What goes behind starting large scale impact projects in South Asia

At Saral Designs, we follow 4As approach (Affordability, Accessibility, Awareness and Advocacy) which allows us to not only provide accessibility of affordable sanitary napkins, but also allows us to advocate change that we bring at local level in tier-2,3 towns and/or low income communities through our work in menstrual hygiene. The decentralized model allows us to work with local stakeholders in production, distribution and awareness,  where our goals and philosophies align, while our advocacy drives replicating these results in other districts.

To put this vision into action, we started with two large scale projects in outskirts of Kathmandu in Nepal and several low income areas of India one such place being Latur district in Maharashtra. These projects in Nepal and India are being supported by Millennium Alliance and Grand Challenges Canada respectively.

Personally and for Saral, these were exciting times as we were about to execute two big projects. When we started drafting Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) on paper, some details were missed out and thus some real confrontation awaited us on field when we began putting our plan into action. It was a roller coaster ride with many challenges and insights which I wanted to share for those who are planning impact projects in South Asia.

Challenges in Nepalese geography:

Nepal is a landlocked South Asian country with a severe menstrual hygiene crisis. When we applied for Milliance Alliance awards, we wanted to take our decentralised manufacturing to other low income countries where we would be able to replicate the success of decentralised production and its effectiveness in catering to a large population. The idea behind choosing Nepal was its proximity to India and as per our initial assumption we expected transportation and logistics to be smoother. We tried our best to understand the geographies we had chosen – Kathmandu outskirts and Dhading which fall under Province 3 of Nepal in Bagmati zone. And, when we thought we had become experts (sort of), the actual confrontation came in terms of field challenges. I am listing down some of the difficulties we faced during our initial days in Nepal:

  • Budget: To start any project, budget planning is very important. We planned for Nepal budget as per our experiences in India. First things first, here was transportation. The cost of transportation was exceptionally high in hilly and remote geographies which had an impact on our cost estimates. There were other things where costs were much higher than we planned for such as approvals, administration costs, etc.
  • Access: We underestimated remoteness of several locations. Going to the remotest of geography would take 2-3 days by walk and there are no transportation available. This restricted our areas of intervention which needed constant travel of trainers and product distribution.
  • Role of INGOs : Post 2015 earthquake, there was a sudden increase in international organisations who had established their offices in Nepal. Since they were there only for disaster relief, in most cases, their plan was to phase out their operations in 2-3 years, thus there were no strong sustainable models that were established for any health delivery mechanisms. Also, due to some of these short term programs that were done hastily, local health workers found it difficult to trust foreigners.
  • No fixed Retail price: Prices of sanitary pads were extremely high as there was no regulation on prices or any concept of MRP (maximum retail price). As most sanitary pads are imported from countries like India and China, distributors chose whichever price they wanted to sell these pads at. 

  • Uncertain weather: The climatic conditions sometimes were such that we had to stop our fieldwork due to unpredictable rains that damaged roads which would eventually make travel difficult.

Challenges in India:

India is a diverse land and each geography comes with its own cultural and physio-graphic challenges. We started our work of program implementation and M&E in Latur, Maharashtra where our production partner was producing pads using Swachh machine. 

  • Timelines: We had scheduled primary data collection during summers as it fell under the purview of our overall project timelines with respect to the M&E. Since Latur is an area with extreme heat conditions reaching 50 deg Celsius, it was difficult to find women who would be willing to spend their time for piloting the questionnaire. People stopped stepping out of their houses after 12 noon during summers. Shops would remain closed during afternoons. This lead us to replan our data collection only in morning hours

  • Administration: To venture into a new area, it is a must to have approvals from local administrative authorities. Our challenges were mainly related to availability of these officials. Due to overlap of our project with the central government elections, it was problematic for us to keep up with the administration.

A lot goes into building a project and then tweaking your plan altogether due to certain failed assumptions. Thus, from our experiences, I am sharing some insights on how to overcome these challenges:

  • Feasibility study: While starting any project it is important to understand the various aspects to sustain the project which involve- legal, economic, operational and as well as possible constraints (some of which are listed above). Thus, it becomes must to conduct a feasibility study beforehand to access selected area better.

  • Understanding geography better: This can come under feasibility study, but geo-planning is an important part of the project. This also includes socio-demographic information of the area and the cultural angle that will come into picture once you are actually on the field. It is always better to have this knowledge beforehand.
  • Approvals required for conducting study: When venturing into a new geography, getting to know its administrative processes is a must as these are prerequisites to begin a new project in that area. It is also good to know whether similar programs are run in communities to avoid repetition of programs which is very common.

With these two projects, we plan to reach 51,000 girls and women in low income communities across India through 1,500 local heath workers via awareness workshops and D2D pad distribution and a similar campaign shall start in Nepal to reach out to 38,000 women and girls. If you’d like to help us achieve this vision of bringing dignity and confidence to girls and women of India and Nepal, do send us an email at contactus@saraldesigns.in if you would like to make a difference.

Looking back at the 1000 days

When we were starting out Saral Designs 3 years back, my Dad told me an old famous saying from the Steel manufacturing industry, “Don’t think about breakeven or making money for the first 1000 days of starting your business, but you need to survive long enough to see the good times.”

Since we have survived the first 1000 days (Phew!), I took a pause to look back at our journey.

