“This story is all about the fascinating journey of a workshop helper – from being rejected by the same women whose lives he wanted to change – to now gearing up to create jobs for a million women.”
Arunachalam Muruganantham, son of a poor Handloom weaver from rural Coimbatore – had his light bulb moment when he was 29 years old, and holding a sanitary napkin for the first time.
He was a workshop helper who lived below the poverty line in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. His research into sanitary towels began when he caught his wife, Shanti, trying to slip away with some filthy rags. When questioned, she said the choice was between buying towels for herself or buying milk for the family.
Right now, 88% of women in India resort to using dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves, and even ashes during their periods, because they just can’t afford sanitary napkins, according to “Sanitation protection: Every Women’s Health Right,” a study by AC Nielsen. Typically, girls who attain puberty in rural areas either miss school for a couple of days a month or simply drop out altogether.
Examining the cotton pads he was buying as a gift for his new wife, the Indian entrepreneur realized that the multinational company that produced them was probably spending cents on raw materials, and making a huge profit. In his search for volunteers, Muruganantham discovered that only 7% of women in India use sanitary napkins, and only 2% of women in rural areas use them.
He ended up having to leave his village, and after four and a half years, he successfully found a way to produce low-cost sanitary pads. Reclaiming the fibers into usable cellulose, Muruganantham discovered, required a machine costing more than £300,000. It took him more than four years of trial and error to fabricate one in his workshop. Two years later, in 2006, his machine won the award for the best innovation for the betterment of society from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. And he was finally able to persuade his family to come back.
According to him, it costs just about 1 rupee (0.02 USD) to produce these napkins and the machine itself costs Rs 66000 (approx USD 1500) with a production rate of 120 sanitary napkins per hour.
He has sold over a hundred of his machines to women entrepreneurs all over India. Further more he emphasizes that using his machine, the napkins can be customized to the size of heavier women as well, a service that the major corporations don’t offer since they deal in bulk quantities.
Assuming the napkins are sold at Rs. 1, the project will cost the government a minimum of Rs. 2000 crore (USD $400M) and cater to 200 million rural women. 100,000 units of machine can be bought for less than half the cost (approx USD $140M) and as a result provide employment to over 1 million women. – Arunachalam Muruganantham
The machine and business model help create a win-win situation. A rural woman can be taught to make napkins on it in three hours. Running one of the machines employs four women in total, which creates income for rural women. Customers now have access to cheap sanitary napkins and can order customized napkins of varying thicknesses for their individual needs.
Muruganantham wants to see India become a “100 percent sanitary napkin country” in his lifetime.
Overall, his model helps offer livelihood, hygiene, dignity and empowerment to underprivileged women all over the world.