The real heroes of environmental and social change are the ones that don’t get talked about often and don’t want any accolades. One such man lives very to near my town and he makes sanitary napkins for a living. A high-school dropout by the name of A. Muruganathan is the inventor of a machine that can churn out 120 pads an hour. It costs about 1 rupee (0.02 USD) for each napkin and the machine itself costs about Rs 66,000 (USD 1500).
Major brands only make up 7% of market share for sanitary napkins, which means that the playing field is wide open for this type of social enterprise. Muruganathan has sold his machines to women entrepreneurs all over India, thereby leading them to become business owners themselves. Several of them have been able to make a substantial income for themselves by selling the sanitary napkins to nearby villages as well schools and colleges.
The core material that makes up the napkin is wood fibre which is procured from waste wood, making the product relatively eco-friendly. Muruganathan wants to experiment with other materials and also bioplastic as a protective sheet.
Muruganathan has single-handedly tapped into the rural market for sanitary pads and caters exclusively to those women with no access to menstrual hygiene. Rural Indian women often use pieces of cloth and other unhygienic protection during their menstruation. In many areas in the country, women are ostracized during this period. Many teenage girls end up missing several days of school a month and eventually drop out due to inadequate menstrual protection. Muruganathan has obtained a patent for his machine with the help of India’s National Innovation Foundation and has received accolades for his product and business model from many business leaders.
However, a new government scheme of making sanitary napkins available free of charge for women below poverty line will likely threaten Muruganathan’s business. The government will have to procure the napkins at a much higher price from companies like Proctor & Gamble, Johnsons & Johnsons and supply them at reduced costs. This will cost the government approximately $400 million to cater to 200 million rural women. However, 100,000 units of Muruganathan’s invention can be bought for less than half the cost and provide employment to over 1 million women.
With Indian villages becoming the hotspots for decentralized power generation, the sanitary napkin machines can work in conjunction with them providing a local industry as well as a sustainable, hygienic alternative for many rural women. Many companies are taking interest in Muruganathan’s technology as part of their CSR; Jindal Steel has sponsored two units. Dupont and Moserbaer have also sponsored a unit each. As the machine runs on a combination of power and mechanical energy, the cost of running it remains low. This input power can easily be renewable energy, with the right set up.
There are several organizations in Africa that use similar models to tackle the dual problem of waste as well as female hygiene, while creating employment at the same time. However in India, Muruganathan seems to be the only one around. As for the man himself, he remains as humble and unassuming as ever. He has even refused a blank cheque from a multinational for his machine and wants to keep it as a social enterprise through and through.