3 years ago, we started with 2 key insights:

  1. The raw material cost in a sanitary pad is less than 20-25% of the price of the pad. The price of pads is high due to distribution margins given to 4-5 layers of intermediaries/ cost of logistics which was higher for pads/diapers being voluminous)
  2. Women, irrespective of their income, wanted a good quality and high absorbent sanitary pad – because if a pad does not absorb well, no matter how cheap it is, it does not serve its purpose

There were a few social entrepreneurs and NGOs, who had identified the first problem and were making pads using small scale manual machines. These machines required 10-15 women and made less than 1000 pads a day, increasing the cost of production and made product quality inconsistent.

To solve both the problems, being Engineers, we came up with an Engineering solution (of course!). We conceptualized the design of a small scale fully automatic machine to enable local production and distribution of pads at a scale which was economically viable.

A simple (Saral) solution is prototyping

While most people still are surprised when we say our machine is completely designed in-house, we kept the process simple and gradual. We started making prototypes in my co-founder Kartik Mehta’s father’s office with the help of our first 2 interns. We looked at developing a very few critical components first, with the help of which we could make our first pad (manually).

We gave these pads for feedback to our friends, who loved it. Our friends helped us raise our first angel investment round within a few months of the starting our Company. We now had capital to work on adding new modules and automation. We were on the moon and that is where the confusion began.

Solving for the right need

While the process of developing the machine (R&D & hardware manufacturing) is fairly capital intensive, we started selling the pads in the market to get live feedback to make quick modifications. After speaking to a few investors and mentors in our network, we gathered that building a relatable, low-cost brand should be the first step. We came up with the brand name “Aisha” and started selling our pads in urban slums of Dharavi (the largest urban slum in Asia).

Since our machine was not yet full optimized, we were not making any profits on our sale of pads. While we challenged the production model by making it decentralized, we still retained the conventional distributor-retailer route of distribution and started working on creating brand awareness.

In our 1st year, we realized that we had not raised enough capital to build an offline brand. Organic sales were very tough as Dharavi was a very competitive market with many brands actively operating there.

This is when we shifted our focus to rural Maharashtra, where access to pads was the key hindrance in women adopting the product and bringing pads to the door step of a woman was the way forward. Read more about it here.

The response to the product was great and sales in rural areas were almost 4 times that of urban slums. We were able to reach many remote areas where women really needed the product as the women at an average had to travel 4-5kms to get a sanitary pad!

Our process became really last mile and focused, this made it difficult to scale with the limited team size and funds we had.

Brand building needs money!

People often say that you should raise equity investment when you don’t need it. This, in a non-cryptic sense means, only raise money when you are not desperate and have already found a way to survive without external capital.

But when you are running out of cash, you try everything. I think I would have met at least 100 venture capitalists, social impact investors, angel investors in the second year of our business.

  • Some suggested to build an online brand (effectively, changing our target audience from low-income to high income women)
  • Some questioned us that why are we into manufacturing at all – that we would be able to raise funds easily if we would focus only on building the brand and procure sanitary pads from China and create a distribution network in India

From a Venture Capital perspective, it was an easy path to acquisition by a larger company. Was our attachment to our own technology bringing us down? Was brand creation the only way of value creation in this sector?

Creating a buzz

Internal team size was limited, but talent and resources are unlimited, if we could find the right partners. We started writing articles, sharing stories about our work in media to put across to the world on what we were upto.


We had some amazing mentors who helped us rebrand to Active Ultra with better communication with the customer, highlighting the features of the pads that really mattered to a user.


Listening to the customer

Interestingly, with the buzz about our work, we were getting a lot more interest from people to buy our machine technology. Entrepreneurs from Tier-2/3 towns, NGOs from India and other developing countries were reaching out to set-up our machine and sell in their own brands (or white label). We ignored these requests for a long time since we were focused on building our own brand.

A friend once told me, listen to those who give you money. There were customers willing to give advances for buying our Swachh machines, even when we had not sold a single machine. We just thought of experimenting a bit and explore the machine sales model in Bangladesh first (read more). After 6 months of successful pilot at Bangladesh, we realized with appropriate training to the entrepreneur, selling machines to entrepreneurs really made a lot of sense. Though we did not hold on to a common brand, we, as a company, did not have to invest heavily into machines, to increase our reach.

Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Vijay Rupani at the inauguration of Swachh machine in Valsad with Desai Foundation

Listening to the customer, we pivoted to moving from a “single brand decentralized production model” to a “multi-brand business in a box model”. And, to our surprise, it had multiple advantages –

  1. Localization of brands: Each location where the machine is installed has a local brand name with localized packaging. It creates a higher sense of belonging for the customer, – “this pad is made in Bangladesh/ made in Nepal”. The local entrepreneur also brings in a wealth of local insights and networks to have a more engaged market penetration.
  2. Customized pricing: The paying capacity of a customer in different geographies varies significantly, and so do the costs (like rents, labor salaries etc). Having different brands in different regions provides flexibility of selling the product at different prices, enabling healthy unit economics for every manufacturer and better pricing for the customer
  3. Product customization: Different manufacturers can choose the shape, size, type of sanitary pad that works best for their geography and order a customized machine  
  4. Access of funds: For one entrepreneur to set-up 600 machines across all districts of India, requires a significant amount of funding. But, for 1 entrepreneur to set-up only 1 machine, financing is available via several government loan schemes, like Mudra loan, Stand-up India, PMEGP etc. Multiple NGOs also have the capacity to raise smaller grants to set-up 1 machine in their target geography

And, here we are.  From 1 machine and 20,000 happy women, we are now at 15 machines and 300,000 happy women without raising any external venture funding.

