Indian Entrepreneur Brings Dignity to Poor Women

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Driven by the revelation that his wife was torn between spending money on milk for the children and buying commercially manufactured sanitary napkins, Indian innovator and inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham embarked on a long and intensive journey to find a solution. His achievement – a simple machine – is bringing dignity to poor women and providing them with a much-needed income source.

This is a story of a man who was considered crazy for his persistence and made many personal sacrifices to achieve his goal. The innovation is both a technological and a business solution. Muruganantham has come up with a simple machine to manufacture affordable hygienic sanitary napkins for poor women. It works by turning the pulp of pine wood into the flat, white sanitary pads (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanitary_napkin) commonly used by women during their monthly menstruation. The machine’s simplicity means it can be expanded easily to other communities and is designed to fit well with the way women’s cooperatives work and help them earn an income.

Muruganantham sees it is a business model that “can deliver livelihood, hygiene and dignity to poor women, and help them strengthen society,” according to his website.

The manufacturing process produces the sanitary napkins in just five steps. This simple intervention is revolutionizing women’s health in India by giving them an alternative to using found and unhygienic rags every month when they menstruate.

It took Muruganantham four years of research to create a patented machine that sells for between US $1,332 and US $5,330. It can make 120 sanitary pads an hour. Each one sells for 10 rupees (US 18 cents). By comparison, the multinational company Procter & Gamble sells its product for 30 rupees (US 54 cents) a packet.

Two multinationals dominate the marketplace for sanitary napkins in India: Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson, with the Stayfree and Carefree brands.

Muruganantham’s machine was awarded the best innovation national award by the former President of India, Prathiba Patil, in 2009.

Like many innovators and inventors, his work at first was little understood by others and meant he had to plough a lonely furrow. But his persistence paid off and is now receiving attention from countries across the global South.

Apart from its technological simplicity, the idea is to make it easy for women to form cooperatives and businesses to boost their incomes. India has seen the concept of so-called Ladies Self Help Groups (SHGs) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-help_group_%28finance%29) become more popular as a source of income. One of the problems they encounter is finding a successful business to undertake. The machine invented by Muruganantham is being seen as a good business model for the SHGs to follow. The key is the simplicity of operating the machine, the growing and stable market for the product, and its affordable and competitive price.

Typical businesses that can be set up using the machine can employ 10 women.

Muruganantham set up his main business, Jayaashree Industries (motto: ‘new inventions… small is beautiful’) (http://newinventions.in/aboutus.aspx), after his education was disrupted due to family problems and he took up a job in a welding shop.

At first, he had a difficult time convincing people of the utility of the machine. He enlisted his wife to help with the marketing of the new napkins to nearby women. He says the advantage of his business model is that it turns the making of the napkins into a sustainable, grassroots activity. It provides an essential commodity for poor women at an affordable price, removing middlemen and using a simple, non-chemical technology.

It also cuts down on expensive transport costs by keeping manufacturing local.

Over 225 machines have been delivered to 14 Indian states and also to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh.

And while Muruganantham is focused on making the machine a success, he is already looking forward to working on his next big invention. The only question is: what will it be?

Resources

1) Women’s Health: A website packed with facts and advice from the UK’s National Health Service. Website: http://www.nhs.uk/livewell/women1839/Pages/Women1839home.aspx

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