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March 4, 2014

A new business model that is revolutionising menstrual healh in poor countries.


A school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads.

Arunachalam Muruganantham's invention came at great personal cost - he nearly lost his family, his money and his place in society.

In 1998 he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him.

"I will be honest," says Muruganantham. When he asked her why she didn't use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the family, she wouldn't be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.

Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad.

When Muruganantham looked into it further, he discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads - fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.

Finding volunteers to test his products was no mean feat.

He managed to convince 20 students to try out his pads - but it still didn't quite work out. "I became the man who wore a sanitary pad," he says.

He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pad's absorption rates.

At the same time, his wife got fed up - and left.

He supplied his group of medical students with sanitary pads and collected them afterwards.

The biggest mystery was what successful sanitary pads were made of.

Muruganantham's goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women - women like his mother. Following her husband's death in a road accident, Muruganantham's mother had had to sell everything she owned and get a job as a farm labourer, but earning $1 a day wasn't enough to support four children. That's why, at the age of 14, Muruganantham had left school to find work.

But Muruganantham had confidence. As the son of a handloom worker, he had seen his father survive with a simple wooden handloom, despite 446 fully mechanised mills in the city. That gave him the courage to take on the big companies with his small machine made of wood - besides, his aim was not really to compete.

Unbeknown to him, the IIT entered his machine in a competition for a national innovation award.

It was his wife, Shanthi.

"Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make low-cost sanitary napkins - a hot-cake product," he says.

It took Muruganantham 18 months to build 250 machines, which he took out to the poorest and most underdeveloped states in Northern India - the so-called BIMARU or "sick" states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

There are also myths and fears surrounding the use of sanitary pads - that women who use them will go blind, for example, or will never get married. But slowly, village by village, there was cautious acceptance and over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.

In each case, it's the women who produce the sanitary pads who sell them directly to the customer. Shops are usually run by men, which can put women off.

While getting the message out to new areas of the country is still difficult, Muruganantham is sceptical about the effectiveness of TV advertising.

Most of Muruganantham's clients are NGOs and women's self-help groups. Each machine converts 3,000 women to pad usage, and provides employment for 10. They can produce 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each.

Women choose their own brand-name for their range of sanitary pads, so there is no over-arching brand - it is "by the women, for the women, and to the women"

Muruganantham also works with schools - 23% of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating. Now school girls make their own pads.

The Indian government recently announced it would distribute subsidised sanitary products to poorer women.

"Because this is a problem all developing nations face."

Muruganantham now lives with his family in a modest apartment.

"But because he did not complete school, he had the courage to come out to start a business of his own. Now he's employing other people."

Shanthi and Muruganantham are now a tight unit.

Shanthi always brings a sanitary pad as a gift and explains how to use it.

Muruganantham says she does a wonderful job.

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