Menstrual Hygiene Awareness Workshop at Solapur, Maharashtra

While we arrived at this model after several iterations of brainstorming sessions within the team, design thinking workshops, meeting industry experts, I later found that there are many books on “Customer funded business” written by experts.  

Before I go back to my daily work, here is something really important about running a startup.


Necessity/ Perseverance/ Desperation is the mother of Invention/Jugaad/ Frugal innovation.

While we were seeing some small successes, as a hardware company focusing on R&D and last mile delivery, our costs were quite high. Every month almost felt like the end of funds. Some not-so-obvious money management strategies came really handy to us and we found a way to survive.

  • Assets to revenue: We had a machine that was being used for in-house production which was a fixed asset for us. One of our really early supporters and a keen believer in the Company, purchased the machine from us in a “Franchise owned, owner run” model: where he owned our machine and we continued to run the production and share a profit margin per pad with him. Converting our fixed asset into revenue helped us with our cash flow.
  • Credit, Cash and Fixed Deposits: In our good times, we had made Fixed Deposits for procuring credit cards for key employees for office expenses. Since many payments cannot be made through credit cards, we cut the credit limit to half, withdrew half of the FD amount, adding to our cash inflow. This is just one of the various techniques of adjusting cash in hand, cash in deposits to manage cash flows better. We also extensively invested in relations with both suppliers and buyers to get better credit terms which significantly reduced our dependency on external capital
  • Transparency: Though it is extremely heartbreaking, but there were a few months, where we had to delay salary payments to manage cash flows. In times like these, the team at Saral showed amazing solidarity and stuck together. What everyone told me later, was that everyone had visibility of the cash flow situation and also immense hope about our future prospects, hence, they could have faith in the Company despite the ups and downs. Even our interns knew how our unit economics worked and how much sales we needed in order to survive, which made everyone work harder towards achieving their targets
  • Start-up grants Awards: The start-up movement in India has brought about many opportunities for entrepreneurs to apply for small grants and awards even when they are in their idea phase. As a commitment to the Open Sourcing movement, here is a list of some grants that we found helpful for hardware and social startups. Enjoy!

Ok Man! Let’s talk about periods.

So, we are in the 21st century, where women are prospering everyday, women are inspiring everyday.

But even in this era, menstruation is talked about with hesitation or the conversations take place within closed door, like women to women talk, you see? From whom are we hiding this fact that periods exist? Children? Men? Isn’t it a natural  biological process? What’s with this shame that are we holding on to? Why is there a stigma around it? Let’s try to find its roots!

Remember lessons we were taught in primary school on body parts? How were we introduced to our bodies and organs? Head, face, neck, stomach, hands, legs and feet- that is it! Something was missing, wasn’t it? Something wasn’t right. We heard what our teachers said, assuming we will learn more as we get older. Did it really take place? Let’s find out.

Coming to the confused teenage days when we had a chapter on reproduction in biology and sex education. In biology, ‘that’ chapter was brushed without teaching. Funny, isn’t it? Same with sex education. Ask yourselves how many of you really got to know about reproductive organs and genital systems? How quickly our reproductive organs and genital systems got unnoticed and was given least importance; which gradually started getting rooted in to cultures and social norms; and finally became associated with stigma- especially when it is related to periods. Let’s see what the co-founder of The Red-cycle which is a volunteered program that conduct sessions on menstruation with teenagers between 15-18 years has to say, “In most cases teachers skip this portion, but we can’t simply blame the teacher for it, as students aren’t keen to know about the subject matter; but there are also situations where students bombard teachers with questions about the sexual and reproductive systems making them uncomfortable”. At the Red Cycle, awareness sessions are not conducted as women to women talk or behind the closed doors, on the contrary, these sessions are conducted out in open in the presence of both men and women. The amazing fact is that, session are not only taken by the female volunteers, but male volunteers also play an active role.

Motivated by Arjun’s work at the Red Cycle, I was curious to know what men at my workplace think about menstruation, having started my internship with Saral Designs, a social enterprise working in the menstrual health sector and these are the responses I received from my colleagues:

Well, I am quite happy that so many men are now talking about periods, working in women’s health start-ups and breaking the taboo. 21st century looks promising, but there is a long way to go! So, men! Let’s talk about periods.

A fight against period poverty

Yeay ! So finally it’s a Friday, the only day we have a Physical Education (PE) period where we get to play & have fun .

Oops, I forgot to introduce myself while I was getting excited . Hi, I’m Ria 6th grade student &.. Ohoo! The bell rang and it’s our math class. I should rush because my math teacher is very strict.

What’s with this headache & cramps? isn’t letting me to concentrate. (seeing her ritu)

Ritu : Hey Ria, are you okay ?

Ria  : No Ritu, I have a slight headache & cramps.

Ritu : Is it that time of the month for you ?

Ria  : oh no ! I’m afraid it is .

(Seeing Ria & Ritu disturbing the class, teacher gets angry and asks Ria to leave the classroom. While she is on the way to leave the class, teacher  happen to see a stain on her skirt. Feeling guilty for shouting at Ria teacher leaves the class to talk to her.)

