Awards Category: Social Enterprise
Mr Arunachalam Muruganantham
Founder of Jayaashree Industries
Arunachalam Muruganantham was inspired to create sanitary pads for impoverished women in rural India, when, as a newlywed, he discovered his wife hiding her sanitary pads from him. She couldn’t afford to buy new pads due to the high cost; investigating further he was stunned at the cost of supplies given the small size and cheap materials. The problem is widespread and little discussed – seventy percent of reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene. Women are forced to use unsuitable cloth, ash or sawdust, amongst other products, and are often too embarrassed to wash or dry their cloth adequately due to public stigma.
Creating a Better Future
In 1998 Muruganantham started to investigate sanitary pads in India, and fashioned his own pad out of cotton. His wife refused to participate in the trial, and he was forced to make a ‘uterus’ out of a football bladder, which he filled with goat’s blood and wore. He also inspected used sanitary pads, before seeking help from a local college professor to approach manufacturers to work out how the pads were constructed. When he finally discovered that the pads were made from cotton and ground cellulose, he spent four and a half year creating a simple, hand-operated machine made of wood, and a four step production system which ground the hard cellulose, disinfected the cotton and created a simple pad. When he showed his machine to engineers at Indian Institute of Technology Madras in 2006, they were unconvinced that he could compete with hi-tech, automated manufacturers who dominated the market. However, they secretly entered the machine in the National Innovation Award Grassroots Technology Award, which it won. The award gave him seed funding to establish Jayaashree Industries, which provides the machine at no cost to rural women across India. Initially, he took 18 months to build 250 machines which he took to the poorest states in Northern India.
Muruganantham’s mission was not only to increase use of sanitary pads but to provide jobs and income for the women who made them, a reason he kept the machines simple and easy to operate. He has consistently refused to commercialise his idea, and most of the recipients of his free machines 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 converts 3,000 women to pad usage, and provides employment for 10. They can produce 200-250 pads a day which sell for an average of about 2.5 rupees (£0.025) each. The design and construction of the machine remains open source and freely available.
Muruganantham’s next goal is to take the machines worldwide, and he is expanding to 106 countries including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius and Bangladesh. “My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” he says.
Muruganantham was socially ostracised as a result of his quest. His village believed he was perverse and taking part in witch-craft when he was caught washing out his clothes covered in goats’ blood. His wife left him, and he was eventually asked to leave the village. “My wife gone, my mum gone, ostracised by my village,” he recounts. “I was left all alone in life”. Following the success of his venture, he reconciled with his wife who is now his biggest supporter.
He has also faced immense challenges distributing the machines in the conservative villages of Northern India. The stigma surrounding menstruation remains high, with women forbidden from visiting wells, public places of temples, or to prepare food while they are menstruating. In some instances, he has been unable to talk with women except through their husbands or fathers, or behind a curtain.
Muruganantham’s machine has been distributed for free to 1300 villages in 23 states across India, and six other countries, and his mission is to make India a 100% sanitary pad-using society in his lifetime. In 2014 he was recognised as one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. He refuses to commercialise the product, which has no overarching brand, and which he considers “by the women, for the women, and to the women”. “A lot of people making a lot of money, billion, billions of dollars,” he says. “Why are they coming for, finally, to philanthropy? Why the need for accumulating money, then doing philanthropy? What if one decided to start philanthropy from the day one? That’s why I am giving this machine only in rural India, for rural women”.