Join 3,572 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Disrupting The Period
December 19, 2011 12:48 PM   Subscribe

When Arunachalam Muruganantham hit a wall in his research on creating a sanitary napkin for poor women, he decided to do what most men typically wouldn’t dream of. He wore one himself--for a whole week. [...] It resulted in endless derision and almost destroyed his family. But no one is laughing at him anymore, as the sanitary napkin-making machine he went on to create is transforming the lives of rural women across India.
An Indian Inventor Disrupts The Period Industry.

Arunachalam Muruganantham's company is Jayaashree Industries. Video featuring the sanitary napkin (warning: Kenny G music).
posted by Foci for Analysis (51 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
His wife, thinking his project was all an excuse to meet younger women, left him.

Ah yes. The old, "hey babe, tell me about your problems with current sanitary napkins" pick up line. DTMFA!
posted by yoink at 12:52 PM on December 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


And here I was expecting this to be a piece of propaganda from Big Comma.
posted by bicyclefish at 12:54 PM on December 19, 2011 [37 favorites]


This is truly awe-inspiring stuff - something like this can change poor women's lives for the better, almost wholesale. Don't get derailed by the jokes.
posted by pinky at 12:58 PM on December 19, 2011 [31 favorites]


A high school dropout, he taught himself English and pretended to be a millionaire to get U.S. manufacturers to send him samples of their raw material.

This is so badass.
posted by nooneyouknow at 1:00 PM on December 19, 2011 [25 favorites]


Aren't there a slew of reusable menstruation-control devices around such as washable pads and menstrual cups and such? What is stopping women from using these instead of shelling out for disposable pads every month? I am genuinely confused. Why did this guy need to reinvent the wheel when there are alternatives available?
posted by Scientist at 1:01 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


This has to be made into a movie and I know just who should star in it: Coming to theater near you in 2014 Brad Pitt in "Bloody Balls"... and people said he couldn't handle a period piece.
posted by any major dude at 1:04 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Demystifying the napkin was only the first step. Once he knew how to make them, he discovered that the machine necessary to convert the pine wood fiber into cellulose cost more than half a million U.S. dollars. It’s one of the reasons why only multinational giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have dominated the sanitary napkin making industry in India.

The world eventually needs a full-fledged "open hardware" movement to collaboratively document and improve upon these types of processes needed for all the basic facets of modern civilization. The walled gardens of corporate intellectual property and trade secrets are extremely detrimental to a vast number of people, and to the advantage of increasingly few

It's insanely inefficient to have a world where only a couple companies dominate a few hundred million person market for a basic personal hygiene item, simply because no one had the knowledge/capital to compete
posted by crayz at 1:05 PM on December 19, 2011 [13 favorites]


Why did this guy need to reinvent the wheel when there are alternatives available?

Because the alternative products cost too much by the time they reach the end consumer. Taken from the related Hacker News thread:
His price of 12 rupees (25 cents) for 8 napkins is unbelievably cheap. That means a napkin costs 1.5 rupees which is less than a cup of tea you can buy at a road side stall in India. And I think 75%+ of his target market should be able to afford it.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:07 PM on December 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


Aren't there a slew of reusable menstruation-control devices around such as washable pads and menstrual cups and such?
Not in India. Moon cups are unheard of, and even tampons are considered kind of weird. My mother and aunt use tampons, but they were exceptionsm not the rule. Most people who can afford it use pads, and those who can't, wash rags over and over. Besides, moon cups are pretty expensive initially -- not something these women could afford.
posted by peacheater at 1:08 PM on December 19, 2011 [8 favorites]


What is stopping women from using these instead of shelling out for disposable pads every month?

I would suspect, given that this is for the poor in India, that reusable is a real problem due to hygiene issues. I know that infection rates with things like sponges and cups in the US are on par with tampons, but all are higher than pads, and hygiene standards in the US are very high.

If reusable options need thorough cleaning between uses, and you can't count on the water being clean, then it seems to me that washing something in water carrying infectious organisms and sticking it inside you would be a fast path to sepsis. This would be, well, bad.