Teacher : Ria

Ria : I’m sorry ma’am, I didn’t mean to disturb the class.

Teacher : I know, why don’t you go to the washroom looks like you got your period today?

Ria :  (sobbing) ma’am I forgot to get my cloth.

Teacher : Oh dear, why cloth? Do you feel comfortable using them?

Ria : Because my mom asked me to do so. But it is not at all comfortable & gives me rashes and irritation too

Teacher : I will talk to your mom about this but for now come with me.


We all have read a lot about period poverty and how women put their lives on threat by using unhygienic products during periods which may cause infections or reproductive health diseases. Ever wondered why does period poverty even exist?  A major section of society hesitates to talk about periods even today. Women are embarrassed to buy sanitary napkins from a male chemist or something that we experience in everyday life like chemists wrapping the packets of sanitary napkins while handing over to the customer. Students reluctant to talk with teachers about periods, and a majority of them drop out or remain absent when they start menstruating. With taboos and superstitions in different countries, even an open discussion in schools/ communities is impossible.

Period poverty is not only related to women, even men and transgenders form a part of wider society who needs to be informed. Well-informed masses will help remove stigma attached to menstruation. A lot of issues come under period poverty which need to be addressed. Many dedicated NGOs & social enterprises are diligently working towards overcoming this social issue. Fact is that every individual has to make an effort to overcome this issue and contribute towards an egalitarian society, ask why?  

 Globally, 1.2 billion women lack access to basic sanitation and hygiene as reported by the UN.
As per a report published by UNICEF and WaterAid, about 71% of girls in India are unaware about menstruation before their first period and about  60% of adolescent girls missed school on account of menstruation were 80% still use homemade pads.

There is an emerging need for government agencies to increase efforts to provide proper sanitation and actively participate to create awareness in menstrual hygiene. The government should also include menstrual hygiene management as a component in its health policy and device strategies to address this issue plaguing the country.

Following is a list of individual & groups working towards  better menstrual hygiene

1..Mukti Project
Two young women, Sarva Damani and Ayesha Alam, started Mukti Project to educate people about menstrual hygiene and also to help young girls continue their education. They realised that many female students were dropping out of school due to lack of knowledge on how to deal with menstruation. This led to the birth of Mukti Project, which has widened its scope of activity from only focusing on menstrual taboos to issues surrounding gender inequality and women’s safety in Mumbai.

2.Brinda Nagarajan

Brinda Nagarajan took time out from her job and trekked to some of Uttarakhand’s remotest villages to help the underprivileged. She would go to remote schools and speak to girls about menstruation. She has also conducted workshops to increase awareness about menstruation among locals. Although the women in these villages seemed amenable to change, they continued to use old cloths pads during their periods. Brinda set up a livelihood for these women. They were taught how to stitch sustainable and reusable cloth pads.


Started by Aditi Gupta, Menstrupedia a friendly guide to periods which helps females during their monthly cycles. The platform has made a great contribution by spreading awareness about menstruation. They also use a website, YouTube channel and comic book for the purpose

4.Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram.
An initiative by the government of India working for adolescent, who also take an active initiative in menstrual hygiene education.

5.Biswanath Chariali
At a time when the government has been spending crores of rupees to improve the overall health of the women of the country, a silent revolution is going on at Biswanath Chariali, that too, without any government help. This silent revolution is being led by Nayan Saikia, who had left a lucrative job at an ITC-owned star category hotel in Bengaluru for a noble cause – to create awareness among the poor rural women of Assam on cleanliness.

Then took loan to set up a sanitary pad machine. Nayan Saikia sells his napkins through rural women at villages at a very cheap rate. Parallely, he has been creating awareness among the village women on cleanliness because he believes that cleanliness leads to a healthy life. He holds awareness meetings in Assam, Kolkata and Delhi.

6.Pravin Nikam

Pravin Nikam is the founder of Roshni Foundation. He started the  period project, a campaign conducted to eliminate the taboo attached with menstruation. He aims to spread awareness among young girls and women regarding their menstrual health and hygiene as well as staying informed about their body and managing their periods effectively in rural India.

7.Maya Vishwakarma

She  decided to not only educate girls and women across tribal MP about the importance of safe menstrual health, but also to provide them safe and effective sanitary pads. Maya has set up a manufacturing unit whose innovative machine was built by engineering-management graduates Anurag and Birag Bohre from Gwalior. Her  target is to reach out to girls at 450-plus schools in 21 districts and educate them about the importance of safe menstrual health to make the entire trek a public movement.In the pipeline is another plan to find donors who can fund the mission to produce and distribute sanitary pads free of cost. For now, Maya who has earned the moniker of ‘Pad-jiji’ is helped by tribal women from Narsinghpur district in running the unit.


Goonj, set up by Roman Magsaysay Award winner Anshu Gupta, focuses on creating change in rural India by contributing through cloth and other items. The NGO is making efforts to restore the dignity of the rural community. Their initiative ‘Not Just a Piece of Cloth’ addresses a serious need of women in villages by providing them with clean cloth sanitary pads.

9.Saral Designs

Founded by Suhani Mohan and Kartik Mehta, Saral Designs is a platform that solves problems related to menstruation, hygiene, and sanitation.  They have developed a machine for producing ultra-thin sanitary napkins at a decentralised scale. In 2012, Suhani learnt about the dismal state of menstrual hygiene in India while she met Anshu Gupta, Founder of Goonj. Till then, she hadn’t realised how rural women wouldn’t be able to afford sanitary pads due to their cost. She then teamed up with Kartik and explored ways to make low-cost sanitary napkin.

