Erasing a Taboo One Step at a Time

It wasn’t until 23 that Acumen Fellow Suhani Mohan first learned the magnitude of India’s menstrual hygiene problem. That’s because, despite being born into a highly educated family in Mumbai, Suhani hardly spoke openly about her period, let alone discussed menstruation with other women.

“Menstrual hygiene is a topic nobody really talks about in India,” she said. “For a very long time, it was something even in my family I wasn’t supposed to talk to my brother or father about. It was only a conversation between the mother and the daughter.”

Suhani isn’t alone. Across India, menstruation — although a natural part of a woman’s life — remains a deeply rooted taboo shrouded in secrecy, silence and shame. The social stigma not only stifles access to affordable, reliable products but also perpetuates India’s long history of discrimination against women. 

(Photo courtesy of Saral Designs)

Today, more than 80 million women lack access to sanitary napkins in India and roughly 200 million girls lack awareness of menstrual hygiene. As a result, they rely on makeshift, unhygienic alternatives, such as newspapers and old rags, that increase the risk of infection. In fact, around 70 percent of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by negligent menstrual hygiene. Without safe, clean options, women continue to put their health, livelihood and dignity at risk.

This was news to Suhani — until she met Dr. Anshu Gupta while volunteering through her job at Deutsche Bank. Dr. Gupta is the founder of Goonj, a social enterprise committed to breaking the myths around menstruation and providing safe solutions to low-income women. As he shared the challenges facing low-income women, Suhani felt ashamed for being completely unaware of the problem. “I never crossed my mind that when I spend 100 rupees ($1.50) a month to manage my menstruation, how a woman, whose entire family earns less than 1000 rupees ($15) a month, would manage hers,” she said.

Compelled to learn more, Suhani embarked upon a 15-day train tour across the length and breadth of India to understand life in the rural countryside. As she visited village after village, she began to realize the extent of the disparity, particularly in remote, low-income communities where access to sanitary pads was extremely limited and high-quality products were nonexistent.

Seeing the reality of the situation firsthand, Suhani began to question her path in life. Her role at Deutsche Bank was a sought-after job, but was she making a real difference? Being a volunteer was great, but was it enough? “Dr. Gupta showed me how many people were suffering,” she said. “That sense of urgency really made me see that it’s important. You can’t be in silence anymore.” She started to educate herself on all aspects of menstrual health and explore how she could use her skills and training from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) to improve the circumstances for her fellow Indian women. 

(Suhani (right) and Kartik (centre) with the beginnings of the team that would become the social enterprise Saral Designs.)

She teamed up with Kartik Mehta, a fellow IIT alumni who studied engineering design and worked in machine design and development for companies like General Motors. Together, they researched the sanitary napkin industry to understand the existing products on the market. They discovered a gap: not only were companies producing substandard products, but they also didn’t have the means to scale and reach the women truly in need. In December of 2015, tech-savvy Suhani and Kartik began drafting a design for a machine that would automate the production of low-cost, high-quality pads and a business plan that would empower local manufacturers to scale these machines.

“While technology is making our lives easier, we believe that technology also needs to be used to address critical challenges that affect a huge segment of the population,” Suhani said.

As they developed their idea, Suhani applied to become an Acumen Fellow, hoping to learn how to turn their vision into a real, viable business. She and Kartik were having trouble getting their company off the ground, but she quickly learned she wasn’t alone. As a Fellow, she found a community of like-minded individuals who helped her think through her business model and break down the complexity of the problems she wanted to solve. “The Acumen Fellowship gave me another lens to look at problems, the adaptive lens, as we call it,” she said. “If I am part of the problem too, I will not be able to solve it…that lens has helped me a lot.”

Image Courtesy Saral Designs
Photo courtesy of Saral Designs

 By June 2015, Suhani and Kartik had quit their jobs and founded Saral Designs, a social enterprise that provides access to quality, cost-effective menstrual hygiene solutions and helps women embrace their womanhood with dignity. Their machine had been built, their new and improved pad designed; they were open for business. Now all they had to find were customers.

At first, Suhani turned to her friends and family to test out the product but, trying to be supportive, they failed to give her real, critical feedback. So Suhani, along with the other women on Saral’s team, ventured into Mumbai’s slums to see if they could find low-income women — the customers they ultimately wanted to serve — willing to try Saral’s pads. At first, they didn’t get very far but eventually, a few women opened up to them.

“Since the topic is so taboo, they would call us inside their houses,” Suhani said. “Once you get inside their safe space, we would sit down and have a conversation, woman to woman. What really worked was that we were talking the same language as them, and we were making them feel that their voice is really really important. That doesn’t happen in those communities.”

Of the 15 women they met that day, 14 of them purchased a Saral napkin. These women were instrumental in helping Suhani and Kartik fine-tune their super thin, highly absorptive Active Ultra pads. A few of them even became Saral brand ambassadors, helping to secure new customers and distribute pads throughout the slums. Today, Saral Designs has sold more than a million pads, using every channel from door-to-door sales to Amazon. The company has also partnered with schools across Mumbai to install vending machines and raise awareness among adolescent girls. In India, 113 million girls, ages 12 to 14, are at risk of dropping out of school due to the stigma of menstruation.

