A school dropout from a poor mily in southern India has revolutionised menstrual health for rural women in developing countries by inventing a simple machine they can use to make cheap sanitary pads.
Fourandahalf years later, he succeeded in creating a lowcost method for the production of sanitary towels. The process involves four simple steps. First, a machine similar to a kitchen grinder breaks down the hard cellulose into fluffy material, which is packed into rectangular cakes with another machine.
Initially I used to be very shy when talking to people about it, she says. But after all this time, people have started to open up. Now they come and talk to me, they ask questions and they also get sanitary napkins to try them. They have all changed a lot in the village.
Jugaad is an Indian word that means ingenious improvisation in the ce of scarce resources or necessity is the mother of invention. Here are three more grassroots innovations
Luckily Im not educated, he tells students. If you act like an illiterate man, your learning will never stop… Being uneducated, you have no fear of the future.
Wanting to impress his young wife, Muruganantham went into town to buy her a sanitary pad. It was handed to him hurriedly, as if it were contraband. He weighed it in his hand and wondered why g less than .oz of cotton, which at the time cost paise ., should sell for rupees . times the price. He decided he could make them cheaper himself.
In the end, he said he was a ile mill owner in Coimbatore who was thinking of moving into the business, and requested some samples. A few weeks later, mysterious hard boards appeared in the mail cellulose, from the bark of a tree. It had taken two years and three months to discover what sanitary pads are made of, but there was a snag the machine required to break this material down and turn it into pads cost many thousands of dollars. He would have to design his own.
Muruganantham How I started a sanitary napkin revolution! TED
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Then he had another brainwave he would study used sanitary pads surely this would reveal everything. This idea posed an even greater risk in such a superstitious community. Even if I ask for a hair from a lady, she would suspect I am doing some black magic on her to mesmerise her, he says.
Still, he carried on. The biggest mystery was what successful sanitary pads were made of. He had sent some off for laboratory analysis and reports came back that it was cotton, but his own cotton creations did not work. It was something he could only ask the multinational companies who produced sanitary products but how? Its like knocking on the door of Coke and saying, Can I ask you how your cola is manuctured?
He prefers to spend his time talking to university and college students. Hes an engaging and funny speaker, despite his idiosyncratic English. He says he is not working brain to brain but heart to heart.
Women who do use cloths are often too embarrassed to dry them in the sun, which means they dont get disinfected. Approximately of all reproductive diseases in India are caused by poor menstrual hygiene it can also affect maternal mortality.
Our success is entirely down to wordofmouth publicity, he says. Because this is a problem all developing nations ce.
But Muruganantham had confidence. As the son of a handloom worker, he had seen his ther survive with a simple wooden handloom, despite fully mechanised mills in the city. That gave him the courage to take on the big companies with his small machine made of wood besides, his aim was not really to compete. We are creating a new market, we are paving the way for them, he says.
It took Muruganantham months to build machines, which he took out to the poorest and most underdeveloped states in Northern India the socalled BIMARU or sick states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. Here, women often have to walk for miles to fetch water, something they cant do when they are menstruating so milies suffer.
Muruganantham also works with schools of girls drop out of education once they start menstruating. Now school girls make their own pads. Why wait till they are women? Why not empower girls?
The people of Myanmars Rakhine state, which has been plagued by sectarian violence, say they feel abandoned.
Muruganantham wrote to the big manucturing companies with the help of a college professor, whom he repaid by doing domestic work he didnt speak much English at the time. He also spent almost , rupees on telephone calls money he didnt have. When I got through, they asked me what kind of plant I had, he says. I didnt really understand what they meant.
When a girl reaches puberty in their village, there is a ceremony traditionally it meant that they were ready to marry. Shanthi always brings a sanitary pad as a gift and explains how to use it.
The Indian government recently announced it would distribute subsidised sanitary products to poorer women. It was a blow for Muruganantham that it did not choose to work with him, but he now has his eyes on the wider world. My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women but why not million jobs worldwide? he asks. He is expanding to countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
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It was his wife, Shanthi. She was not entirely surprised by her husbands success. Every time he comes to know something new, he wants to know everything about it, she says. And then he wants to do something about it that nobody else has done before.
There are still many oos around menstruation in India. Women cant visit temples or public places, theyre not allowed to cook or touch the water supply essentially they are considered untouchable.