10.Sacchi Saheli

Sacchi Saheli is a Delhi-based NGO that conducts sessions on menstrual awareness in various slums in the city.  Through their Break the Bloody Taboo campaign, they are aiming to break the common myths among-st girls about menstruation.



Harsh Realities Surrounding Menstruation Experiences in Slums — (2/2)

The issue of menstruation is not only wrapped in myths and taboos, but lack of awareness and education on menstruation is ingrained in both urban and rural parts of India. Safe menstrual hygiene practices are often guided by right knowledge, awareness, and access where all three are intertwined.

My previous blog dealt with the condition of menstruating women and girls in slum communities of Mumbai and how they are affected by the lack of safe sanitation and proper infrastructure. Situations are different in different areas and are rooted in knowledge and access to the proper material. Talking about menstrual hygiene, it is essential we also look into problems that are faced by semi-urban and rural areas.

To provide last mile access of menstrual hygiene product and information, we collaborated with Precision Foundation to reach out to 625 girls in low-income schools in Solapur district. Through this project, I got a chance to interact with girls from slums communities and semi-rural areas in their schools to understand their perspective on menstrual hygiene and their awareness about their monthly cycle.

Initially, it was difficult to start a conversation on menstruation as the girls wouldn’t interact, they were shy. When teachers intervened and motivated girls to start a conversation, it gradually broke the ice and thus begun a healthy period talk.

With the baseline done already with 250 girls, interestingly, a majority of them were using sanitary napkins as opposed to home-made cloth pad or rags. I already had an idea about their demography and backgrounds. The percentage of girls using sanitary napkins was a whopping 89%. Unfortunately, 35% of these girls did not follow safe methods for disposal of soiled sanitary napkins.

These Zilla Parishad schools are in the vicinity of the slum communities of Solapur and according to the teachers, the situation is worse than it appears. Families of these girls have a meagre income. Although most of them use sanitary pads they use one pad for the entire day, or at the most two pads a day, which is an unhealthy practice. There is also the problem of disposal. Waste collection in slums happens only once a week, due to which the surroundings become unhygienic.

To understand the knowledge improvement in girls, at the end of the project, we conducted an end line survey. The findings were encouraging — 68% girls passed the knowledge they received from these sessions to at least one woman/girl, and 18% spoke about it with two women. And that’s not all — 48% respondents said they were now confident about menstruation, and 69% had begun to follow prescribed practices for pad disposal.

Although a lot has changed with our intervention, I was disheartened to know from the teachers that there were still girls dropping out of schools during menstruation or remaining absent during those days. Furthermore, parents discouraged girls from going to schools and married them off early. Sarita (name changed), a teacher in ZP school says, “earlier teachers would talk about periods, but girls were very shy, with a project like this and young girls coming to educate, these school girls started opening up. But it shouldn’t stop here. More such conversations are needed, more awareness is required not only among the girls but their families too. Sessions should be conducted for boys also so that they are aware of periods at an early stage. True that the absenteeism has reduced and attendance is almost 90%, but there are still 10% dropping out and married off early. That needs to stop somewhere for which parents should be aware of menstruation”.

Another teacher Nandini (name changed) suggested that “Girls need to talk more. In my school, they do not talk much about periods. They are even shy to ask for sanitary pads. That needs to be changed somewhere”.

If access to the right knowledge is provided at an early age, girls become educated about sensitive issues early as well. Awareness sessions need to reach every household in low-income communities in rural and urban areas, municipal authorities need to act and improve the sanitation situation. Providing access to affordable menstrual hygiene product is one side of this larger issue, while other side includes informed masses, awareness in households, and openness to accept the information. In Solapur schools, absenteeism and dropout is 10%, situation maybe grave if we consider entire Solapur, but one thing necessary to change immediately the constant involvement and information sharing. Organisations like Precision Foundation are constantly involved in providing access to education and intervening where necessary and thanks to them that we got to shed light on menstrual hygiene issues in Solapur and for helping us change the picture.

“I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved”  – Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

Harsh Realities Surrounding Menstruation Experiences in Slums — (1/2)

The total population of menstruating women in India is about 355 million, of which according to Census data, 31 million women reside in urban slums.

Urban Slums in Mumbai

The UN operationally defines a slum as “one or a group of individuals living under the same roof in an urban area, lacking in one or more of the following five amenities”: 1) Durable housing (a permanent structure providing protection from extreme climatic conditions); 2) Sufficient living area (no more than three people sharing a room); 3) Access to improved water (water that is sufficient, affordable, and can be obtained without extreme effort); 4) Access to improved sanitation facilities (a private toilet, or a public one shared with a reasonable number of people); and 5) Secure tenure (de facto or de jure secure tenure status and protection against forced eviction).

Mumbai alone has a total population of 12.44 million of which 42% live in slums. Several government reports make it evident that people who live in slums face challenges in accessing proper sanitation. Instances of open defecation are 28% in Mumbai slums as per Mumbai Sewerage Development Project- II and the same data shows that 73% of the slum population depend on community toilets. These community toilets are poorly maintained. There is only one toilet seat for every 50 persons. Often, water supply is erratic and many households have no access to electricity. Poor sanitation particularly causes problems for women and children.