Thus, disposable, which is presumably clean on first use and never reused.
posted by eriko at 1:09 PM on December 19, 2011 [25 favorites]


Aren't there a slew of reusable menstruation-control devices around such as washable pads and menstrual cups and such? What is stopping women from using these instead of shelling out for disposable pads every month? I am genuinely confused. Why did this guy need to reinvent the wheel when there are alternatives available?

Remember that people living in developing nations may not be able to properly clean such devices.
posted by clockzero at 1:09 PM on December 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


What does the 12 rupee pricepoint correspond to in terms of labor-hours? How much money would an unskilled laborer make in an hour / day? That seems like the important thing, in terms of getting accepted in the market as a non-luxury good.
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:09 PM on December 19, 2011


Aren't there a slew of reusable menstruation-control devices around such as washable pads and menstrual cups and such?

Also, they require access to clean running water around the clock, so that they don't introduce dangerous particles or bacteria back into your system. And just...ahh, I can't be the only one slightly terrified of them, can I?
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:12 PM on December 19, 2011 [4 favorites]


Kadin2048, from the article:

He can now make 1,000 napkins a day, which retail for about $.25 for a package of eight.

That would be $125 at retail, so it seems reasonable for them to be clearing about half of that as profit, barring the cost of the machine/materials.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse at 1:15 PM on December 19, 2011


Ps: what eriko and clockzero said, sorry!

And also, this is really great; it sounds like a great program run by a very cool dude. I'm not sure I could convince anyone I'm a millionaire and I speak English as a first language.
posted by jetlagaddict at 1:16 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


What does the 12 rupee pricepoint correspond to in terms of labor-hours?

I found this link, which discusses a planned National Minimum Wage in India of 100 rupees per day (which is apparently lower than some Indian State minimum wage rates). The link is a couple of years old, I think.
posted by yoink at 1:18 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


I wonder what the total environmental impact equation of something like this will turn out to be--if he really does manage to effect a wholesale change in Indian women's habits. A lot less washing of rags, of course, which is presumably quite a big plus.
posted by yoink at 1:22 PM on December 19, 2011


This is great. I hope usage becomes wide spread.
posted by shoesietart at 1:28 PM on December 19, 2011


"Aren't there a slew of reusable menstruation-control devices around such as washable pads and menstrual cups and such? What is stopping women from using these instead of shelling out for disposable pads every month?"

There are.

However, as a woman, I can attest that each and every woman is shaped different on the inside. For me, tampons don't work at all, as I'm a bit tilted. And I had bad reactions to the Diva Cup. The MoonCup US also hurt, and the Instead was clumsy and messy and hard to use. For me, the only internal option that works are the MeLuna cups, which have to be the right size, have to be the soft ones, and are hard to get, as they're made in Germany. I'm a yuppie woman in the USA who has the extra cash to spare to spend on experimenting with different period containment options - if I was in these women's position in India, I wouldn't have these choices. Nor the sanitary methods for cleaning them after every use.

By far the easiest way to deal with a period is the pad.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:30 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I wonder what the total environmental impact equation of something like this will turn out to be--if he really does manage to effect a wholesale change in Indian women's habits.

Do you mean impact from the used pads or from harvesting the lumber for it? It's certainly an important concern, but I suspect that waste management is not especially sophisticated in rural India right now anyway.

It sounds like it's mostly just cellulose sourced from pine trees. That and human blood/tissue are totally biodegradable.
posted by clockzero at 1:36 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


What does the 12 rupee pricepoint correspond to in terms of labor-hours?

I found this link, which discusses a planned National Minimum Wage in India of 100 rupees per day (which is apparently lower than some Indian State minimum wage rates). The link is a couple of years old, I think.

So assuming the minimum wage is 100 rupees/day. So 12 rupees gets you a package of 8 napkins, which for the sake of simplicity I'm going to assume is the amount of napkins the average person needs per month (IANAWoman, so I know this could be off). So basically in a given workmonth of 5.5 day workweeks (the old standard for India), this would average to 23.1 workdays/month, giving a monthly income of 2310 rupees a month. 12/2310 = 0.5% of monthly income assuming my estimates are remotely close.

In more tangible terms of US dollars, daily income: ~$1.90/day, pack of 8 napkins ~ $0.23, monthly income ~$43.90
posted by JauntyFedora at 1:41 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also: this guy is super cool.
posted by JauntyFedora at 1:42 PM on December 19, 2011


!
posted by Fizz at 1:42 PM on December 19, 2011


Do you mean impact from the used pads or from harvesting the lumber for it?

