Meet Anju Bist who has helped over 5 lakh women switch to reusable sanitary pads

Anju Bist is the creator and managing director of the Saukhyam brand of reusable, washable sanitary pads made from banana fibre. Women from remote and backward villages in eight states of India have been trained to make these pads, as part of a livelihood generation initiative.

Meet Anju Bist who has helped over 5 lakh women switch to reusable sanitary pads

Thursday June 01, 2023,

5 min Read

In 2022, Anju Bist was among the 75 women who were honoured as ‘Women Transforming India’ by Niti Aayog, the apex public policy thinktank of the Government of India. This was in recognition of her work in developing reusable sanitary pads for women.

The honour from Niti Aayog and other accolades are a culmination of a small seed sown many years ago—to help women in villages understand the importance of menstrual hygiene and provide them with the right products.

In 2017, Bist and her team from Amrita SeRVe, a programme aimed at making villages self-reliant, came up with reusable sanitary pads from banana fibre, a form of agro waste.

Team Saukhyam

Team Saukhyam

Saukhyam Reusable Pads is an initiative of the Mata Amritanandamayi Math, the international charitable organisation founded by Mata Amritanandamayi Devi, known as ‘Amma’ among her devotees.

The story of Saukhyam dates back to the year 2003 when Bist gave up a cushy job in the United States to return to India and devote herself to teaching and social initiatives for the upliftment of the under-privileged sections of society.

Born in West Bengal, Bist moved to Hyderabad at the age of ten, where she continued her schooling and completed her degree in mechanical engineering. Then she moved to the United States where she did a master’s in information technology and an MBA from the University of Maryland.

While working with PricewaterhouseCoopers as an IT consultant, Bist and her husband met Amma, who was on a visit to the States. This meeting changed Bist’s life forever, and she decided to act on her desire to create an impact in the lives of others.

“Also, while sitting in on one of those never-minding meetings (at work), I had an epiphany of sorts. Was I going to do this for the rest of my life? Make more money, devise ways for people who already have money to make more?” Bist tells SocialStory.

Bist was keen to move to India and work for a social cause.

The couple moved to Bengaluru in 2003, but Bist lasted in the city for just two weeks. She moved to the Amritapuri Ashram in Kollam, Kerala and taught environment management and sustainable development at various institutions under the Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham for ten years. For five years, she also worked on organising a unified system of web communications for the university.

In 2013, Bist was part of Amma’s initiative to adopt remote and backward villages in 20 states. She had to travel extensively as part of this team.

The team roped in tuition teachers to give free classes to underprivileged village children and also appointed and trained health workers.

“One day, Amma drew our attention to the fact that a lot of education and health-related problems will go away if we provide the right products for menstrual hygiene,” explains Bist.

Taking this objective seriously, the team from Amrita SeRVe started working on a research project funded by the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, to figure out the best absorbent material for sanitary pads.

The team realised that most pads available in the market are made from cellulose fibre, produced using the same process deployed to make paper.

“We found banana fibre to be a useful eco-friendly and natural alternative. But here too, Amma cautioned us—though banana fibre comes from waste, it’s far too precious to be thrown away, and we should look at making reusable pads from banana fibre,” says Bist.

While the core of the banana stem is edible, the outer layers are usually discarded. Bist and her team decided to put the outer layers to use, by extracting fibre from them. Thus, was born Saukhyam pads in 2017.

The outer covering of the pad is made of cotton, while the inner portion is made from banana stem fibre. Besides being eco-friendly, it is also super-absorbent—it has the capacity to absorb up to six times its dry weight, says Bist.

Enabling a livelihood for women


The reusable Saukhyam pads made from banana fibre

Once the pads were developed, they became part of an income generation project for village women across India.

Before the pandemic, women from self-help groups were trained to make Saukhyam pads at village-level production centres in eight states of India. Bist worked as a one-woman army, taking care of both production and sales.

Now the model of production has changed after the pandemic. A centralised factory in Kochi, Kerala, ships half-stitched pads to the village units, where they are finished by more than 100 women.

“This model has ensured consistency in quality,” says Bist.

The banana stems are sourced from Tamil Nadu. There are plans to set up extraction units in Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh.

Change in mindset

About 20% of Saukhyam’s pads are sold through its website; 80% of the pads are sold at subsidised prices in rural areas. The pads are sold at full price online; a sanitary pad pack (comprising two day pad bases and two inserts and one night pad base and one night pad insert) starts at Rs 630.

Compared to disposable sanitary napkins, Bist believes these pads are a “steal”.

The demand for Saukhyam is today very high, says Bist, adding that the team has sometimes had to turn down orders due to the existing pipeline.

“But, in the beginning, we had to organise awareness workshops on the advantages of reusable pads. People thought we were crazy to propagate the idea of washing and drying pads. Word-of-mouth has worked in the long run,” she explains.

Bist says, since 2017, more than five lakh women have made the switch to Saukhyam reusable pads, helping prevent the emission of 2,000 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.

Bist and her team are currently working with the Madhya Pradesh state rural livelihood mission and the Sikkim government to conduct awareness workshops on menstrual health.

She says it’s heartening to note that the mindset towards menstrual health and hygiene is changing.

“Times are changing. There are still taboos in many pockets, and our efforts continue,” she says.

Edited by Swetha Kannan