When the fellow village men saw him washing his blood-stained undergarments, they concluded he’s suffering from a sexual disease. When his mother saw him storing a bunch of used sanitary napkins in his house, she was convinced that his son was under a black magic spell; when his wife couldn’t bear his obsession for that cotton product used by women in that time of the month, she had no other option but to leave his home and stay with her parents. However, today they all live together happily and making several others around them even happier, for, the man we’re talking about is ArunachalamMurunganantham -the recipient of the “Best Innovation Award” from none other than the president of India- Smt. PratibhaPatil.
He came under the media spotlight when he almost single-handedly, created a model for making affordable sanitary napkins in the country. Challenging the established norms isn’t easy, but this man did have the courage to do something about the uncomfortable pain that every woman on this planet goes through; and something that very few men in a country like India, even dare to talk about.
Looking at the women in the slums and labourers who work at construction sites, I am sure, every woman must have wondered what these ladies do during those days. Living in the sheds, with minimalistic access to water, privacy and resources, they definitely wouldn’t be able to afford the high-end sanitary napkins available at a mighty price in the chemist stores. Probably, this is exactly what Muruganantham thought about when he found his wife using a rag for the same problem. When he asked her why she didn’t use those napkins, her reply was, “ If I start using them every time, we probably wouldn’t even be able to afford milk in a few days’ time”. However, ghastly it may sound, but this is the truth of most of the Indian women in our country.
The innovative mind in Muruganantham couldn’t sit idle for how long. He knew this method adopted by his wife was unhygienic. So, he had to do something! He soon, got some cotton wool from a local mill, and cut into a rectangular shape and after wrapping it in a viscose cloth, gave it to his wife for testing. When she finally tested it, she had only a disappointing feedback to give to her husband. According to her, that was the worst napkin that she had ever used in her life and that she was better off with a cloth.
Muruganantham set out to find more ways to better his product. He used different varieties of cotton, tested with water and other material. He even decided to use his sisters as test subjects so that he didn’t have to wait endlessly for his wife’s cycles. But since, her sisters would never openly speak about the matter, he finally got hold of some students of a medical college to try his product and fill in the feedback forms. Once again, he had to face disappointment there. Even the college girls chose to fill the forms in the hush-hush manner and he had no other option than trying the product on himself. Carrying a football bladder to pump in blood procured from local butcher friends, he attempted the test that eventually, lead to his wife and mother leaving him and chasing him out of the village.
After about nine months of his research, he had realised that multinational companies like Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble, which manufactured sanitary napkins, were using either a different kind of cotton, or a different process. Two years and five months later, he found out that the cellulose was not of the flower of a plant, but the bark of an American pine tree. This was the multinational secret. And this was available only in the US, Australia or Canada.
After over four years of research and toil, this 47-year old rural school dropout from Coimbatore district in Tamil Nadu, built his own machine. The National Innovation Foundation in Ahmedabad helped him procure a patent, which he says he never intends to sell to a multinational company or a private investor. “The purpose was not to exploit the patent. I am using the same IPR to empower women in India. I am making them owners of this project, not workers,” he says. “My vision is to make India a 100% sanitary napkin country.” The company started by him is known as Jayaashree Industries and Muruganantham is frequently invited to the IITs, IIMs and other prestigious educational institiutes in India for guest lectures.
The machines are sold on a ‘turnkey’ basis, whereby entrepreneurs are supported on the raw material supplies and with training. At a starting price of 80,000, each machine can produce 1,000 pads in an eight hour shift. With each pad costing Rs 1 to Rs 1.50 on average, overheads included, Muruganantham says they can be sold for Rs 1.50 to Rs 2 apiece for a sizeable profit.
A study by AC Nielsen with Plan India conducted early last year, affirms this – the penetration of sanitary napkins is an abysmal 12% among menstruating women. So, the majority of the women in our country are left to fend for themselves.
Needless to say, that what Muruganantham has done is more than a boon for women who are not able to afford even this basic requirement. Hats off to him!
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