Public toilet and menstruation

Most of the children attending municipal schools are from slums. While implementing one of our CSR projects in schools for adolescents girls, I met Jayshree who lives in the Siddharth Nagar slum of Worli, who explained me the plight of women living in slums and the issue of menstruation. She suggested Saral Designs start a program for sanitary pad distribution in that slum to ease the lives of women staying there. This is how I had my first experience of menstrual hygiene problem in slums.

Jayshree is a middle-aged woman who lives in a 100 sq ft house with her family in this slum which is a settlement located in a hillock. Jayshree is actively involved in putting efforts for social good, having worked on issues particularly of children and women in her community for over 10 years. Before meeting her, I had a vague idea about menstruation situation in slums, but after a couple of meetings with Jayshree over pad distribution, I realized that challenges of menstrual hygiene sanitation are more grave than it appears.  Now, why is menstruation a challenge in slums- 1. Access to safe sanitation, 2. Access to infrastructure and 3. Access to affordable pads.

More than Menstruation

Being on a hillock, this informal settlement of Worli poses a grave challenge in terms of clean toilets. Women who stay high up on the hillock have to come down to access the toilets and by the end of the day, toilets are dirty.

I got a chance to speak to Jayshree’s neighbors who are of the menstruating age-group. They told me about their difficulties in accessing toilets, and proper sanitation in general. Siddharth Nagar has just one community toilet, which has about four toilet seats. Pooja, one of Jayshree’s neighbors, says, “Using the public toilet is difficult, as there are so many people who use it. It is particularly tough when women get their periods. If bleeding begins in the wee hours, sometimes, there is no electricity in the toilets. Also, by the end of the day, the toilet becomes very dirty.”

Slums in Mumbai

In a similar vein, Jayshree’s daughter said that as there is only one community dustbin, everyone throws their garbage there. For her, discarding used sanitary napkins is a challenge. She says, “For us, access to safe sanitation facility is a major issue. If I do not get access to proper sanitation — for example, water supply, clean toilets — there is a fear of contracting reproductive tract infection or urinary tract infection”.

Another woman spoke about problems of accessibility that people who live in slums in hilly areas (such as Siddharth Nagar) face, for example, even when they get access to affordable sanitary napkins, it is difficult for them to access toilets when needed and discard soiled sanitary napkins. Many women who have their houses at the top, have to come down to use the toilet and while menstruating, it becomes even more difficult if they want to access the toilets in the night. Majority of the women here have some or the other infection either due to inability to access hygienic toilets or being forced to use unclean toilets.

Menstruation Matters

It is evident after interacting with women from Jayshree’s neighbourhood in the hillock, that even though affordability and accessibility of sanitary napkin can be solved through technological innovations and awareness intervention, larger issues surrounding women’s health and hygiene will persist if they are not provided with the basic means like water supply and safe sanitation in the form of clean toilets.

Boosting conversations around menstruation, the Saral way!

There is more to Menstrual Hygiene (MH) Day than just menstrual cycle- it is about creating awareness on menstruation, about access to safe hygiene products, access to toilets and disposal methods and in totality it is about everything that helps girls and women manage their periods better.

So why is MH day celebrated on 28th May? Well, that’s because a menstrual cycle is of 28 days and periods lasts for up to 5 days a month on an average. Thus, to celebrate MH Day we decided to boost conversations surrounding menstruation with our partners, experts in the menstrual hygiene space, distributors, NGOs and prospective collaborators at the Annual Open House and break the silence around menstruation. The event was held on 26th May 2018. We also took this opportunity to inaugurate our indigenously built Semi-Automatic Machine SWACHH  1.1 and showcase the world’s first fully Automatic compact sanitary napkin making machine SWACHH 3.0.

The event received a warm response from curious minds wanting to work in the health & sanitation sector. The attendees involved experts from across India from varied sectors like garment industry, development consultants, local entrepreneurs and professors. The guests showed interest in all the sessions that were hosted by vibrant members of the Saral team which included Suhani Mohan (Co-Founder) talking about the importance of menstrual hygiene day and our journey as a startup in this industry so far. Since a lot of participants were curious to know in depth about the pad making process, Suhani’s session was followed by Kartik Mehta’s (Co-Founder) taking the stage to explain the history of sanitary napkins and its process of manufacturing, along with the raw materials required to manufacture the pads. We organized a gallery walk for all our guests where we demonstrated and explained to them the pad making process through our semi-automatic and automatic machines.

We are happy to have received such a thunderous response from NGOs, entrepreneurs and corporates who are willing to create a positive impact in the menstrual hygiene space either via setting-up our machine, through awareness about MHM in different parts of the country or even through direct distribution of sanitary napkins at the last mile. We look forward to strengthening our relationship with these new partners and embarking on a new journey together.

Here are a few glimpses from our Annual Open House 2018 !!

One with all the guests who attended the Open House
Kartik Mehta and Suhani Mohan explaining the history of sanitary napkins
Demonstration of Active Ultra pads
Fun and interactive sessions
Guests viewing our automatic machine
Launching our semi-automatic machine – “Swachh 1.1”
Team Saral Designs after the success of the Annual Open House 2018

On a Journey of Creating Menstrual Awareness: Social Media v/s Grassroot campaigns

R Balki’s Padman is set to release today and there is already a lot of buzz on several social media platforms around the “Padman Challenge.” Bollywood has come out to support the movie by posting pictures on social media with sanitary napkins and adding captions such as ‘holding a pad’, ‘nothing to be ashamed’ etc… Most netizens are supporting this as well. It is certainly good that more and more people are coming out and promoting menstrual hygiene and with mainstream faces of Indian cinema promoting such a crucial issue; it is bound to gain momentum. But hopefully, this won’t die post the release of Padman.