(Through Saral Designs, Suhani, bottom right, is working to raise awareness of menstrual hygiene for Indian women and girls and stop the stigma around menstruation.)

For Suhani, this is only the start. Now 26, she is looking to find more effective distribution channels to reach the millions of women without access to high-quality hygiene solutions, like those she met on her journey across rural India. She also wants to see if Saral Designs can replicate its model of distributed manufacturing for other essential consumer products.

“Entrepreneurship is a marathon,” Suhani said. “It’s not a sprint. It may happen that you get acquired and you’re out of it in five years but, when you start, that should never be the motivation. We are working toward a future where women will have access to a variety of services and products for their health and hygiene at a price they can afford.

The unnecessary shyness and stigma around natural biological processes like menstruation, puberty, sexuality and defecation need to end. When we start talking about these topics openly, innovations in these sectors will happen at a much greater rate.”

(This article was first published on Acumen Ideas) 

Saral Open House

On 26th August, we hosted our very first ‘ Saral Open House ‘ for those interested in getting to know what we do, a little bit more.

We are so grateful to all those who attended the event and to those who supported us throughout.

We truly appreciate all of you out there!

Here are a few glimpses of the successful  Open House event at Saral Designs. We hope you enjoy them and share your thoughts about it with us.

A full house at Saral Open House
A full house at Saral Open House
Our CTO during his session on the manufacturing unit
Our CTO – Kartik Mehta during his session on the manufacturing unit
During the tour of the production area
Vijay Prakash  with the guests during the tour of the production area
A happy team member during the sales session
Kalyani Joshi our Sales lead during the sales session
The guests blowing away their troubles during the balloon activity
The guests blowing away their troubles during the balloon activity
During our favorite balloon game with the guests at the Saral Open House
During our favourite balloon game with the guests at the Saral Open House
Our guests checking in at the Saral Open House
Our guests checking in at the Saral Open House
Suhani Mohan with the Founder of Red is the New Green at the Saral Open House
Suhani Mohan with the Founder of Red is the New Green at the Saral Open House
A happy Saral Team , enjoying the success of the event
A happy Saral Team, enjoying the success post the event

How we sold our first million pads

Here’s a story of how we sold more than 1 million sanitary napkins in a span of 12 months reaching out to more than 1 Lakh rural women across Maharashtra, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Manipur and many more. With the innovation in the product, production and local distribution we provide access to high quality ultra-thin sanitary napkins at an affordable price in these villages, through Sanginis, a group of women healthcare workers.

1 million

Founded in 2015, we commenced our operations in 2016 and have designed the world’s first compact, modular and automatic machine named ‘SWACHH’ that makes ultra-thin sanitary napkins. The automation reduces human errors and keeps the production rate high, to ~ 15,000 pads per day, while also reducing the cost of production. Further, the decentralized production enables a reduction in distribution cost by almost 30% leading to an overall price reduction.

Suhani Mohan, Co-founder and CEO, Saral Designs said “We are delighted to achieve this milestone in a short span of time. At Saral Designs, we believe that menstrual hygiene is the right of every Indian woman and we are committed to providing that last mile accessibility to high-quality pads. While innovation in technology and decentralized distribution have made the pad affordable by almost 50% as compared to a global brand, the percentage of first-time users of pads and our repeat buyers reaffirm the quality of our product. However, a vast majority of Indian women are still using unhygienic modes during their menstruation period. From our own survey in rural areas, we found a lack of awareness of hygiene, lack of accessibility and lack of affordability among the primary reasons discouraging rural women to switch to using sanitary pads.Hence, we are investing in awareness programs to address social challenges including taboo around menstruating women.”

Sapna Marade, a happy consumer and repeat buyer of Active Ultra from Kadav, Karjat says-I hardly go to the town as I feel shy asking my family members to get pads for me. Hence, I had to use cloth. Now that Sangini didi sells pads in our village, it is very convenient for me. Now, I use Active Ultra pads only. I like the quality of pads too”.  

Happy Customers of Active
Happy Customers of Active

As a part of our school intervention program, we also installed vending machines across 14 low- income schools across many villages in Maharashtra. We recently put to test our delivery model to measure its impact by conducting a survey across 60 villages and observed the following outcomes:

  • 52% of the total users of our product were cloth rag users before.
  • 3% of buyers feel that easy accessibility at the last mile has led to using them pads regularly.
  • 88% of the users who switched from other brands believe the product quality was much better. Remaining find it on par with the products they used before.
  • For our healthcare workers (Sanginis), apart from the added income, they said that they take pride in selling our pads and spreading awareness about menstrual hygiene.

Our learnings from this survey have been that increased access, coupled with a high-quality affordable product has enabled multiple women to make the switch towards hygienic menstrual hygiene solutions.

