Women in rural areas are being convinced of the hygiene benefits of using sanitary pads, now to the extent that “they even barter onions or tomatoes for low-priced pads”, declared A. Muruganantham at the recently concluded TiECon – Chennai 2012.

“But, I am not happy yet, as more than 90 per cent of the women in rural India are still using dirty rags, ashes, sand and dry leaves,” he said.

Social entrepreneur Muruganantham, a 10{+t}{+h} standard drop-out from a village near Coimbatore, who invented a low-cost machine for making sanitary pads, now dreams of installing 7,000 machines across the world. Talking about his experience on customer feedback, in a panel discussion at the conference, he said his first piece of feedback came in the form of a divorce notice. His wife was his first customer. His research into sanitary pads began after he realised that his wife was using some filthy rags. “For her, the choice was between buying sanitary pads for herself and my sisters or dinner for the entire family.”

One day, unaware of menstrual cycles, he gave his wife his prototype pad (made out of cotton), and demanded immediate test results. As it did not work out, he went on to present similar pads to girls in neighbouring colleges to test. Thinking that he was using “this technique” to get close to other women, his wife left him. “It took me almost four years to win her confidence back,” he said.

Through “reverse engineering”, he decoded that the pads are made out of cellulose extracted from pine trees, and the machines to make napkins from the cellulose would cost more than Rs 15 crore. Then he invented his machine which would cost merely Rs 1 lakh, and each pad would cost Rs 1.50 – less than a third of the average price of multinational brands.

A little over 10 years since then, now more than 700 such machines have been installed across villages in India and countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, Afghanistan, and the US. For Rs 1 lakh, he installs the machine and teaches them how to make napkins. They are allowed sell it under their own brands. It now operates on a woman-to-woman basis. They spread awareness amongst other women and helps them shift to this more hygienic product.

“It can be a profitable venture in a village that has over 2,000 women. We even organise funds to start this business,” he says. Each venture provides employment for at least 10 women.

On seeing his success, now many investors (including many multinational companies) approach him with more profitable models. “But I do not want to change the business model. I am more keen on spreading awareness by operating at low-cost,” says Muruganantham, who now speaks at various IIMs on his initiative. His aim is to see at least a million women get employment through these projects and to remain a social entrepreneur, period.

ravikumar.ramanujam@thehindu.co.in

(This article was published on December 5, 2012)
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