In hindsight, posing with sanitary napkins and uploading pictures on social media, will hardly do any good to the population which is living in the void and who barely have any idea surrounding menstrual hygiene issue. Come to think of it, 70% of the population lives in rural India, but not all have access to sanitary napkins. According to a census report of 2011, over 40 crore women live in rural India, while the composition of women living in urban India is around 18 crore. The rural women population is more than double the number of women living in urban areas. Brands that have garnered popularity among women in urban areas are Whisper and Stayfree, but these same brands are not accessible to the population living in rural areas and they are also not affordable.

Posting pictures on social media is just one aspect of creating awareness regarding menstruation, but on a broader spectrum, the pressing need is to create accessibility and awareness among the masses. Accessibility of sanitary napkins is low in India with only 16% using sanitary napkins, while the rest resort to unhygienic materials like husk, newspapers, cloth etc. 23% school girls in India drop out of school once they start menstruating. This is just one part of the problems!

State and Central Governments have taken initiatives to provide free sanitary napkins to girls and women in rural areas, civil society organisations too are working towards promoting menstrual hygiene, but that alone is not going to help. Problems around menstruation are larger than the solutions that are aimed for. Often we come across consumers who use ONE sanitary napkin for 24 hours, and such practices are unhygienic, leading to various infections such as reproductive tract infection, urinary tract infection and other fungal infections which affect a woman’s overall health in the long run.  We also come across consumers who wash their pads before disposing them off. There are myths surrounding certain menstrual hygiene practices that are passed down from generation to generation or are created in terms of religiosity. Hence, awareness needs to be created regarding disposal of pads and proper usage.

At Saral Designs, we follow a holistic approach with an aim of creating a better future in menstrual hygiene and sanitation using product design, machine technology and innovative delivery mechanism. As a women’s health start-up, Saral produces high-quality sanitary napkins that can be compared to the best multi-national products in the market and are available at half the price. Saral Designs has initiated a social campaign “Hichak Kaisi” in collaboration with Bitgiving and RadioMirchi to support 10,000 school girls from low-income backgrounds with accessibility to free sanitary napkins for one whole year. The campaign will offer support to 10,000 girls by providing sanitary napkins and conduct Menstrual Hygiene Management (MHM) awareness workshops with them. The campaign extends to one year thereby giving the girls enough time to get accustomed to menstrual hygiene practices, while simultaneously, workshops will be conducted on MHM and myth-busting every 3 months to meet the girls and understand their issues. With this, our focus is on building both, awareness as well as the distribution of sanitary napkins.

While we are happy that celebrities are supporting the menstrual health issue, we believe that the problem can only be solved collectively by spreading awareness where the accessibility is scarce and resources are low and a large population joining this movement in creating menstrual awareness. Join us in spreading awareness and helping thousands of girls across the country by supporting our social campaign “Hichak Kaisi” and ask yourselves #WhyBeShy.

Click on the link given to contribute: www.bitgiving.com/mirchi

CSR Champions

Corporate Social Responsibility is a management concept whereby companies integrate social and environmental concerns in their business operations and interactions with their stakeholders. As per the government’s mandate, businesses with annual revenues of more than 10bn rupees (£105m) must give away 2% of their net profit to charity. Areas they can invest this money in include education, poverty, gender equality and hunger.

We at Saral Designs understand the importance of collaboration for the greater good. We believe in leveraging available resources and utilizing it for creating a lasting impact. In the last one year, to increase our reach and improve last mile access, we have partnered with over 5 companies working towards eliminating the problems around menstrual hygiene.

Distribution of Active Ultra pads in collaboration with Precision CamShafts

Our partnership includes conducting awareness about menstrual hygiene among women and girls across all age groups, social and economic backgrounds. The awareness program is focused towards the menstrual education of girls, educating them about the biology behind menstruation and best practices which need to be followed at the time of their menstrual cycle. To properly understand the need of each school or community we select to work in, we first conduct a pre-test to see how much the women know about menstruation and the conduct a post-test to analyze the impact of the awareness session conducted by us. After each session, we distribute to girls and women free packets of ‘Active Ultra’ sanitary napkins sufficient for one cycle. A typical MHM session conducted by us covers the following topics:

  • Menstruation and body anatomy
  • Puberty and changes in body
  • What is menstruation?
  • Learningmenstrual cycle
  • Sanitation, hygiene& products
  • Hygiene practices during periods
  • Track your periods & Myth-busting
  • Right disposal practices for used pads
Students explaining the reproductive system during a session in Ghatkopar, Mumbai

We recognize our limitations as a social enterprise and know how imperative it is to partner with local NGO’s and individuals for the smooth execution of the program. In the past two years, we have developed strong partnerships with over 25 such non-profit organizations having well-built networks in the most remote parts of the country.

