Talia Frenkel didn’t mean to become a social entrepreneur. She was living the kind of life magazines write about: photographing disaster zones for the Red Cross and other nonprofits. On trip after trip, she began to notice a disturbing lack of condoms in the countries she visited. According to the Office of the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, nine out of 10 African countries with high HIV prevalence go through what’s called a condom stock-out—when stores simply run out of condoms—with stock-outs commonly lasting over two months. Those stockouts can be caused by a number of things, including poor planning, funding, or logistical problems.
"That was when I got angry," says Frenkel. "HIV is a preventable disease, and I believe that access to condoms is a basic human right." She decided to start a woman-focused social enterprise and harness the one-for-one model (buy one and one gets donated overseas) employed by other companies.
That company, L Condoms, will begin shipping its product this summer. Over the past four years, Frenkel has worked to make changes in condom materials, manufacturing, and distribution to make condoms better. According to the company, if contraception were broadly available in poor countries, more than 50 million unwanted pregnancies could be averted every year. The resulting decline in unintended pregnancies would bring down costs related to maternal and newborn care by $5.1 million.
When Frenkel started doing research into condoms and innovation, she felt stymied by the available offerings. "I knew that going into a condom aisle as a woman, there was no innovation in the condom industry. Just the branding, the look and feel, has a kind of a false male bravado. It doesn’t resonate with a modern feel of sexuality."
L Condoms try to improve the materials as well as the distribution. The condoms are manufactured in Malaysia, where natural latex is produced and purified to cut down on the smell. They use new lubricants that are free of glycerin and parabens, which Frenkel says have been shown to cause urinary tract infections. The foil is square instead of rectangular, which puts less strain on the condom itself. All the packaging is simple and recyclable.
Working from offices in San Francisco and Los Angeles, Frenkel has teamed up with relief organizations in Uganda to begin distributing condoms immediately to high-risk areas. "We’re starting with the high-impact areas where condoms are needed immediately, because there’s a high HIV rate and little or no access to condoms. In many places, women sell sex for less than the price of a condom. So there we’re just distributing them freely, with peer-to-peer education."
The condoms are also being distributed to women-owned enterprises who sell them for affordable prices, creating sustainable livelihoods.
Frenkel is also working with sororities, fraternities, and co-ops in the U.S. to sell monthly condom subscriptions. For each condom bought, one will be donated to students in African universities. "I really wanted to focus on the idea of one-for-one, but we also wanted to provide a better product than what’s out there."