It is hard to imagine, but every year, roughly 210 million women of menstruating age living in rural India are precluded from contributing to their communities simply because they lack access to affordable sanitary protection. The implications are real – every year, many of these rural girls and women miss up to 50 days of school and work, respectively. Many of these school-aged girls either fall behind or drop out of school entirely.
Along with socio-economic challenges, cultural stigmas prevent many rural women from easily accessing proper feminine hygiene products. More alarmingly, many of these women resort to unsafe alternatives such as rags, which can lead to serious infections.
I encountered these staggering statistics while doing my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, MA. Being a female mechanical engineer, I passionately felt that I should use my engineering skills to help improve the lives of other women.
After spending my junior year summer interning with P&G for the Always and Tampax brands, I was determined to figure out a way to bring pads to women in developing countries who currently didn’t have access.
This resulted in the formation of Saathi, where we began to think about how we could not only distribute pads to women in need, but also about how we could provide economic empowerment to these women as well. We also wanted to ensure that the solution we present should be environmentally friendly. When looking at different options for the core material, we realized that banana fiber is readily available in the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Since the bark of a banana tree is currently almost entirely waste, we decided this would be a great use of this material to create eco-friendly pads and a great way to provide additional income to farmers. We developed a small scale manufacturing process to make affordable sanitary pads out of waste banana tree fiber.
To provide economic empowerment to rural women, Saathi uses a social enterprise business model. In our model groups of rural women will come together, purchase a Saathi machine and then run their own Saathi micro-enterprise in their respective villages. Using the Saathi machine, rural women will manufacture and distribute pads in their local communities.
Saathi has two revenue sources: selling Saathi machines and selling packages of raw materials to produce pads. Local entrepreneurial women will manufacture and sell Saathi pads for Rs. 2/pad. Working with groups of local women will enable Saathi to build on the trust that these women have already cultivated with their local communities to produce and distribute sanitary pads.
Affordability: Saathi pads will sell for Rs.2/pad, significantly lower than the price of sanitary pads made by P&G and J&J.
Availability: Large multinationals like P&G and J&J do not have viable distribution channels in rural parts of the world and their distribution costs for these companies to reach these rural areas is very high. To address this issue of availability, Saathi does local manufacturing of Saathi pads in rural villages.
Awareness: A lot of rural woman do not understand the importance of using proper feminine hygiene products because they are simply unaware due to a lack of health classes in schools and their communities. In many rural areas, menstruation is considered a taboo topic, hence it is not even discussed in the homes. Saathi uses a door-to-door distribution model in which we have Saathi women selling the pads to women in their local communities. During the process of selling pads, Saathi women also educate their customers about proper feminine hygiene practices. Since Saathi pads are sold by women in the communities, there is already a trust level being built between the Saathi women and their customers since most of these villages are very tight knit communities to start with.
Amrita previously worked as a design engineer for Procter & Gamble’s feminine hygiene division working on Whisper and Always pads as well as with the Gillette brand. Amrita graduated with an S.B. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and an MBA from Harvard Business School. Amrita is featured in the 2015-2016 Saris To Suits Empowered calendar.