Designing better hygiene
By Deepanjali Kakati
Suhani Mohan, a metallurgy and materials science engineer from IIT Bombay, started her career as an investment banker. When she met Anshu Gupta, founder of NGO Goonj, she learnt how women in rural India use newspapers, rags and other unhygienic material during menstruation, which leads to reproductive tract infections.
“It had never crossed my mind that when I spend Rs 100 a month to manage my menstruation, how would a woman, whose entire family’s earning is less than Rs 1,000 a month, manage hers,” says Mohan. “I felt a strong urge to do something about this, which made me quit my job in 2014.”
A year later, she co-founded Saral Designs, a Mumbai-based start-up, which provides access to high-quality and affordable menstrual hygiene products through its SWACHH range of pad-making machines and innovative distribution model. Saral Designs has received training at the Nexus Incubator start-up hub at American Center, New Delhi.
In early April, as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the start-up quickly modified its pad-making machines to make surgical masks, to increase availability of personal protective equipment in India. It collaborated with the Mahindra Group to produce three-ply masks at the auto group’s Kandivali factory in Mumbai. The start-up is also working with the Maharashtra State Innovation Society to ensure distribution of 100,000 sanitary pads in Mumbai’s slum areas affected by COVID-19.
Excerpts from an interview:
What inspired you to change your production in response to COVID-19?
A few months back, we were already thinking of new products to add in the hygiene sector. When the COVID-19 crisis came up, we started getting calls from clients who wanted to know if the sanitary pad machines could be converted to three-ply mask machines.
So we started looking at how a regular surgical mask is manufactured. We realised that the non-woven material which is used in sanitary napkins is fairly similar to that of surgical masks. And one of our machines used a very similar process. We thought we could quickly modify this machine to start making masks.
Our design team spent almost 14 to 18 hours every day over two to three days, to complete the design. And then the lockdown came into effect. We were unable to procure the components we needed. I reached out to a lot of contacts; one of them was an alumnus from IIT Bombay working with the Mahindra Group.
Mahindra has a lot of in-house fabrication facilities because they make cars and this was a fairly simple modification for them.
We worked with their team to change the design of the rollers on our machine, from the cutout of a sanitary napkin to that of a surgical mask. Within a week, we were able to start mass production at their facility.
From 10,000 masks a day, we have ramped up production to 30,000
now. The masks are being distributed to frontline workers through Mahindra’s corporate social responsibility wing.
Could you elaborate on how Saral distributes its menstrual hygiene products?
We aim to cater to women who do not use hygienic menstrual products by addressing the issues of awareness, access and affordability. In developing countries, due to poor infrastructure, either distribution costs make products like pads and diapers 60 per cent more expensive, or the existing brands do not cater to remote locations. There is immense potential for local production, which not only reduces distribution costs, thereby
making sanitary pads affordable, but also creates local livelihood opportunities.
What innovations did you incorporate in your products and technology?
Technology is at the heart of our solution. We have developed an indigenously designed and patented automatic ultra-thin sanitary pad-making machine, at a decentralised scale. While decentralisation reduces distribution costs, the automated production ensures economies of scale and product quality. These high-quality sanitary pads are distributed online, through various retail channels and in partnerships with health care workers, schools and nonprofits to increase awareness and accessibility at the last mile.
Approximately how many people you’ve reached so far and how many you hope to reach in the near future?
So far, we have sold 6.5 million low-cost pads, impacting 200,000 girls and women via more than 30 production units in India and five other developing countries. These production units are run by local NGOs and entrepreneurs in Tier II and III towns, creating job opportunities in production and sales. We are working with more than 1,000 rural women, who act as our sales and outreach agents in their communities.
This year, we plan to impact 51,000 girls and women with our awareness campaigns and have 45 machines running production units in different parts of India.
How was your experience of participating in the training at the Nexus Incubator? What were your key takeaways from the training?
Nexus has been a great network. We were part of it two years ago and we still reach out to them for introductions and support. Our first machine in Bhutan was set up with another Nexus incubatee from that country, for which we are very grateful.