Everything--total lifecycle, from trees to waste.

It's certainly an important concern, but I suspect that waste management is not especially sophisticated in rural India right now anyway.

Yeah, that was actually my first thought: "I wonder where all the used pads will end up?" Is it safe to compost used pads--if they're compostible?
posted by yoink at 1:45 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


This man is a hero.
posted by clearlydemon at 1:53 PM on December 19, 2011 [3 favorites]


Good on him!

By allowing women to be more productive and girls access to school every day of the month, the payback is ultimately enormous!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:54 PM on December 19, 2011 [15 favorites]


What a cool story. I hope this can be extended or franchised all over the world.
posted by Forktine at 2:02 PM on December 19, 2011


When are we going to stop calling them "sanitary napkins" and start calling them "vadge badges?"
posted by hellbient at 2:31 PM on December 19, 2011


When are we going to stop calling them "sanitary napkins" and start calling them "vadge badges?"

Please don't start doing this until after I'm dead.
posted by padraigin at 2:35 PM on December 19, 2011 [25 favorites]


He can now make 1,000 napkins a day, which retail for about $.25 for a package of eight.
That would be $125 at retail,...


That's actually only 125 packages, or $31.25 at retail.
posted by ceribus peribus at 2:37 PM on December 19, 2011


It's interesting that he didn't actually enter the pad-selling business:
he doesn’t sell his product commercially. "It’s a service," he says. His company, Jayaashree Industries, helps rural women buy one of the $2,500 machines through NGOs, government loans, and rural self-help groups.
I don't mean to make a value judgement as this seems to be a good thing, but it's as if he's skipped the old school industrial magnate model and went into a branch of government contracting, like those late-night TV commercials that sell motorized wheelchairs and promise to help buyers get the cost covered by Medicaid.
posted by exogenous at 2:39 PM on December 19, 2011 [1 favorite]


So 12 rupees gets you a package of 8 napkins, which for the sake of simplicity I'm going to assume is the amount of napkins the average person needs per month

Erm, no. Not even close. More like you need at least five a day (some of us need all eight, probably) so you're looking at 60 rupees a month. To put this into perspective, I probably spend at least $15 a month on tampons and pads here in the US. If I was working at minimum wage - $7.25 an hour in NC - that would be two hours a month I'd devote to buying my menstrual supplies. In other words, they're still cheaper here.
posted by mygothlaundry at 2:41 PM on December 19, 2011 [7 favorites]


I am wondering how he is going to protect the intellectual property rights on this, assuming that his invention is good enough for a commercial enterprise?
posted by vidur at 2:55 PM on December 19, 2011


I don't mean to make a value judgement as this seems to be a good thing, but it's as if he's skipped the old school industrial magnate model and went into a branch of government contracting, like those late-night TV commercials that sell motorized wheelchairs and promise to help buyers get the cost covered by Medicaid.

I am wondering how he is going to protect the intellectual property rights on this, assuming that his invention is good enough for a commercial enterprise?


I don't mean to sound like a martian here, but maybe he wants to provide a service that provides him with a reasonable income rather than attempting to rule the world? I can see myself making that choice.
posted by jaduncan at 3:04 PM on December 19, 2011 [10 favorites]


What is stopping women from using these instead of shelling out for disposable pads every month

I would imagine having to wash them by hand, and the water quality issues (when your family has a limited number of containers, boiling your silicone cervical cap is a non-trivial issue), especially when female issues are a major taboo, making using material that biodegrades a fairly harmless option (and for those complaining that it's not ecologically pure to chop down trees to provide sanitation, I would like the people who are washing feces and urine covered rags after using the toilet to cast the first stone).
posted by Phalene at 3:30 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


jaduncan, why you merging quotes from two different people? Anyway, I doubt there is much income to be had in trying to create a empire distributing centrally-produced menstrual pads throughout India, much less achieving any sort of world ruler status thereby.
posted by exogenous at 3:38 PM on December 19, 2011


I don't mean to sound like a martian here, but maybe he wants to provide a service that provides him with a reasonable income rather than attempting to rule the world? I can see myself making that choice.

