Taboos exist across races, cultures and countries. There is no society and no demography completely free from it. Their origins are varied but consequences are similar – perennially neglected social issues and suffering. One common taboo that has affected lives of women, physically and socially for generations and which continues to remain a topic never discussed openly in the majority of the population around the world, is that related to menstruation. It is a natural process which is a part of life for half of the human race for almost half of their life span. Unfortunately, it is also one of the most frowned upon and hence least discussed topics.
Where there is no dialogue and no channel of communication about menstruation, there is bound to be a lack of information. The physical changes that happen and how to be comfortable with it, lack of awareness about menstrual hygiene leading to diseases and no access to sanitary napkins leading to discomfort, isolation and suffering for women is very common in the less developed regions of the country and especially in rural areas. The need for awareness and innovation is proportionally more in such areas. One more factor that adds to the problems is the high pricing, and less or no availability of sanitary napkins.
Around 312 million women in India do not use sanitary napkins at all. Only 2-3% of women living in rural areas use it. Menstruation is considered to be a shameful topic to even talk about and hence neglected even by the women population leading to poor hygienic practices. In addition, awareness about alternate practices and access to quality products is almost negligible leading to low product adoption. There is also a significant challenge faced during disposal of sanitary pads in rural areas. Arunachalam Muruganantham’s sanitary napkin revolution is a step in the right direction to solve this problem.
Aakar Innovations, a social enterprise which aims to identify grassroot innovations and provide them a platform to serve as solutions to localized issues, with an emphasis on rural India is trying to lend a hand in solving this problem too. The focus is to provide affordable, biodegradable and high quality sanitary pads to rural women who currently do not have access to it resulting in severe forms of social isolation, high school drop outs and life threatening diseases.
Aakar was co-founded by Jaydeep Mandal and his childhood friend Sombodhi Ghosh. Both Jaydeep and Sombodhi have experience & exposure of working and staying with grassroots communities and during these times they realized how severe the issue of menstrual hygiene is for rural women. Aakar primarily caters to the rural BOP population but has recently started working with urban BOP population as well realizing that this is a hugely neglected population base too.
Jaydeep shares, “We can safely claim that we are possibly the first company in India to have developed a 100% biodegradable sanitary napkin which can be disposed of in compostable conditions within 90-180 days. In addition, Aakar works as a platform where our non-profit arm engages extensively with the community to conduct awareness campaigns in villages.”
Gaining acceptance and trust was never easy for such a product, especially considering the potential customers which they work with. They have faced lots of failures, learnt from them and have now developed their own methodology to gain community trust and be easily acceptable. Their village level micro entrepreneurs called Anandi Bens (after their brand name “Anandi”) are their product champions, leading to high trust based engagements.
They have developed their own technology in the low-cost space which is highly affordable and produces pads which adhere to BIS quality standard norms. They work as a platform integrator where they sell machines to women Self Help Groups, ensure timely availability of raw materials at the low cost and best prices and also leverage their non-profit arm to engage extensively with the village clusters working on community awareness, capacity building of village micro entrepreneurs and ensuring last mile reach. Aakar has just signed a MOU with Govt. of Gujarat for setting up 600+ production units in next five years across Gujarat. Aakar has been bootstrapped for the last 3.5 years and their revenues are mainly through the sales of machines and raw materials.
Jaydeep shares, “We are on a life journey here. We want to ensure that there is no girl in India who drops out of school on reaching menarche. We want to ensure that there is no cases of UTI, Toxic Shock Syndrome or cervical cancer reported due to lack of access to menstrual hygiene. And we want to ensure we remain rooted to our focus on serving the BOP at all times. We aren’t competing with any MNC brands and nor do we intend to. We hope that in the longer run MNCs also enter this space and women are provided with more choice and options.”