Good Businesses 2016

Swachh Suvidha

With low-cost sanitary napkins, Saral Designs is blotting out menstrual woes of the underprivileged

A frail looking woman used to sleep in the corner bed of the hospital ward, intermittently wailing out in pain. She could barely swallow food because of her stiff jaw. What was wrong with her? She simply thought it was convenient to use her old blouse to prevent stains during her periods. To think, it was a tiny, rusty hook that gave her tetanus. After weeks of suffering, she finally succumbed… 

When Anshu Gupta, the founder of Goonj, narrated the story of the woman to a group of corporates in Deutsche Bank, Suhani Mohan was struck hard. Were there more women facing health issues because of unhygienic menstrual conditions? Mohan went on a fifteen day tour across the country to understand the ground reality. What she saw only convinced her that women deserved better. With co-founder Kartik Mehta, she set up Saral Designs in 2015, an enterprise that manufactures low-cost sanitary napkins and distributes them to underprivileged women. 

Erasing misconceptions 
Mohan says it’s not just about selling sanitary napkins door-to-door, but also educating women about how to prevent infections. “We want to take care of their health as well,” says the co-founder, adding that Saral aims to erase all the misconceptions women have about menstruation. 

But considering that publicly talking about menstruation is still a taboo in India, the going hasn’t been easy. Often women say, “Why are you asking me what I use?” Mohan says many a times doors have been slammed on their faces, with retorts like “kya kya bechne aa jaate hain, mujhe nahi chahiye aur nahi baat karni hain.” In fact, she says, women barely open the door when they see people holding a sanitary napkin pack. It’s especially hard in Dharavi, the slum colony in Mumbai. “Surprisingly, the response in villages has been better. People in cities are generally skeptical about anything that is happening there,” she elaborates. 

Nevertheless, Mohan has built a team, picking women with good communication skills and training them to spread healthcare awareness across villages and slums. Saral has also partnered with several NGOs and schools to educate girls. The company has about 50 Sanginis in Maharashtra, who are trying to break menstrual myths by using innovative methods such as games besides advocating solutions to maintain hygiene. 

Health and hygiene

At the start, however, there were just Mohan and Mehta. The duo pooled in their own savings to start working on the low-cost prototype. Mohan’s classmate from IIT-Bombay then pitched in $10,000. Mehta, then, was working at his father’s factory, which manufactured special purpose machines for the packaging industry. The funds helped him put together a custom built machine, Swachh, which as of now, produces 12 pads per minute and about 4,000 sanitary napkins a day. Here’s how it works. While most of the raw materials are procured from different parts of the country, the core layer of the sanitary napkin, which is made of a pulp tissue with Super Absorbing Polymer (SAP), is procured from China. 

Since Saral manufactures and distributes the napkins by themselves, it helps bring down costs. This also makes it viable to sell the pads at affordable rates. Aisha, a pack of seven ultra-thin sanitary pads that are 70 mm wide, cost Rs.30. Other products with similar features cost nothing less than Rs.80.

While each Aisha sanitary napkin costs Rs.4, there are sanitary napkins that are available at Rs.2 in the market. But Mohan says they are not comparable in quality. “Unlike higher income groups, women from low income households are not loyal to the brand. They look out for the cheapest product available; if it is dysfunctional, they don’t mind spending another rupee or two for better quality,” opines Mohan.

Farooq Adam, chief investor, Powai Lake Ventures, agrees. “Since there is no compromise in the product’s quality, they have the potential to reach 300 million women in India,” he says. It was with the Rs.95 lakh equity investment from Powai Lake Ventures and individual investors like Ambi Parameswaran that Saral was set up. “Saral Designs addresses a key socio-health issue through its cost effective solution,” says Parameswaran.

However, it is not limiting itself to the social space. “We focus on both high and low income groups. We make changes in the product accordingly to ensure it suits different lifestyles,” says Mehta. Although its main distribution channel is through Sanginis, Saral also sells the sanitary product through 100 retail outlets across Maharashtra and through Amazon, clocking in a monthly revenue of Rs.1 lakh by selling 28,000-30,000 pads.

Smart vendor
The duo has also developed a sanitary napkin vending machine, Suvidha, which can be installed in schools and public toilets. The machine dispenses a pad for Rs.5. As a pilot project, Saral had installed machines in schools for just a month, to gauge the response. When the month was over, Mehta says, “The principal came right back asking to install the vending machine as the number of girls taking half-day leaves had drastically reduced after the machine was installed.” 

As of now, 11 machines have been installed across Maharashtra — eight in government schools and two in government-aided schools in Mumbai, and one in a public toilet in Pune. Each machine, costing Rs.25,000, can hold up to 50 napkins. Mehta is working to take this to 100 napkins. The machines have an in-built mechanism, wherein an SMS is sent to Saral when the napkins are about to get over. 

Besides the Suvidha machines, Saral also sells Swachh machines at Rs.13.5 lakh to provide an end-to-end solution. It is, in fact, eyeing the franchisee model to expand operations. Saral is also looking at increasing production capacity by the end of this year to bring in more revenue. As of now, the company has generated a revenue of Rs.18 lakh, but is yet to log a profit. 

Marico Innovation Foundation, a non-profit organisation, is assisting Saral Designs in building their revenue model. Their inputs range from pricing, strategies to make the product visible in test markets to helping them choose the right target audience. Tarun Firodiya, manager, Marico Innovation says, “Saral Designs is creating a new category for itself by making sanitary napkins affordable to women, who either don’t have access to them or those who can’t afford the existing product.” 

That’s true. But it’s Saral’s real reckoning — to change the attitude and perception of women towards menstruation — that can pave the way for a healthy nation, one where no woman has to die because of old-age myths.