That's great for you, and I am glad that this guy has chosen reasonable income over multi-million dollars. I was wondering about this because if this is a commercially viable enterprise, then given India's poor IP protection regime, someone can just copy his idea and go into business with it. In fact, it is not hard to imagine him being pushed out of the market by someone with deeper pockets or better government connections. That's all.

I've seen Self Help Groups in action in India, but they are typically for stuff that's basically in handicrafts territory, not stuff that is make by large corporations with deep pockets.

Intellectual property protection is not just for blood sucking corporations. Non-profit organizations also need to protect IP.
posted by vidur at 4:04 PM on December 19, 2011


What would the "IP" be in this context?

Is "IP" a good thing for a developing society to have? (For that matter, "IP" seems problematic even in industrialised societies.)

"IP" is not property -- property is forever, a limited-time monopoly granted by a government is not property.
posted by phliar at 5:05 PM on December 19, 2011


This is an incredible story, and it's a huge step forward for the women who will be helped. Being able to deal with a period is a non trivial barrier for many many women, even with access to proper sanitation. I can't imagine trying to get an education and hold down a job while trying to make do with leaves and ash. My mind can't grasp the number of lives this one person will change. He's made an enormous impact, and I hope he lives to see the change he's made.
posted by stoneweaver at 5:08 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


What would the "IP" be in this context?

Is "IP" a good thing for a developing society to have? (For that matter, "IP" seems problematic even in industrialised societies.)

"IP" is not property -- property is forever, a limited-time monopoly granted by a government is not property.


Well, I was just using the commonly used words without any legal background or a view on whether IP is good or not. Feel free to use alternate phraseology. I hope I've made my basic question clear, but let me try again:

If his product and/or process invention can lead to a commercially viable enterprise, what would protect his non-profit but small scale enterprise from being pushed out by bigger players? What exactly is preventing Unilever India from doing this exact same thing or a variation of this?
posted by vidur at 5:31 PM on December 19, 2011


If his product and/or process invention can lead to a commercially viable enterprise, what would protect his non-profit but small scale enterprise from being pushed out by bigger players? What exactly is preventing Unilever India from doing this exact same thing or a variation of this?

If the end result would be the rural women of India getting access to cheaper menstrual pads, perhaps he would consider this to be "winning".
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:14 PM on December 19, 2011 [6 favorites]


Never mind. I found the answer at the bottom of the "About Us" page. A patent is mentioned.
posted by vidur at 7:24 PM on December 19, 2011


Right now, 88% of women in India resort to using dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves, and even ashes during their periods, because they just can’t afford sanitary napkins, according to "Sanitation protection: Every Women’s Health Right," a study by AC Nielsen. Typically, girls who attain puberty in rural areas either miss school for a couple of days a month or simply drop out altogether. Muruganantham’s investigation into the matter began when he questioned his wife about why she was trying to furtively slip away with a rag. She responded by saying that buying sanitary napkins meant no milk for the family.

When I went to India in '98 (visiting my brother, who was working for a U.S. university's junior-year-abroad program) I got my period there. I had brought plenty of pads with me, not wanting to have to attempt any awkward shopping trips with my brother, and since the hotel I was staying at had Western-style toilets it was mostly a non-issue. But there was one day when we were out walking around & sightseeing that I thought the pad had started to leak, and was panicking at the thought of the blood becoming visible, and insisted on finding a toilet immediately. The nearest one was a non-Western hole-in-the-floor type - luckily for me it turned out that the pad was not leaking, I was just sweating buckets from the heat, because there was nowhere in the toilet to dispose of a used pad. It was one of the many moments in the trip that highlighted the freedoms I take for granted as a woman. While my period can be unpleasant and/or inconvenient, it doesn't significantly interfere with my life.

The machine and business model help create a win-win situation. A rural woman can be taught to make napkins on it in three hours. Running one of the machines employs four women in total, which creates income for rural women. Customers now have access to cheap sanitary napkins and can order customized napkins of varying thicknesses for their individual needs.

