This summer I was in India filming the story of an amazing inventor/entrepreneur, Muruganantham and his incredible innovation – a low cost sanitary pad.
The film, “Rags to Pads” is a semifinalist at Focus Forward Filmmaker Competition along with 93 other incredible films. It is just 3 minutes long, so if you are curious watch it. If you love it, vote for it (vote button is on the top right corner). And of course share it.
Muruganantham, a mechanic, was appalled when he learned that his wife was using rags dirtier than the ones he uses at his workshop during her menstrual cycle. Upon further inquiry he realized that most Indian women shun sanitary napkins because they are too expensive and took it upon himself to make an affordable napkin. Only a very small segment of India’s 355 million menstruating women use sanitary napkins. About 81% of women use dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves and even ashes during their periods. The biggest barriers to the use of sanitary napkins are affordability and poor sanitary infrastructure such as toilets. High-school drop out rates are high and economic productivity is low during periods as women miss work. Women are also susceptible to serious infections, infertility, cancer and death because of the dismal state of feminine hygiene in India.
All he wanted to do was create a low cost napkin for his wife but his quest was not easy. Such experimentation in a conservative society quickly resulted in him being labeled a psycho, a pervert and a black magician. His wife left him and his mother was traumatized when she saw him in a room full of used napkins. The endless derision made him more determined. Unable to find women volunteers to test his prototypes he did the unthinkable – he wore a sanitary pad himself for a whole week. After several years of laborious research, Muruganantham figured a way to make low cost sanitary pads that are comparable in quality to those made by popular commercial brands. Powered by electricity or foot pedals, the machines de-fiber cellulose from pine bark and compress it into a napkin form. In the next stage, it is sealed with non-woven fabric and finally sterilized using ultraviolet light. His patented technology was quite simple and allowed for small-scale production of sanitary pads that could be made and distributed locally.
Although there are several barriers to the use of sanitary pads, affordability is the biggest barrier and hence Muruganantham’s invention is very critical. He took a novel approach and built a socially-conscious business model around his innovation. Instead of profiting directly, his firm – Jayashree Industries, sells the machines to women entrepreneurs or self-help groups for $1500 per unit. The women, many of them uneducated with limited technical skills, can learn to use the machine in three hours. Each unit can make about 1000 pads/day and the pads retail at about $.25 for a pack of 8. Typically, each unit can provide employment for about four to six women. On average each woman entrepreneur makes about $100/month. Currently, 647 such machines are in operation in rural communities. Muruganantham firmly believes that this scheme can generate at least a million jobs for rural women. With rising local competition, the commercial brands have also lowered the price of their sanitary napkins. This has further improved the availability of sanitary products for women in many rural communities across India.
Unfortunately, access to sanitary pads is not the only barrier. Rural woman are often uninformed about how to use a sanitary pad or hesitate to spend money on them. Also there are several cultural and religious taboos and myths that prevent women from using sanitary pads. The women entrepreneurs who make the napkins not only sell their product but also educate their potential customers about menstrual hygiene.
Muruganantham has a vision of making India a 100% napkin-using country. His invention is a step in the right direction but many challenges still remain. Deep rooted cultural taboos and lack of proper sanitary facilities are among the many barriers that need to be overcome. Muruganatham’s machine plays a critical role in catalyzing access to feminine hygiene products, empowering women and vitalizing rural economies. And for this we salute his tenacity and innovative spirit.
Do check the other incredible films in the contest. The judges will announce the 20 finalists on Nov 28th. The ten films with the most votes get Audience awards.
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