It was in the summer of 2009, when Amrita Saigal was working as a summer intern at Procter & Gamble, that a conversation with her grandmother changed the course of her career. Saigal found out that her grandmother, a native of India, used old rags for her menstrual cycles, had to miss school every time she got her period and had to sleep in a separate outhouse.
Worse, Saigal’s grandmother was hardly alone. After that conversation, Saigal started researching the Indian feminine hygiene products market and found that only about 12 percent of Indian women at the time used sanitary pads, and that taboo about menstruation and the lack of access to hygiene products were the leading reasons why girls dropped out of school at higher rates than boys.
At Procter & Gamble, Saigal had helped design equipment to manufacture Always pads and Tampax tampons, so the MIT mechanical engineering graduate decided to leverage her expertise to launch Saathi, a social entrepreneurship business in India aimed at developing sustainable solutions to the problem that continues to affect many women in the country.
Saigal, who launched Saathi (which means “friend” in Hindi) along with co-founder Kristin Kagetsu, in 2015, was convinced that the sanitary pads had to be birthed from local solutions while keeping local challenges in mind.
The first problem: waste. Pads made out of plastic were not an option because they contributed to landfills. In rural India where menstruation is still taboo and kept under wraps quite literally, pads would have to be easily disposed. The answer? Banana fiber. Pads made from banana fibers, Saigal found, are very absorbent and equally important, completely compostable. Women often burned pads to get rid of all evidence and banana fiber pads are easy to burn, and unlike their plastic counterparts, did not release harmful carcinogens into the atmosphere during the process.
As it happens, India leads the world in banana production, and farmers who ordinarily threw the plants away after harvesting the crop now have an additional income stream in Saathi. “This is not like wood pulp where you’re cutting down perfectly good trees, these banana plants have to be cut down anyway and these farmers who want nothing to do with the trunk of the tree, they sell them to us,” Saigal says.
While sanitary pads are available in Indian cities, access in rural areas is a challenge. Giants like P&G and Johnson & Johnson, Saigal points out, have been focusing on India’s competitive urban markets, which leaves room for upstarts like Saathi to make inroads in the countryside.
Eager to address accessibility issues with sanitary pads in India, Saigal’s initial goal was to design a machine that women all over India could operate by themselves. “We got the machine into the hands of a few different women’s self-help groups for feedback and the biggest challenge we found was quality control: when you have one machine sitting in rural Kerala, one in Haryana, how do you ensure quality? Just shipping of the raw materials all over was another difficult challenge,” Saigal says.
Plan B, which was to set up a central manufacturing facility in Ahmedabad in the Indian state of Gujarat, kicked into place. Gujarat is one of the banana-growing states in India and Ahmedabad is also close to the others, including Maharashtra and Kerala. To address affordability, the pads are extremely reasonably priced at five rupees (less than ten cents) each.
While the idea for Saathi took root in 2009, it was only in 2016 that they actually started selling pads, Saigal points out. The business ran into every type of challenge in India and then some. There was the notoriously stubborn bureaucracy for one thing. “There would be people trying to make me pay bribes, we would have people say materials are being delivered on such and such date and they would show up six months later,” Saigal remembers, “one company took three lakhs (the equivalent of $5,000) for a machine, designed it all wrong, and then didn’t give us our money back.”
Saigal also found the workforce to be too dispassionate for her taste. “It’s not like they didn’t like us, they would just casually say, ‘hey, we found someone else,’ and move the next day,” Saigal says, so staff turnover was an ever-present challenge.
Education about of the proper use of pads was also a problem Saigal had to contend with. After all, every pad in the world would come to naught if women didn’t know how to use and dispose them. Saathi targeted women health workers who visit villages every month and supplied them with the pads so they could educate rural women about use. “Change is much more easily digested if it comes from within, and having a trusted member of the community teach others was huge for us,” Saigal says.
Money too was a constant problem. Saathi managed to win many a business grant competition (significant among these was the Harvard Business School’s 2014 New Venture Competition), which provided much-needed seed capital, but making do on limited financial resources has been an ongoing challenge.
Despite the rocky road, Saathi has soldiered on and launched a one-million pads initiative in collaboration with one of India’s education NGOs, Ekal Vidyalaya. The organization, which focuses on education in rural India, will buy and distribute Saathi pads to women of menstruating age in the rural villages of three Indian states: Jharkhand, Rajasthan and Gujarat, for each month over one year. This campaign is scheduled to end in late 2017 and is Saathi’s first big push at visibility.
Saigal plans on slowly expanding to the urban markets where she also expects to increase the prices of the pads so she can keep the prices low for rural areas. “We just about break even in the rural areas, so for this to be a profitable and sustainable enterprise, we need to launch in urban areas and the profits from these sales will be funneled to subsidize sales in rural India,” she says of Saathi’s goals. Saigal shuttles between India and its U.S. base in San Francisco.
She might mine her contacts at Procter & Gamble to evaluate interest in a partnership but such plans are still up in the air, Saigal says, adding that she’s optimistic about Saathi’s growth track.
“Last year in India, I think there were seven billion pads sold. So it’s not like there’s only enough room here for one company to do business.” From all indications, Saigal and her social entrepreneurship venture, which now employs 13 full-time staff, is poised to shake things up in the feminine hygiene market in India for years to come.
Poornima Apte is an award-winning Boston-based freelance writer and editor. She is at wordcumulus.com.