Before I talk about my experience at Saral Designs, I’d like to tell you about myself. I hail from Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and have done my schooling in Delhi Public School, Vizag and a couple other schools. Currently, I’m in my fifth year in the dual degree program offered by the Department of Engineering Design in IIT Madras.
As a part of my academic curriculum, it was mandatory for me to pursue a six-month internship in the field of my interest. For the same, companies from various fields came to my department for interviews. Of these all, I was looking for specific companies which were offering work in the field of product design. Only a handful of these companies were offering this field of work. One such company was “Saral Designs”. As an added motivation, Saral Designs is a Social Enterprise. I have always wanted to work in a Social Enterprise to understand the kind of impact they are able to create through their work depending on the cause. All these reasons led me to take up this internship.
During the course of my internship at Saral, I’ve had a lot of technical and social learnings. I designed various mechanisms and components, sent them for manufacturing, assembled and tested the machines during my internship. Hence, I had to work through complete cycles of design processes. Though I had designed devices in the past, I had never had the opportunity to complete an entire cycle of it before. This was a learning experience; I had to look at the same product through different perceptions at different stages of the design process. In addition, I was working on an entirely new design concept for this company. This was a ripe new avenue for me to ideate and design in. My overall experience at Saral Designs has been enriching and an exciting one.
As this company is committed to improving the situation of menstrual hygiene in India, I’ve learnt quite a lot about menstrual health since my joining. Well, this is embarrassing now. Prior to my internship, I didn’t know what menstruation actually is and how it affects a woman’s body. I remember a vague description from my ninth grade biology textbook where they described the biological process of menstruation. However, I didn’t remember the “word” and there was nothing about the pain it causes, among others. It was an eye-opener for me. Periods are not something people I know openly talk about. Having worked for 6 months in a start-up that focuses on menstrual health, I find myself being more comfortable and understanding of this phenomenon.
Unfortunately, menstrual health is a “hush” topic in India. In 6 months I have become more aware of how my surrounding reacts to a taboo topic like this. Let me share an experience with you that I recently encountered. I went back to my campus for a midterm review about a month after joining the company. For the same, I had to make a presentation telling what the company was about and what my work was. Since the company was involved in the manufacturing of Sanitary Napkins, I took a pad and displayed the product to my class. At once, the entire class started murmuring among themselves, and people were staring at me and the pad in a weird way as if I had committed a crime and was publicly displaying it. It took them a while, but by the end of the day, some of them came forward and appreciated my efforts to break the taboo around this subject. My lesson from this experience: “A great way to break a taboo is to be vocal about it and raise awareness”.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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”.
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.
(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.)
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.
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.
The sample size has been arrived at on the following considerations:
The chances of the program having different responses for different villages
The sample size should be sufficient enough to provide an estimate of product usage and awareness for the total target women
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).
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.
The survey questionnaire and data was collected from the users and Sanginis of the village.
It approximately took a month to complete one round of data collection.
Analysis of the Survey:
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.
Every story, each poem that a person shares, each voice that speaks about menstrual taboo, inspires me and brings me closer to breaking this taboo…
I belong to a business class family from Lucknow (U.P.) and am currently pursuing my M.B.A from Banasthali University, Rajasthan. A few years ago, I realized the urgent need to tackle the problem of menstrual hygiene, when my mother suffered from ovarian cancer in 2012 due to an infection in her vagina because of fluctuation in her menstrual cycle. This made her suffer a lot for 2 years. But she came out stronger from this and recovered completely. It’s not just the story of my mother but, the story of millions of other women in India suffering from the same cause. These reasons drew me to this topic and I wanted to bring about a change in menstrual hygiene management; as it’s a matter of dignity for every woman.
Thus, began my journey in this field. I worked on creating awareness regarding menstrual hygiene with rural women of Rajasthan during my first year of MBA. As a part of my MBA curriculum, I have been interning with Saral Designs, a product driven start-up focusing on designing a better future for menstrual hygiene management by producing sanitary pads of high quality at an affordable price. At Saral, my learnings have only doubled as I have been exposed to the problems at the grass root level. Every day is a learning experience for me and my colleagues play a vital role in this journey.The team at Saral is very dedicated and passionate about the issue and work very hard towards improving the state of menstrual hygiene in India. I work across various parts of Maharashtra to understand the prevalent situation of women on their periods.
Recently I conducted an event on menstrual hygieneday at YTM College of Management and Dental Science, Navi Mumbai. The objective of the event was to create awareness and bust various myths on menstruation. I sat at a corner in the auditorium with over 100 students, patiently observing the crowd and scanning my audience. The students sat quietly with no participation from their side. Even though the students were from a medical background, there was no active participation from their end. They were shy and very uncomfortable to open up about the topic of periods. In the meantime, I was making a mental note of the various activities I can conduct to get active participation from the crowd. As soon as I went to the podium, I started with an ice breaking game and a video which instantly got the crowd on their feet. I talked about the superstitions behind myths, scientific facts about menstruation and tried to bring light to the misconceptions people have about periods. Apart from creating awareness about menstruation, I spoke about the sanitary pads we, at Saral Designs make – Active Ultra and also distributed a few free samples of Active Ultra to the crowd. The moment I left the stage, people clapped and hooted loudly, that’s when I realized the event was a success.
I was happy that I could inspire the crowd to engage in a discussion on menstruation. I take back this great experience, knowledge from other speakers as a valuable learning in my bag. This is what Saral gave me in just half a month. I look forward to the rest of the 5 ½ months to go with Saral; to learn, to experience and delve much deeper into the world of menstruation and break the taboo!
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.
23% of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating
66% girls are unaware of menstruation
“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.
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.
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.