Awesome!
posted by oh yeah! at 7:35 PM on December 19, 2011 [5 favorites]


I used to have really bad periods, I know other women who suffered at that time greatly. This is under conditions here. I think anything that allows clean, disposable supplies is GOOD!
I was so happy about menopause I can't begin to describe it.
If I had to resort to leaves, or ashes, I think at best that would be depressing.
Menstruation is a natural process, but it is not a convenient process. Even in the U.S. at school timely access to a bathroom can be a huge problem.
In India many homes and schools do not even have toilets. People, especially women have a He'll of a time finding someplace to relieve themselves and be clean.
In many areas, there aren't even latrines, one goes out to the fields.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:01 AM on December 20, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree that Mooncups would be a poor choice in rural India, but I still don't understand what would be wrong with washable pads. The first time I went to India, I took a load of tampons and pads with me and realised with horror that they wouldn't burn on the bonfire where they burned rubbish at the place I was staying. I had to ball them up into a bag and walk for fifteen minutes to leave them behind a tree on the open plain, which was what you did with plastic waste. The second time I just brought rolled washcloths and washed them. They worked almost exactly as well as the fancy printed-cotton artisanal-made etsy-bought washable pads I have now. I washed them alongside my clothes, using an ordinary Indian clothes-scrubbing brush and blue soap. Am I missing something here?
posted by Acheman at 10:07 AM on December 20, 2011


From here:

Then they encourage them to make these sanitary pads that are essentially sifted wood ash wrapped in a cloth. Wood ash is readily available, absorbs odors, and can easily be thrown out into the woods or fields when the pad has been used.
posted by anniecat at 10:36 AM on December 20, 2011


I was always able to buy Kotex in India. It's not a problem in the big cities.
posted by anniecat at 10:39 AM on December 20, 2011


Ugh posted too soon. So I'm just saying if any of you are traveling there, don't worry about being forced to use wood ash. Unless you're in a particularly rural area. Which is what the article is talking about.
posted by anniecat at 10:41 AM on December 20, 2011


I find his story inspiring and all that - I really do. And I understand that menstrual cups aren't a solution in all cases for all women, but even where there's not clean water could you not clean the cups out with soap/some kind of cleaner? I know the Diva Cup has a wash you can buy with it that cleans them out, but surely any type of soap can work and ideally boiling helps address concerns too. Then again, this comment from Hacker News ("If you can't afford sanitary napkins, can you afford a pot specifically for boiling your cup? Would you even be able to get past the taboo to boil it in the same kitchen that you prepare food in, even if it did have its own dedicated pan that never touched food?") rightly identifies the problems with taboo that would need to be changed. Would that a product design issue worked on that one...

God, how is it I can be so inspired by a story and completely demoralized by the fact that the next step in the logical progress - like access to a freakin' napkin as a universal human right - is solved by human compassion and open mindedness. I hadn't considered that a solution I take for granted once a month - a menstrual cup - would seem radical elsewhere. What a depressing though.
posted by rmm at 11:58 AM on December 20, 2011


but even where there's not clean water could you not clean the cups out with soap/some kind of cleaner?

You are imagining that your "kitchen" is a private space. Instead, imagine how comfortable you might be cleaning out your Diva Cups in the small open courtyard that you share with your husband's parents, various in-laws, some cousins visiting from the next town over, and a few neighbors who are hanging out for the afternoon, everyone watching what you are doing and maybe yelling at you about keeping the blood out of the food prep area?

The "bathroom" might be a small latrine, or might be out in the fields (which you as a woman might only be able to use at certain hours of the day); the "bedroom," "living room," "den," "guest bedroom," and "closet" might be one small room shared with multiple people. None of those are going to offer great options for privacy. Any option that is cheap, safe, clean, and maximizes privacy and comfort is a huge advantage.
posted by Forktine at 3:33 PM on December 20, 2011 [1 favorite]


The description anniecat linked to kind of reinforces my point, which is that washable pads really aren't that bad. People talk about 'rags' and 'wood ash' with this awful horror, but they're a perfectly practical way of dealing with menstruation. The linked website also has a lot of documentation surrounding the fact that you don't even need to be wearing underwear for washable pads to work - the female genitalia are so constructed that you can stick things, particularly cotton, between your legs and they will pretty much stay there unless you do the splits or climb a tree.
posted by Acheman at 3:54 PM on December 20, 2011


« Older This cat is presumptuous....   |   The Eye That Never Blinks -- I... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments