Two decades ago, when Arunachalam Muruganantham set out to find an alternative for cloth used during menstruation by his wife and sisters, he unknowingly began a revolution in India’s menstrual hygiene culture. Through years of struggle and perseverance, Arunachalam went on to become the ‘Padman’ of India, having made cheap yet safe sanitary pads available to rural women throughout the country.
Arunachalam’s story is nothing short of inspiring, and one that needs to be emulated again.
And so it has, with two young men from Delhi on a similar mission now. Shashwat Diesh (28), and Aqib Mohammed (26) launched their startup, ‘Azah’, late last year, to provide sanitary pads with better quality and safety for women.
The story of these ‘Padmen’ began with the realisation of the struggles women face during periods, from their sisters. When Shashwat heard about some of the problems women faced, like rashes, and toxic shock syndrome, using low quality, chemical-laden pads, he was shocked it is happening in this day and age. Disturbed by the discomfort his sister endured due to regular sanitary napkins, Shashwat decided to look for solutions.
When he spoke with his friend Aqib Mohammed about this, Aqib also spoke to the women in his life - sisters and friends, who too voiced similar concerns. The duo then decided to invent a solution, and started research in May 2018. Arunachalam’s story has inspired the duo, who watched the movie Padman (starring Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, based on Arunachalam’s life).
First, Aqib and Shashwat had to understand the utility of products currently available and what caused rashes, itching, etc. Since this was not a solution they could address by testing products themselves, they roped in female members in their families, as well as friends. They conducted a survey among 300 women to get a feedback on the available sanitary pads; 60 percent of women reported facing various side effects. The duo also spoke to gynecologists and other experts to identify skin-friendly materials and understood how to design and manufacture the pad in a scalable way.
With around Rs 18 lakh investment from their savings, Aqib and Shashwat launched Azah, as a premium feminine hygiene brand in November 2018. The name Azah – a Hebrew name for a girl, meaning strong and bright– is inspired by the immense strength a woman carries within herself.
In the first three months after its launch, Azah has sold more than 1,00,000 units. In the last two months, they have sold around 80,000 units. Azah’s products come in boxes of 12,15, and 30 pads.
Entrepreneurship for empowerment
A BE graduate from R.V. College of Engineering, Bangalore, Shashwat was one of the first 100 employees of cab aggregator platform Ola. In his 2.5 years there, Shashwat helped Ola scale from Rs 10,000/day to Rs 50,00,000/ day in revenue, as well as introduced many competitive products while working with Ola. He later joined Snapdeal, where he met Aqib, an IIT-Roorkee graduate, who was working with c2c platform Shopo on Snapdeal.
Aqib also had his own startup, Xolvr, a K-12 online education marketplace, which was acquired by edtech company Next Education India. Post that, he worked in other early-stage startups in the field of artificial intelligence, constantly looking for problems that can be solved through innovation in technology.
Shashwat’s knowledge in business strategy and planning gave him the confidence to do something of his own. Aqib believes that few things deliver the satisfaction as waking up in the morning with a strong purpose and knowing what you want to do through the day can make a positive difference to someone else’s life. He was therefore instantly on board and ready to join Shashwat in this venture.
Not just another brand
The first product line from Azah was ultra-soft organic sanitary pads. It caters to the needs of quality-conscious urban consumers. Made with the finest organic cotton, the pads are chemical-free and eco-friendly, as all layers except the bottom-most one are made of cotton or paper.
Azah claims it can absorb up to a thousand times its weight in water, and is free of harmful synthetics such as chlorine, dioxins, and artificial fragrances, and is FDA-approved. This helps to prevent rashes and itchiness, giving the product its tagline – ‘Pads so soft you won’t even feel you are wearing one.’
Available in Regular and XL sizes, Azah also offers an innovative pack consisting of Regular and XL sizes in one single pack, so that a user’s complete need for an entire cycle is taken care of by just one pack. The products are available online on Amazon as well as Azah’s website. So far, Aqib says that they have delivered to more than 2,000 pin codes, of which 30 percent are outside metro cities.
On an average, one spends Rs 10-13 for a pad. Azah’s price is Rs 20 per pad. Azah focuses on the customer base with disposable income, mostly in Tier I cities, and in the age group of 25-40. Although menstrual cups are gaining attention from the same customer base, Aqib states that Azah will win the customers who are not keen on the concept of menstrual cups.
Azah’s pads are manufactured in China and South Korea, with raw materials from Germany and Japan. “We will shift manufacturing to India after some time. But we are not satisfied with the quality of materials currently available,” Aqib adds.
The brand claims to have received positive feedback and acquired its first thousand customers in the very first month of its launch. Aqib tells YourStory, “We can’t experience it ourselves. So feedback is very important, and we have accordingly made changes and improved the product in the last 3-4 months.” Azah claims to have 80-90 percent customer repeat rate. “We will focus on the online channel for 12 months, since the feedback is faster. We may expand to the offline world after that,” he says.
Azah is now talking to angel investors for funding to streamline supply chain management, start marketing with digital campaigns, and improve customer service by leveraging technology. Azah aims to focus exclusively on feminine hygiene products and plans to innovate in just sanitary pads for the next 12 months.
“Our pads are not 100 percent bio-degradable now, because the bottommost layer is plastic, which is not disposable, but we are working on it.
Most other sanitary napkins use plastic in the top later and are heavily scented, causing side effects. We use organic cotton, and no scents,” Shashwat says.
Now a team of nine, Azah’s average monthly revenue is growing at 50 percent. It crossed Rs 10 lakh in March 2019.
Although their current focus is on growth rather than profit, Aqib is confident that unit economics is not a problem. “Once we have 50,000-60,000 monthly customers, we can break even easily,” he says.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there were 355 million menstruating women in India in 2018. A recent report by market research firm IMARC Group, Indian sanitary napkin market was worth $ 511.5 million in 2018.
With a larger audience becoming sensitive to health and environment issues, environmental-friendly sanitary napkins are offered by brands like Carmesi, Purganics, and Saathi. More than competing with each other, Azah and its fellow players are leading the way to a safer, healthier world.