Seeing wife slip filthy rags, made School Dropout create World’s first low-cost sanitary napkin machine

The road to creating the world's first low-cost machine for making sanitary towels is as touching as the man who created it.

In 1998, Arunachalam Muruganantham, a school drop-out, was a workshop helper who lived below the poverty line in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. On day he caught his wife, Shanti, trying to slip away with some filthy rags. When he questioned, she said: She can either use the money for buying sanitary towels for herself or buying milk for the family.

This rattled Muruganantham so deeply that he vowed to create a cheap sanitary towel/pad for India’s poor women -- A product which not only provide Cheap & hygienic sanitary towel/pad to India’s poor women ; but also provide income to him and employment to others.

With clear goals in mind, he started his research into sanitary towels; which involved wearing a sanitary towel himself, so as to feel the dilemma of nearly 88 percent of women in India, who till now don’t have access to even a clean cloth during their periods.

Muruganantham learned entrepreneurship early in life:

Fact you should know: Few Indian women can afford sanitary towels. The situation of Muruganantham’s wife is no different than 88% of women in India; who according to a new study by market research group AC Nielsen called Sanitatary Protection: Every Woman's Health Right, have to resort to using ashes, newspapers, dried leaves and even husk sand during their periods.

As a result of these unhygienic practices, more than 70% of the women suffer from reproductive tract infections, increasing the risk of contracting associated cancers.

When Muruganantham decided to create for Indian women a low-cost route to sanitary protection; majority of people in his locality didn’t feel a need to doubt the success of the new project. Since 14, Muruganantham, was seen as a serial entrepreneur; with a few successes to his credit.

His entrepreneurial spirit emerged quite early. At the age of 14, his father, a handloom weaver, died; and the family has to survive on the paltry amount his mother earned as a farm worker. To support the family, Muruganantham had to drop out of high school. To supplement these wages, he began looking for low-cost business opportunities that addressed a need.

His low-cost sanitary napkin project first business venture was a: Cooking and delivering breakfast to factory workers. The business became so successful that some influential person in his area copied it; and threatened him to close his shop. Fearing his life and safety of family, he acceded to the demand.

At age 15, he joined a workshop where he worked on gates and windows. Putting his entrepreneurial brain to use once again, he started adapting decorative Rangoli patterns to the metalwork and became so popular for his craftsmanship that he started his own workshop.

His low-cost sanitary napkin machine Project:

Given his experience in entrepreneurship, which involved, selling day to day things since early in life; when he started on the project, no one doubted its success.

To begin with, he started out by purchasing the best quality cotton he could find and made a few samples. Unaware of menstrual cycles, he presented them to his wife and demanded immediate test results. But his wife and sisters refused to discuss the feedback.

Finding no one to give him feedback, he approached female medical students. Even, they refused to enter into discussion (may be his not so sophisticated profile and wrong way of approaching, resulted in such a response). Committed to get right feedback, he left feedback forms to them.

Road to Entrepreneurship is not Bed of Roses: Suspecting that he was using sanitary towels as an excuse to get close to other women, his wife, Shanti, left him a year and half after he started his research.

With no one to give him feedback on his new handmade sanitary towels; Muruganantham decided to test them himself. Collecting goat's blood from a butcher shop and treating it chemically to prevent coagulation, he wore a bladder-and-tube contraption and women's underwear for a week. His homemade uterus would release a small dose of blood whenever pressed.

After a week, he found the product lacking. He distributed the towels free and asked women to return the used ones. But this wasn’t easy; as many women linked the demand to some Black magic. But he managed to convince them.

Road to Entrepreneurship is not Bed of Roses: When Muruganantham’s mother, saw a storeroom full of used sanitary towels, she left too.

Muruganantham toiled hard for two years, and at end of two years of testing different materials; he finally figured out that towels were made of pine wood cellulose derived from the bark of the tree.

Pretending to be a millionaire interested in setting up a manufacturing unit; he approached American manufacturers via email, which he sourced from local teachers. The manufacturers sent him board-like sheets. Clueless for 10 days what the sheets are; he tore them in half; and eureka moment came: The sheets are made up of compressed fibres.

To create pads out of the sheets, the fibres in the sheets has to be reclaimed into usable cellulose. The sheets were just a hassle free way to transport the said cellulose.

But, Muruganantham found that a machine to reclaim the usable cellulose would cost more than £300,000 or 1.5 crore Indian Rupees. Him, in no way arrange that kind of money, he decided to make a simple version of this machine, to re-engineer it.

Two years later, he was able to fabricate one in his workshop. The same machine, in 2006, won the award for the best innovation for the betterment of society from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai. The award, brought back his wife and mother.

Road to Entrepreneurship is not Bed of Roses: Muruganantham, himself admits that, on the way of entrepreneurship; he it endured much public ridicule; but his dedication at last gave him recognition, when not only IIT Chennai, but the President of India awarded him for his innovation.

Traits on an entrepreneur, irrepstive of which part od globe, he/she lived in:

Entrepreneurship is a mindset; it is a never die spirit, which celebrates doing something new; without giving least attention to public ridicule, job security, money and prestige. As said: Entrepreneur cares for his enterprise; Money flows as a consequence.

Below are the traits Muruganantham who he shares with counltess entrepreneurs across globe:

1) Softly spoken and unassuming

2) Has a fine way of narrating tales about his life, his achievements and drawbacks. Just like other entrepreneurs, he is a great story teller.

3) He never misses a chance of laughing at himself. Remember: Strong people laugh at self; Weak at others.

4) Worldly perception about him is that he is eccentric, lacks mental stability and women don’t specially like him.

5) He is Passionate about social change; he presents his deeply held convictions without inhibition, which makes him a novelty in the conservative society that surrounds him.

Conclusion: Currently more than 600 machines made by his start-up company,Jayaashree Industries, are installed across 23 states in India. In spite of numerous offers, Muruganantham, now 46, refuses to sell his innovation to the corporate world.

Muruganantham, in striped T-Shit, in one manufacturing unit

There are two reasons for doing so: First, he believes associating with corporate will make the project lose its prime purpose, which si to provide low cost but hygienic sanitary towels/pads to poor women in India; secondly, he feels that, if developed rightly, the project has ability to provide a sustainable livelihood for many rural women (he is already giving jobs to many illiterate poor women in discreet villages in India)."

His company sells the £1,600 machines directly to rural women with the help of bank loans, as well as through NGOs and women's self-help groups. An operator can learn the entire towel-making process in three hours and then employ three others to help with processing and distribution.

A basic machine produces 1,000 sanitary towels a day; the pneumatic version churns out 3,000. Women pack around six to eight towels in a packet and sell them for as little as 13 rupees (Rs 1.63 per piece). On average, each woman earns Rs 2400 (USD 48) to Rs 5200 (USD 104) a month. Compare this income with the income of women farm workers in India and the advantage is evident (no strenuous work, and 80-170 Rs a day).

There are other benefits of Muruganantham’s strategy to grow business as well. When the day to day functioning and manufacturing of the units are left to women; then Women making the towels spread awareness of the product locally, eventually helping others make the shift to this more hygienic method of control.

In Muruganantham’s own words, "I am trying to create a second white revolution, setting up 100,000 units, will generate employment for one million women No one is bothered about uneducated and illiterate people. Through this model, they can live with dignity."

You are surely on your way to second white revolution in India, Mr. Muruganantham. Hats off to you. --------

No comments