A school dropout from a poor family in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads.
Arunachalam Muruganantham’s invention came at great personal cost – he nearly lost his family, his money and his place in society.
In 1998, Muruganantham went into town to buy his wife a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why 10g (less than 0.5oz) of cotton, which at the time cost 10 paise (£0.001), should sell for 4 rupees (£0.04) – 40 times the price. He decided he could make them cheaper himself.
He discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads – fewer than one in 10. His findings were echoed by a 2011 survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only 12% of women across India use sanitary pads.
Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the take-up is far less than that. He was shocked to learn that women don’t just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.
He began a crusade to develop low cost and effective sanitary pads.
Over the years villagers became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits, and were about to chain him upside down to a tree to be “healed” by the local soothsayer. He only narrowly avoided this treatment by agreeing to leave the village. It was a terrible price to pay. His wife left him. His widowed mother left. He was ostracised by his village.
He called the multinational companies that make the pads. He said he was a textile mill owner who was thinking of moving into the business, and requested some samples. A few weeks later, mysterious hard boards appeared in the mail – cellulose, from the bark of a tree. It had taken two years and three months to discover what sanitary pads are made of, but there was a snag – the machine required to break this material down and turn it into pads cost many thousands of dollars. He would have to design his own.
Four-and-a-half years later, he succeeded in creating a low-cost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.
The cakes are then wrapped in non-woven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.
Muruganantham’s goal was to create user-friendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women – women like his mother. Following her husband’s death in a road accident, Muruganantham’s mother had had to sell everything she owned and get a job as a farm labourer, but earning $1 a day wasn’t enough to support four children. That’s why, at the age of 14, Muruganantham had left school to find work.
The machines are kept deliberately simple and skeletal so that they can be maintained by the women themselves. The first model was mostly made of wood, and when he showed it to the Indian Institute of Technology.
IIT entered his machine in a competition for a national innovation award. Out of 943 entries, it came first. He was given the award by the then President of India, Pratibha Patil – quite an achievement for a school dropout. Suddenly he was in the limelight.
His wife returned to him after 5.5 years.
After Shanthi, eventually Muruganantham’s own mother and the rest of the villagers – who had all condemned, criticised and ostracised him – came round too.
It took Muruganantham 18 months to build 250 machines, which he took out to the poorest and most underdeveloped states in Northern India – the so-called BIMARU or “sick” states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Here, women often have to walk for miles to fetch water, something they can’t do when they are menstruating – so families suffer.
Slowly, village by village, there was cautious acceptance and over time the machines spread to 1,300 villages in 23 states.
In each case, it’s the women who produce the sanitary pads who sell them directly to the customer. Shops are usually run by men, which can put women off. And when customers get them from women they know, they can also acquire important information on how to use them. Purchasers may not even need any money – many women barter for onions and potatoes.
Most of Muruganantham’s clients are NGOs and women’s self-help groups. A manual machine costs around 75,000 Indian rupees (£723) – a semi-automated machine costs more. Each machine produces enough pads each month for 3,000 women and provides jobs for 10. They can make 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each.
Women choose their own brand-name for their range of sanitary pads, so there is no over-arching brand – it is “by the women, for the women, and to the women”.
Muruganantham also works with schools – 23% of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating. Now school girls make their own pads. “Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?”
The Indian government recently announced it would distribute subsidised sanitary products to poorer women. It was a blow for Muruganantham that it did not choose to work with him, but he now has his eyes on the wider world. “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” he asks. He is expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
His proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school.
A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. “Where Nehru failed,” he says, “one machine succeeded.”
SOURCE – BBC News
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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