Diapers, photo courtesy
What inspired you to get into the cloth diaper business?

I am a mama to 3 little girls and have cloth diapered them for the past 9 years, I chose to use cloth diapers for my baby’s health and the health of our planet.

The idea for MamaToto started when I donated some modern cloth diapers to a children’s home in Nairobi, Kenya, and after a few weeks the children’s home enthusiastically told me the diapers are amazing. I thought maybe I could arrange for more modern cloth diaper donations. About 6 weeks passed and I checked in with the children’s home and discovered the donated diapers were stained and had lost absorbency. It was immediately clear to me that parents and children’s homes in Kenya need a way to launder their cloth diapers due to a lack of separate wash basins, proper soaps, hot water, clean water, or running water and outdoor space to hang the diapers to dry. I also discovered that Kenyans are very open and enthusiastic about using cloth diapers. It was clear to me that Kenya doesn’t need sporadic diaper donations, Kenya needs a Kenyan made cloth diaper and laundry service.

Photo by Natasha Sweeney/MamatotoDiapers
Do you think convenience and over reliance on single-use products is responsible for environmental degradation?

Absolutely!!!! The key is finding ways to make environmentally friendly products convenient, easy-to-use, and affordable.

  • Convenient

A modern cloth diaper is an upgrade on the traditional flat towel nappies and the cheap plastic pants that tear after 2 weeks. MamaToto’s modern cloth diaper has an updated design that reduces leakage and a custom breathable waterproof fabric called PUL that prevents rashes and fits a baby from 2 months to 3 years. This cover will last 3–5 years.

A majority of parents in Nairobi rely on handwashing to launder old fashioned cloth diapers and struggle with proper facilities such as a separate wash basin, suitable soaps, hot water, clean water, or running water to properly wash them. In addition, parents struggle with outdoor space where they can hang the diapers to fully dry in the sunlight. When cloth diapers are not properly laundered, they are not fully sanitized, lose absorbency, and will deteriorate rapidly. MamaToto will be launching a laundry service in late 2021 in which MamaToto collects dirty diapers, launders them at the Nairobi Hospital, and delivers clean diapers the next day.

  • Easy-to-Use

MamaToto has an extensive website filled with How-to-Use illustrations and videos demonstrating how to diaper your baby, rinse poo, and wash diapers. The website is filled with all the information I wish I had known 9 years ago when I started using cloth diapers. MamaToto wants to help parents succeed in cloth diapering.

  • Affordable

MamaToto’s cloth diapers can save parents up to Ksh 150,000 over 3 years of diapering a baby and almost Ksh 200,000 on their second baby.

Our current line of products is aimed at our middle to upper income markets, but MamaToto is a social enterprise and we are committed to providing cloth diapers across all income levels. Modern cloth diapers require a large upfront cost. Parents need to purchase about 20 modern cloth diapers and accessories costing approximately Ksh 40,000-50,000. MamaToto will be offering a diaper service that allows parents to buy the diapers or rent our diapers and spread the cost of cloth diapers over three years.

How sustainable is mamatoto diaper as compared to disposable diapers?

There were 113,788 babies born in Nairobi in 2019. If each baby uses about 6000 disposable diapers, in 3 years Nairobi could produce 682,728,000 diapers that last over 500 years in a landfill. 6000 Disposable diapers create about 950 kg of waste for a landfill and a set of cloth diapers create 2.4 kg. Disposable diapers are often thrown away, and they end up polluting the environment. Using cloth diapers also keeps human waste out of our landfills.

Used disposable diapers thrown by the roadside in Mwariki, Nakuru.

MamaToto’s products will last a minimum of 3 years if cared for properly and should be able to diaper a second baby and potentially a third baby. Cloth diapers tend to be sold second hand or donated down the economic line. The absorbers, boosters, and cloth wipes can be cut up and used as rags. The PUL covers can be made into small bags or used to line feminine hygiene pads.

Based on MamaToto’s goals and projections, if parents in Nairobi use MamaToto’s cloth diapers, in our first year of operation we can save Kenya from over 600,000 disposable diapers and in 3 years of operation 45,000,000 diapers. If parents also use our cloth wipes we can save the environment from disposable wipes. Finally, MamaToto’s cloth diapers can also save parents up to Ksh 150,000 over 3 years of diapering a baby.

MamaToto uses East African cotton milled in Nairobi and employs women to sew our diaper accessories. MamaToto will provide local work for those manufacturing the cotton, our tailors, drivers, laundering staff, diaper vendors, retail/promotion team, health/education team, and MamaToto operations staff to benefit the local economy. Buy Kenya — Build Kenya. MamaToto partners with Mama Africa Kenyaa non-profit organization that trains and employs women in Kangemi to sew MamaToto’s diaper accessories.

They say cheap is expensive, how true is this in relation to the disposable diapers, to both the consumer and the environment?

We need to talk about the health of a baby. Many diapers available in Kenya are cheap imported ‘knockoff’ diapers that have not met health and safety standards and this is very risky to use these diapers filled with unknown chemicals on your baby. Also, disposable diapers can absorb a lot of pee without leaking, and in order to save money parents will leave a diaper on a baby for too many hours and this is very unhealthy for a baby leading to rashes and infections.

Another major issue is that human waste does not belong in landfills. Trash in Kenya is picked by hand for recycling. Any trash in contact with a disposable diaper is now contaminated and cannot be recycled.

Also, many disposable diapers are thrown on the side of the road or on an empty plot and this is not only harmful for the environment but can spread disease around communities.

What’s the most challenging part in your business?

Developing products and laundry services that work across all income levels in the Kenyan market. It is almost like setting up two businesses, one that focuses on the upper income market with social media marketing, e-commerce, and home delivery; the other focusing on lower income markets that uses sms messaging, partnerships with health clinics and NGOs, and kiosk drop and pick points.

Another major challenge is setting up something in Kenya that functions like a subscription service for the laundry service.

What is your message to upcoming parents on responsible parenthood?

Expecting parents cringe at the thought of rinsing a poo diaper, but I reassure them that pee and poo from your baby becomes part of everyday life whether you use disposable or cloth diapers and you might as well choose the diaper that is healthier for your baby, cost-effective, and better for the environment.

what have you learned from the experiences of using cloth diapers

My overall lesson is buy the best quality cloth diapers in a natural fiber fabric such as cotton with necessary cloth diapers accessories and you will succeed at cloth diapering. You will recoup your cost in 9–12 months of diapering and diapering subsequent children is FREE and you can even sell the diapers second hand when finished.

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