Young entrepreneurs develop chemical-free, eco-friendly sanitary pads from kenaf fibre
Niveda R and Gowtham S use fibre from kenaf stem to make sanitary napkins that are anti-bacterial, chemical- and odour-free, bio-degradable, and compostable.
During the final year of their BTech course in fashion technology at Kumaraguru College of Engineering in Coimbatore, Niveda R and Gowtham S were contemplating ideas for their end-of-term project. This was when their batch was approached by a self-help group in Andhra Pradesh and introduced to the kenaf stem.
Kenaf is popularly known as gongura in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and pullicha keerai in Tamil Nadu, and its leaves are used for pickles and chutneys.
The self-help group proposed extraction of fibre from its stems to be made into useful products such as textiles.
“Kenaf grows widely in Andhra Pradesh and the neighbouring regions but the stems that are fibrous were unused. We decided to extract the fibre, and use it to make upholstery and furnishing products. When blended with cotton, it can be used to make garments,” Niveda tells SocialStory.
When the fibre was tested, Niveda and Gowtham discovered that it was also anti-bacterial and resistant to mildew and rot. Gowtham felt the fibre would be perfect for making sanitary pads. But both of them got placed in internships at the end of the course, and the idea was put on hold, at least for a while.
However, the pull of the idea was too strong to resist. On research, Gowtham found that, in India alone, nearly 1,13,000 tonnes of plastic waste were disposed of every day in the form of sanitary pads. This information prompted them to conduct a quick survey on the use of sanitary napkins among working women and girls in schools and colleges.
“Our survey threw up some interesting facts. Nearly 70% of women suffered from irritation or rashes while using normal pads. This information presented us with the opportunity to experiment with kenaf and make sanitary napkins out of it,” says Niveda.
Prototype and thereafter
In September 2017, Gowtham and Niveda presented the prototype at the Chhatra Vishwakarma Awards organised by All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and emerged the winner in the students’ challenge, winning a national award in the process.
They decided to forego their internships and work on their entrepreneurial idea full-time. In December that year, they won three awards for their concept at the India Innovation Initiative, organised by CII, Department of Science and Technology, and AICTE.
However, ground zero was not as easy as they thought it would be.
“Though we were convinced we were on the right path, we faced some opposition from our family who believed starting up was not practical,” says Niveda.
But they persisted. Niveda continued working on the idea through her MTech in apparel technology, while Gowtham worked as a research assistant at Kumaraguru College.
In March 2018, the young entrepreneurs attended a three-month training programme at iCreate (a technology incubator), Ahmedabad.
“Our pitch was rejected by investors. Though it was a setback, it motivated us to work harder and faster to launch the commercial prototype,” says Niveda.
For a year, they worked on developing the sanitary pad. Production began with an initial investment of Rs 20,000 (from the Rs 75,000 prize money won at the India Innovation Initiative), while the production was outsourced to a third-party manufacturer.
Branding it right
The duo launched the company Green Delight Innovations (GDI), and the product, under the brand name Aurog, in September 2018, but the branding backfired when people couldn’t pronounce the name. So, they decided to rebrand the product and launch it in the market again as Bliss Natural.
They exhibited Bliss Natural products at trade exhibitions and expos, and soon the product started gaining attention.
In between, there was a lull for a month, and then, suddenly, they were besieged with calls from customers for repeat orders. This, Niveda says, was the turning point.
Since capital infusion was low, the founders were personally delivering the products to their clients in Coimbatore, and they also received feedback in the process.
“The response helped us improve upon the product and come up with better solutions for women. Initially, we introduced Bliss Natural in two sizes, XL and XXL, and now we offer four sizes for women of different body types,” says Niveda.
Niveda, who is unable to reveal more about the process of making the sanitary napkin, believes there are many factors that work in the product’s favour. It is chemical-free, odour-free, devoid of deodorant, absorbent, easily bio-degradable, and compostable. It can be used for 6-8 hours at a stretch (though it is recommended for 3-5 hours. The product is certified by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The raw material is sourced from farmers in Mettupalayam (Tamil Nadu) and Andhra Pradesh. Since the crop yields every two months, six times in a year, the founders have initiated a pilot project to train farmers in Erode to supply kenaf fibre for Bliss Natural’s use.
The process is easy—the farmers separate the fibre on their own through a mechanised process and supply it to the company.
The product is priced at Rs 59 for six pads—10 rupees more than the inorganic ones available in the market.
Niveda says cost is not a deterrent.
“When we compare Bliss Natural to other organic napkins available, we are 3x lesser in price. Once women start using ours, they don’t really mind the difference in price. Comfort is more important.”
The sanitary napkins are sold on its own website, in supermarkets and hypermarkets in Tamil Nadu, and through ecommerce marketplaces such as Amazon and Flipkart. They are also exported to the US, Canada, New Zealand and Malaysia.
Niveda admits that, until July 2022, they didn’t spend much money on marketing, though the product attracted a lot of buzz in the media. They had a good customer base in Tamil Nadu but didn’t have much reach elsewhere in the country.
The founders have bagged grants that propelled the company to scale up— TANSI grant from the Tamil Nadu CM, Yash Entrepreneurship Grant, and a grant from Swacchata Entrepreneurship Startup Challenge from the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs—totalling Rs 73 lakh.
The grants have helped the founders expand their team and focus on digital marketing to aggressively drive the product in newer markets.
The Yash Entrepreneurs Program, supported by Villgro, is particularly important as it is an initiative of USAID’s Momentum Country Global Leadership, which is focused on improving the sexual and reproductive health outcomes of Indian adolescents.
“By working with social media influencers to promote their goods online and using digital marketing to connect with more menstruators looking for natural and cheap menstrual hygiene products, Villgro has assisted GDI in expanding its customer base. Additionally, they have assisted GDI in forming alliances with distribution networks, which has further broadened the company’s market reach into other regions,” says Dr Roshan Yedery, Sector Lead -Healthcare, Villgro.
Bliss Natural has also introduced new products such as sanitisers, sweat pads, and panty liners to transform Bliss Natural into a complete feminine hygiene brand. It is also looking to relaunch its website with new branding—Blisspads.in.
Niveda says, from 2018 to 2023, Bliss has served more than 50,000 customers and posted a revenue of Rs 2.05 crore in the last fiscal year.
For every 10 pads sold, one is donated to women in rural areas.
The founders are planning to launch new products in the D2C space–maternity pads and adult diapers for women.
“We will continue to focus on innovation and team building. Through awareness campaigns, we hope to remove the stigma that still exists around conversations on menstruation and menstrual hygiene,” says Niveda.
Edited by Swetha Kannan