Earlier this year, in a first of its kind, a mainstream Bollywood movie dealt with a hitherto taboo topic in India – menstruation – and it did surprisingly well.
The Akshay Kumar-starrer Padman is just the latest in a number of recent endeavours to highlight the issues and challenges around female hygiene in India. While some large MNCs have launched a concerted effort to reduce the religious and social barriers around periods, there are a number of smaller players who’ve also been significantly contributing to the cause in different ways.
Ahmedabad-based Saathi Pads is one such startup. Founded in 2014 by four engineers from MIT, Harvard, and Nirma University, the startup is working to make environment-friendly 100% bio-degradable sanitary pads available to a larger number of women, both in rural and urban India.
“We are not only running a business, we care a lot about the health of the women who use the product, and its environmental sustainability. We have been educating women in urban and rural areas about the negative impacts of unhygienic traditional methods like cloth pads. Menstruation is now talked about more often in the media and not only women but even men understand the importance of menstrual hygiene,” says Tarun Bothra, CTO at Saathi Pads.
India currently generates 100,000+ tons of sanitary pad waste each year, and this despite the fact that only 20 percent of Indian women use conventional sanitary pads. As usage increases in future, so will the waste. Conventional sanitary pads are made of plastic and chlorine-bleached wood pulp, which is not skin-friendly and is harmful to the environment. Plastic pads take 600 years to degrade, and are frequently disposed by burning, generating CO2 and toxic fumes. Sanitary pad waste generation is potentially 1,000,000+ tons annually if every menstruating woman in India started using pads.
Which is why they set off on an important mission -- to increase access to affordable, biodegradable, and non-toxic pads across India. The Saathi team uses banana fibre instead of chlorine-bleached wood pulp or cotton. “We are upcycling agricultural waste. Nearly all of the waste produced in our manufacturing facility is biodegradable and compostable, and we are actively seeking buyers to compost it. Our cradle-to-cradle approach to manufacturing helps us minimise waste and maximise social and environmental impact throughout the entire product lifecycle,” says Tarun.
In 2016, they launched their One Million Pads initiative, which aims to expand access to sanitary pads for women in rural Jharkhand by partnering with NGOs in these regions. They are also training healthcare workers, or sevikas, to be local experts on menstrual hygiene, and advice these women.
According to Tarun, while their aim is to get more rural women to start using healthier options, the reception to their product from women in urban areas, where they recently did a soft launch, has been heartening. “The women in urban areas were excited to use Saathi pads because they don’t contain chemicals or plastics and are environment-friendly. The users don’t get rashes or feel any irritation while using our product. In fact, our pads are highly absorbent and very comfortable to use,” says the CTO.
Saathi's founders have a good mix of engineering backgrounds combined with relevant industry experience. Kristin Kagetsu, CEO, is a graduate of MIT and has previously launched another sustainable, eco-friendly product in India - natural-dye crayons that are made in Uttarakhand, India. She is experienced in product development with alternative materials and production as well as project management. Tarun is a graduate of Nirma University and brought in technical expertise and local knowledge to develop the product and set up manufacturing. Amrita Saigal, CFO, is a graduate of MIT and the Harvard Business School, and has industry knowledge from her previous role at P&G in the sanitary pad division. Grace Kane has a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from MIT and a Masters in Product Design from TU Delft.
With more people now understanding that Saathi Pads positively impact the environment, women, and the local economy, the team believes that they are getting closer to their goal of increasing awareness around menstrual hygiene across India.
Dell technology has played a key role in Saathi's journey from concept to scale-up. The team has been using Dell laptops for their day to day work and vouch for its compact and sturdy nature, and long battery life - which make it ideal for travel, something which the Saathi team members have to do on a regular basis. Their product design called for robust configuration that could handle heavy processing and deliver on speed, power, memory and of course, display - and Dell delivered on all counts. The team even won a Dell technology suite as part of the 'Pitch with Purpose' competition in Houston – which came in really handy. Today, they use Dell Precision T3620 workstations at their office as well, and have never looked back.
Tarun adds that he finds Dell products user-centric. “I have used my Dell Inspiron from 2011 to 2017 and then replaced it with my Dell XPS15. I’m personally fond of its sturdiness.”
As a small business like Saathi makes a big splash with their mission-driven awareness in social responsibility, their hard work is paying off. They’ve bagged a number of laurels in the three years since they started up, including winning the National Bio Entrepreneurship Competition 2017, the Global Cleantech Innovation Program 2017, the Asia Social Innovation Award 2017, the 3M Young Innovators Challenge 2016 and the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition, 2014.
They have even started generating revenue and are working hard on scaling up for mass production. While they may have acquired customers through extensive press coverage and social media interest, in the future, they will be looking for brand ambassadors to help promote the product and their vision.
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