Sanitation for a nation

2014-09-22 08:00

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Today, 40 newspapers around the world are sharing the stories they have gathered about people who are making a difference in their communities through innovative solutions to universal problems. City Press is the exclusive SA partner of the project that stretches across the globe, including partners from each continent. On this second global Journalism Day, we hope you are inspired by these stories of innovation, hope and humanity

Faced with ridicule and ostracised by his community and family (even his mother), one man in rural India persevered until he found a solution for producing affordable sanitary napkins.

His invention provides employment while allowing millions of women across the world to stay hygienic and live normal lives 52 weeks of the year.

Meet Arunchalam Muruganantham, a resident of Coimbatore in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Though he describes himself as not well educated, he has gone big with his innovative low-cost machine to manufacture inexpensive sanitary pads for rural women.

He thinks of his project as a movement rather than a corporate enterprise, and it has caught on across India and in several other countries.

The story began in 1998, after Muruganantham discovered his wife was hiding some filthy rags that she had used to manage her period. When he asked her why she was using rags, she replied: “Even I know about sanitary napkins. But if I and your sisters begin to use these, we will have to cut the family milk budget every month.”

In India and other developing countries, menstrual periods can be disempowering or even deadly, as girls and women without access to affordable sanitary napkins must choose between staying at home or using old rags or leaves that can lead to reproductive diseases.

According to a government survey, only 12% of Indian women use sanitary napkins. Muruganantham believes the figure among rural populations might be just 2%.

A school dropout, he began his career as a welder in a small factory that he later bought from his employer. Now he made it his mission to find a solution for his wife and other women. He trotted out to the store to buy himself dozens of sanitary napkins.

“I don’t think any man in the world had touched a sanitary napkin before, for it is none of men’s business. But I made it my business,” he said.

He ripped one apart to see what made it work. Then he needed a volunteer. Of course, he thought of his wife, but one woman was not enough.

“It would have taken me decades to get it right,” he said.

When Muruganantham asked his sisters to help, they threw him out of their homes. He then steeled his nerves to hang around the local medical college as girls preparing to be doctors were likely to be more amenable to his “indecent” proposition. But he soon discovered even these medical students shied away from the experiment.

So he began to wear a sanitary napkin himself. He wondered why the animal blood that he used leaked all over the place and the napkin did not absorb the fluids. That is when he discovered he must use a particular cellulose made from pinewood.

“The wood cost just pennies but was selling for pounds,” he said.

The price difference came about because an industrial-grade machine producing branded sanitary napkins cost around $575?000 (R6.3?million). Muruganantham set about making a smaller, cheaper machine that would grind, defibrate, press, and sterilise the pads before packaging them for sale.

His minimachine sells for less than $2?000, meaning the pads can be priced at about one-tenth the cost of their branded equivalents. Operable from a living room table top, the machines eliminate the need for a factory to manufacture the pads.

Muruganantham called his company Jayaashree Industries in honour of his sister, who surreptitiously dropped him food packets from her window during the period he was ostracised by the community. At around the same time, she gave birth to a daughter, Jayaashree, meaning “victory”.

When it came to manufacturing and marketing his invention, the Indian government proved unhelpful and Muruganantham couldn’t compete with the advertising budgets of multinational brands.

But he got lucky when, in 2006, the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras (Chennai) registered his machine with the National Innovation Foundation for its grass-roots innovation award. He won. Suddenly, the world took an interest in his product and he received some serious capital.

The machines can now be found across rural India, producing regional brands of sanitary napkins with names like Relax or Be Cool. Not only have they helped to bring millions of women out

of messy periods to cleaner, more hygienic menstrual days but they have generated employment and income for the rural women who operate them.

All is right with Muruganantham’s world again. His estranged wife called him soon after she discovered he had not really been running after the medical students. His mother moved back in with him. And he has overcome one major stigma in rural India – the belief that women who use napkins are “devils’ brides”. Teenage girls can now go to school every day and nobody has to know when they are having their periods.

SA solution?

In 2011, the department of correctional services launched the Letshadi Boitumisho (female pride) project whereby female inmates in SA prisons produce sanitary towels using the Lavender Blossom 1001 machine.

The objectives of the project are three-pronged: provide training opportunities for offenders, provide for the demand for sanitary towels by female offenders and provide some of the towels to underprivileged women in rural areas.

How it could work here

In South Africa, Dignity Dreams has an ingenious way of providing schoolgirls with sanitary towels. The organisation provides would-be under-resourced entrepreneurs with the equipment and materials to make reusable sanitary towels.

Dignity Dreams then buys back the products and invites corporate sponsors or individuals to in turn buy them and donate them to a school.

Dignity Dream’s Sandra Millar says that the beautiful, feminine, washable sanitary towels last 3 to 5 years, and that she helps the girls with all aspects of their menstrual health while she’s handing out the products.

There are about 4?million young girls without access to hygienic and effective menstrual health products.

Millar, who was a Drivers of Change Award finalist, said in an interview: “It is no good just being horrified by this situation, the problem must be solved.” Which is what she’s doing, one pack of reusable sanitary towels at a time.

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