Social entrepreneurship in India
Cut from a different cloth
Building a business around solving a chronic female health-care problem
RATAN JADHAV, a shy, slight woman in her 30s, works on a farm in Osmanabad, a remote part of the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
Her tiny mud-brick house boasts such modern conveniences as a computer bought with a loan from relatives, while arranged neatly on the kitchen window sill are her teenage daughter's cosmetics.
Yet when it comes to personal hygiene, both women prefer a cotton rag to a branded sanitary pad.
Why buy one, asks the mother, when a homespun substitute does the job?
Ms Jadhav is one of300mmenstruating Indian women who eschew sanitary pads in favour of rags, dry leaves, straw or newspapers.
AC Nielsen, a research firm, says that 70% of women in India cannot afford sanitary products.
Many who can pay do not, as they hate having to ask for them in drugstores that are usually run by men.
This has serious consequences.
Adolescent girls miss up to 50 days of school a year.
Some 23% drop out altogether.
Working women lose their daily wages.
The social and economic benefits to be had from resolving this problem are potentially so large that doing so is now a focus of social entrepreneurs in many developing countries.
They include Jaydeep Mandal and Sombodhi Ghosh of Aakar Innovations, a Delhi-based start-up.
They have developed a machine that produces low-cost sanitary napkins using as raw materials agri-waste such as banana fibre, bamboo and water-hyacinth pulp.
Each machine can churn out 1,600-2,000 pads a day, to be sold for 40% less than branded mass-market products.
To bypass the current female-unfriendly distribution system, Aakar aims to sell its machines for 250,000 rupees a time to groups of women.
The finished item will be sold door-to-door by village saleswomen who also hawk solar lamps, stoves and saris.
It will be distributed, too, in women-run grocery stores and beauty parlours.
Aakar hopes to profit by selling the raw materials and the machines.
This is hardly a new idea.
Arunachalam Muruganantham, another Indian entrepreneur, is a pioneer of low-cost pad manufacturing.
Gandhigram, a non-profit organisation in Tamil Nadu, has developed similar technology in partnership with engineers at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras.
Goonj, an NGO, sews and sterilises discarded old clothes into sanitary pads.
Many start-ups process cotton fibre from old knitwear into pads.
Mr Muruganantham reckons that the country is awash with hundreds of local brands.
Yet, unusually, Aakar's product meets the standards of the Western world and can compete with all global brands, says Ronald van het Hof of Women on Wings, a Dutch-based consultancy focused on creating jobs for women.
After studying sanitary-pad markets in four states, Bihar, West Bengal, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, the Dutch outfit decided to help Aakar grow.
Aakar's founders see a big opportunity.
Despite the challenges, the 13.5 billion rupee sanitary-pad industry in India is growing fast.
Established firms, including global giants such as Procter & Gamble, hold sway in towns and cities, though still only 25% of women use their products.
In the countryside the proportion is lower still.
By bypassing middlemen and using existing rural retail networks the founders believe they can win6mcustomers and provide direct employment to 11,000 women in the next five years.
Yet many similar ventures have failed due to problems ranging from a lack of standardisation to inadequate saleswomen.
Aakar has forged a partnership with Swayam Shikshan Prayog, an NGO in Osmanabad which will be responsible for manufacture and distribution.
It will also promote awareness by asking local doctors and health-care workers to push the pads at workshops and monthly village gatherings.
A start will be made next month in Osmanabad, with the aim of catering to about 20,000 women.
This may reveal whether the pad has genuine appeal in India's hinterland.
It surely will, says Devkanya Jagdale, leader of a group of local saleswomen.
And Ratan Jadhav will be my first customer.