Reaching the ‘1 million’ target has been one of our biggest achievements. It reinforces our belief that we are heading in the right direction towards formidable change. This year we also reached out to people who are in genuine need of hygienic menstrual products, fostered strong partnerships and have had experiences that make this journey so much more meaningful. We are truly grateful and humbled by all the support and love we continue to receive.

Team Photo

(P.S To learn more about the survey, you can read our blog post – Health Impact Monitoring System which is a detailed and well – researched survey on our door to door delivery model.)

Health Impact Monitoring System

Health Impact Monitoring System

At Saral Designs, we constantly put to test our interventions and measure its impact on various communities. Our aim is to design a better future in menstrual hygiene via our decentralized production and unconventional distribution mechanisms. Through our initiative, we have sold more than 1 million pads in less than 1 year and have a presence in towns and villages of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Chhattisgarh and Manipur in India, Bangladesh and Dubai. This Survey has been researched extensively in an attempt to make available all our findings for everyone’s use.

Of the various mechanisms for increasing last mile access, we have been working on creating a sustainable channel for door to door distribution of pads in villages of India. This study is to understand the key objectives and measure outcomes and impact of this delivery model.

YOYOYO

The survey was conducted by Sanginis who are trained village women for sales and awareness creation. They have a thorough knowledge of geography and members of the village, basic literacy up to class 10 and are comfortable travelling in the village and to the training centre when required.

The objective of the monitoring system is to provide continuous data to track the increase in knowledge about menstruation and health benefits and usage of hygienic menstrual products. The program will measure and track the awareness, intention to use, reported usage data and health seeking behaviour.

Of the 60 villages (a total menstruating population of ~25,000 women) we have a presence in,(via our door to door health workers -Sanginis), we interviewed 100 women. The sample size is ~0.4% of the total target population.

YOYOYOYO

The sample size has been arrived at on the following considerations:

  1. The chances of the program having different responses for different villages
  2. The sample size should be sufficient enough to provide an estimate of product usage and awareness for the total target women

Survey Mechanism

  1. Out of 60 villages in Raigad district of Maharashtra where the program is active, we selected 5 villages to do the survey(Kadav, Kalamb, Neral, Pali and Wadwali).
  2. 5 villages were chosen so as to include regions with the strongest sales and the worst product sales to get a balanced perspective and range of feedback.
  3. The survey questionnaire and data was collected from the users and Sanginis of the village.
  4. It approximately took a month to complete one round of data collection.

Analysis of the Survey:

YOYO

YOYO2

 Post our intervention in these villages we found that, there were 0.01% respondents who continued to use unhygienic cloth rags, 0.04% were using a pad for incorrectly (for Eg. Using the pad for more than 10 hours a day). 100 % of the Sanginis said that apart from the additional income, they take pride in spreading awareness about menstrual hygiene which ensures better health of their village women.

From this survey and our interventions, we have found that increased access, coupled with a high-quality affordable product has enabled multiple women to make the switch towards hygienic menstrual solutions.

However, our work does not stop here as there is still a need to continue and strengthen the MHM awareness programs to ensure 100% hygienic and proper usage of sanitary napkins.

 

Taxing periods in India — the old & the new way

We all know that sanitary napkins are going to be taxed at 12 % GST. But, many of us are still unsure of its implications as a consumer and manufacturer. 
As most discussions currently revolve around the impact of GST on sanitary napkins and why sanitary napkins should be made free, we have our very own Suhani Mohan breaking it down for us in a lay man’s term.
#taxfreeperiods #lahukalagaan #healthfirst
Read more to find out.

That Time Of The Month

23% of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating
66% girls are unaware of menstruation

3%

“That time of the month” campaign will impact 1500 girls.The campaign will involve conducting 3 Menstrual Hygiene Awareness sessions per school and improve access to good quality sanitary pads, by supplying each girl with her annual need of 24 packets. The awareness session will be conducted by experts of Sukhibhava Foundation and Saral Designs will provide best hygiene products to manage periods.

Through this campaign, we aim to enable girls to manage their periods safely, hygienically and with dignity.

It only takes Rs. 999 to equip one girl with knowledge and habits to fight reproductive track infections, missing days of school and lack of confidence.

Contribute Now

awareness

Knowledge and Implementation Partner

Sukhibhava Foundation
www.sukhibhava.org.in

Sukhibhava Foundation, is a social enterprise working in the intersection of urban health, community change and empowerment. We aim to change the narrative around this by creating awareness about menstrual health and providing access to affordable sanitary pads to women and girls from underprivileged communities. We create a behavioural change from biological, sociological, gender-related and rights perspectives.

Saral Designs wins the National Entrepreneurship Award

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Home Minister Shri Rajnath Singh presented the First National entrepreneurship awards 2016 in New Delhi. The awards have been presented in order to recognize the entrepreneurial spirit of India’s youth and encourage more young Indians to become entrepreneurs.

Saral Designs won in the Chemicals, Pharma, Bio and other processed material category along with a prize money of Rs 5Lac.

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