I pulled out the latest issue of Green Futures for a bit of light relief. It instantly lifted my mood as it reminded me just… how exciting sustainability issues can be.
Jayaashree Industries, a start-up founded by Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school dropout from Coimbatore in south India, has created a machine to produce sanitary napkins at a fraction of the market price. Muruganantham’s interest in the subject started in 1998 when he noticed his wife using rags during her menstruation cycle.
Only 12% of over 355 million women in the menstrual age group in India can afford branded sanitary napkins, priced from Rs. 25 (£0.24) for a pack. Of the remaining, the lucky ones use cloth. The others resort to unclean rags, straw, ash, mud or husk. Deaths due to infections caused by rusty hooks on an old blouse or insects that have travelled into the body through a handful of dry leaves are common. Add to this the lack of sanitation facilities across the country, which forces an estimated 23% of girls to leave school upon reaching puberty. The barrier to girls and women pursuing their goals represents a huge missed opportunity for society as a whole.
Using Muruganantham’s machines and distributed business model, women now produce and sell directly to customers. Each machine provides employment for 10 women, who are able to produce up to 250 sanitary napkins each day. This keeps costs low (from less than Rs. 1 for one napkin) and the advocacy of local saleswomen has converted thousands of women to sanitary napkins. It also enables an easy sharing of information about menstrual hygiene, otherwise absent in the country.
Muruganantham believes that women’s empowerment needs to start at a young age – “Why does nobody speak of girls’ empowerment?” he says. “Why wait till they grow up?” He also has girls working on these machines at school. He says, “To speak with rural women, I need to go through so many barriers, like her husband, brother, village head and community leader. But if the girl makes a napkin at school, she takes it home and convinces her older sister and mother much more easily.”
The business model has allowed this innovation to reach an impressive scale. The machine is now used in 1300 villages across 23 Indian states. Muruganantham believes that it can be replicated in 110 countries all over the world, especially in Africa and Asia. The model is also impressively self-sufficient: “I don’t believe in charity or donations. I started off with my own meagre funds, aided by bank loans,” says its founder. The machines, which cost Rs. 75,000 (£730) upward, are mostly owned by women’s self help groups, who buy them with the help of bank loans. Each of them is free to brand and price the products according to their market needs.
Cellulose (an organic compound available from wood pulp and cotton) is usually the raw material for these sanitary napkins. However, Muruganantham encourages the use of banana fibre, bamboo fibre, jute, linter cotton, and other materials available in surplus locally, as a substitute.
Cynthia Stephen, State Programme Director at Mahila Samakhya, a women’s education and health project supported by the Ministry of Education says, “His work is crucial because, apart from lowering the cost, this will also promote economic activity among women everywhere. However, there also a need for education on how to use and discard used sanitary napkins correctly.” Creating the infrastructure for this will demand a wider cultural shift. – Charukesi Ramadurai