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.