MHM session conducted in collaboration with Saksham Foundation

In a recent survey conducted by us to track the increase in knowledge about menstruation, health benefits and usage of hygienic menstrual products in the schools we work with, we found the following:

  • 100% of the girls went back and discussed the awareness session with either their mothers, sisters or friends
  • 82% girls used Active Ultra pads that were given to them.
  • 97% of the users found the pad quality to be excellent/good
  • Teachers from the schools observed a drastic reduction in the number of girls taking half day/ full day leaves due to period emergencies.

So far, we have :

Our Reach

But our work does not end here! There is still a long way to go and we will continue to make sanitary napkins more accessible to women, create awareness around menstruation and ensure every woman has a healthy period!

Students from a school in Chembur, Mumbai post the session with Active Ultra pads

Reaching the last mile through our Door to Door model

Menstruation is a taboo topic in India, because of which women are unaware of various menstrual hygiene products available in the market. 80% of women in India currently do not use sanitary napkins due to lack of awareness, affordability and access to quality menstrual hygiene products. This not only has an adverse health impact leading to reproductive tract infections and tetanus but also leads to workplace and school absenteeism. There is an evident need for menstrual hygiene awareness and good quality products in rural India, but there is not enough being done about it. As an organization that works in the menstrual hygiene space, we have tried multiple models with lesser cost, higher margins, fixed salaries, free samples distribution, etc. and at every step made mistakes and learned a lot from them. After spending 2 years in rural Maharashtra, we have finally arrived at a model which would work best given our vision and goals to drive change in this sector.

 This blog post aims to shed light on our Door to Door model which is very different from the models that large-scale and small-scale companies follow, because it makes sure that our product has a better reach that other companies fail to achieve, creates awareness on menstrual hygiene and health in rural areas and provides employment opportunities to women in villages. Through this model, we reach the most interior parts of our country, especially those, where a topic like menstruation, is not openly talked about.Our Door to Door model focuses on developing effective partnerships and building strong distribution systems, thereby helping us grow our sales networks and creating last mile access. We are able to do this with the help of Sanginis, who play a vital role in our program. A Sangini is a friend and guide to women in villages. She is their confidant with whom they can discuss anything about menstruation, a familiar face, a woman who will patiently listen to all your concerns, queries and provide any information you need about periods. A Sangini is also a trained village woman for sales and goes Door to Door educating people about menstruation.

We first identify Senior Sanginis, who are experienced healthcare workers and partner with them to create awareness about periods and for sale of Active Ultra sanitary napkins at the last mile. The Senior Sanginis are then provided training by our team on everything they need to know about menstrual hygiene. These Senior Sanginis select Sanginis from different villages who are appointed to go Door to Door and create awareness about periods. 

The selection of the right Senior Sangini, keeping in mind the role she plays in the community, is extremely crucial.  Senior Sanginis are usually associated with local NGOs, ASHA workers, Health officers, village Sarpanch etc. The selection criterion of a Senior Sangini for the implementation of our program broadly depends on;

Once we have identified the right Senior Sanginis, the next step is their capacity building. We do so by conducting intensive training sessions and orient them about the prevalent issues and how to create a demand for the product. Senior Sanginis and Sanginis have a set of responsibilities as mentioned below:

We provide our product directly to the Senior Sanginis reducing intermediaries, due to which each of them earns a higher margin.  With good financial incentives and a strong motivation to help other women in their localities, Sanginis proudly and effectively sell our products. Besides the profits from sales, we also incentivize them to organise sessions for awareness creation.

To ensure that we are addressing the problem from all angles, we also conduct several other activities to increase access at the last mile and to educate people about the problems surrounding menstrual hygiene.

Awareness sessions in schools/colleges: One of the best ways to reach a maximum number of girls is by approaching local schools and colleges. MHM sessions are conducted in schools and colleges to create awareness about menstrual hygiene followed by a product demo at the end of every session.

Donation Campaigns: We run a campaign called ‘That Time of the month’ in collaboration with Milaap to raise funds for girls who cannot afford sanitary pads. This campaign sponsors girls in school with six month supply of sanitary pads. Once girls start using pads from the beginning of their periods, they slowly build a habit of how to maintain good hygiene during periods and eventually become loyal customers of the product.

Awareness drives in communities: There is a continuous need to engage with the women of the village even after conducting the above-mentioned activities. 4-5 months post the campaign and door to door sales, we organize for a community level awareness session for the women and girls of the village. We train the Sanginis to conduct these awareness sessions in the villages they are from and have visited.

Door to door Sales: Sanginis visit approximately 30 women per day, ask questions, collect relevant data and in case anyone faces any problems or wants to know more about menstruation, one can discuss it freely with the Sanginis. Sanginis are also trained to talk about hygiene practices to be followed during periods and menstrual products available in the market. The Sanginis also keep a stalk of the sanitary napkins with them, therefore anytime someone needs the pads, they can directly approach the Sanginis in their village and buy it from her. 

This model has been adopted by us to increase last mile access after extensive research. Our learning’s from it have been huge and we are constantly experimenting and modifying our model given the changing times and preferences of the consumers.

We currently have a presence in 80 villages across Maharashtra and work with over 100 Sanginis in these villages. In a recent survey conducted we found that 100% Sangins that we collaborate with, take pride in spreading awareness about menstrual hygiene apart from the additional income they earn because it ensures better health of the women in their village. Our ultimate aim as a women’s health start-up is to ensure that 23% girls go back to schools, the health burden of 70% of women who suffer from reproductive tract infections is reduced and every woman has a healthy period!