I recently sent an article to a few of my dear Lumid alumni and previous project management team members (you lucky souls know who you are) reminding them of the great times we had devising a mock organization and project on Ugandan women’s development and feminine hygiene. And it’s true as one of my team members commented that I just cannot get of the subject…of the Period that is…because this story is simply too innovative to resist. It helps me to reflect on some simple rules about social entrepreneurship, filling a need in society while simultaneously creating a business model.
Where 70% of women in India simply are not able to afford sanitary napkins a study by AC Nielsen highlighted the poor sanitation and hygiene conditions of women, especially in rural India. On top of the taboo of speaking about menstrual health, often the opportunity cost of buying sanitary napkins could mean daily necessities such as milk. And the other methods used by women for their periods involve rags, newspapers, leaves that may be unhygienic and ascend to infections such as RTIs or potentially cervical cancer (Sinha, 2011)
In 2006, an Indian man and high school drop-out took a risk and made a disruption in order to transform lives and improve women’s access to more affordable sanitary napkins. He began to investigate the composition of sanitary pads. Arunachalam Muruganantham (i’ll call him Murug for short) began to wear women’s panties and created a “menstruating uterus by filling a bladder with goat’s blood…occasionally squeezing the contraption to test out his latest iteration.” Deemed a pervert by his wife, mother, and ostracized by others in his community, he continued his research and even created his own millionaire’s alter ego (one that Donald Trump would be proud of) in an attempt to obtain testing materials from U.S. firms to support his investigation.
Finally, murug was able to fashion an electricity generated sanitary napkin machine that de-fibers cellulose (from tree bark), compresses and seals it into a napkin and sterilized by ultraviolet light (the kind only a Starwars hero could appreciate). Each machine under the control of four woman can produce about 1,000 napkins sold at retail price for about $.25 per package (8 per package).
What’s the gain? Well, according to Murug’s research, U.S. consumer giants like P&G and J&J burn their corporate pockets (think P&G commercial, “in a small village in Africa” Nia has a happy period because she has tampax) of half a million dollars(!) on a machine that does the same as Murug’s machine which costs $2,500. Although the number of napkins produced are not comparable to the numbers produced by P&G, a unique business model was born out of his invention that will assist in reaching his vision of a “100% napkin-using country”.
Rather than becoming a commercial enterprise, Murug spreads an idea and tries to fill a need. His company, Jayaashree Industries, helps rural Indian women and self-help groups buy a machine (via govt loans, NGO), teach them how to operate it (about three hours of instruction), and ultimately creates jobs that allow the women themselves to make an income. Although currently there are only 600 machines in use by women across 23 states in India and abroad, Murug envisions 1 million jobs to be created as his invention and the business model becomes more viral and expands in other developing countries.
Everything in between:
What’s equally important as access to affordable sanitary health is creating an awareness, and in this case an awareness especially relevant among half the population of India. Although I cannot begin to say I understand the lifestyles of Indian women in some parts of the country, the immediacy of one woman’s response to a cautioning against reproductive infections: ‘So what? How long are we going to live anyway?’ really hits home the need for more social innovators like Murug and responsible businesses like Jayasshree Industries to jump start development and raise awareness.
So Team Papy, B, S, I, and E, don’t be too bummed about not getting our mythical funding for the project, there are social entrepreneurs and changemakers out there who are!