Muruganantham now lives with his mily in a modest apartment. He owns a jeep, a rugged car that will take me to hillsides, jungles, forest, but has no desire to accumulate possessions. I have accumulated no money but I accumulate a lot of happiness, he says. If you get rich, you have an apartment with an extra bedroom and then you die.
In each case, its the women who produce the sanitary pads who sell them directly to the customer. Shops are usually run by men, which can put women off. And when customers get them from women they know, they can also acquire important information on how to use them. Purchasers may not even need any money many women barter for onions and potatoes.
While getting the message out to new areas of the country is still difficult, Muruganantham is sceptical about the effectiveness of TV advertising. You always have a girl in white jeans, jumping over a wall, he says. They never talk about hygiene.
Arunachalam Murugananthams invention came at great personal cost he nearly lost his mily, his money and his place in society. But he kept his sense of humour.
The cakes are then wrapped in nonwoven cloth and disinfected in an ultraviolet treatment unit. The whole process can be learned in an hour.
Muruganantham seemed set for me and fortune, but he was not interested in profit. Imagine, I got patent rights to the only machine in the world to make lowcost sanitary napkins a hotcake product, he says. Anyone with an MBA would immediately accumulate the maximum money. But I did not want to. Why? Because from childhood I know no human being died because of poverty everything happens because of ignorance.
It all started with my wife, he says. In he was newly married and his world revolved around his wife, Shanthi, and his widowed mother. One day he saw Shanthi was hiding something from him. He was shocked to discover what it was rags, nasty cloths which she used during menstruation.
Muruganantham says that in rural areas, the takeup is r less than that. He was shocked to learn that women dont just use old rags, but other unhygienic substances such as sand, sawdust, leaves and even ash.
He managed to convince students to try out his pads but it still didnt quite work out. On the day he came to collect their feedback sheets he caught three of the girls industriously filling them all in. These results obviously could not be relied on. It was then that he decided to test the products on himself. I became the man who wore a sanitary pad, he says.
Jayaashree Industries A. Muruganantham Inventor of Sanitary Napkin Making Machine
His wife Shanthi agrees with him on this point. If he had completed his education, he would be like any other guy, who works for someone else, who gets a daily wage, she says. But because he did not complete school, he had the courage to come out to start a business of his own. Now hes employing other people.
Finding volunteers to test his products was no mean feat. His sisters refused, so he had the idea of approaching female students at his local medical college. But how can a workshop worker approach a medical college girl? Muruganantham says. Not even college boys can go near these girls!
Women choose their own brandname for their range of sanitary pads, so there is no overarching brand it is by the women, for the women, and to the women.
I will be honest, says Muruganantham. I would not even use it to clean my scooter. When he asked her why she didnt use sanitary pads, she pointed out that if she bought them for the women in the mily, she wouldnt be able to afford to buy milk or run the household.
The machines are kept deliberately simple and skeletal so that they can be maintained by the women themselves. It looks like the Wright brothers first flight, he says. The first model was mostly made of wood, and when he showed it to the Indian Institute of Technology, IIT, in Madras, scientists were sceptical how was this man going to compete against multinationals?
There are also myths and fears surrounding the use of sanitary pads that women who use them will go blind, for example, or will never get married. But slowly, village by village, there was cautious acceptance and over time the machines spread to , villages in states.
He walked, cycled and ran with the football bladder under his traditional clothes, constantly pumping blood out to test his sanitary pads absorption rates. Everyone thought hed gone mad.
It was instant glory, media flashing in my ce, everything he says. The irony is, after fiveandahalf years I get a call on my mobile the voice huskily says Remember me?
He supplied his group of medical students with sanitary pads and collected them afterwards. He laid his haul out in the back yard to study, only for his mother to stumble across the grisly scene one afternoon. It was the final straw. She cried, put her sari on the ground, put her belongings into it, and left. It was a problem for me, he says. I had to cook my own food.
He created a uterus from a football bladder by punching a couple of holes in it, and filling it with goats blood. A former classmate, a butcher, would ring his bicycle bell outside the house whenever he was going to kill a goat. Muruganantham would collect the blood and mix in an additive he got from another friend at a blood bank to prevent it clotting too quickly but it didnt stop the smell.
He believes that big business is parasitic, like a mosquito, whereas he prefers the lighter touch, like that of a butterfly. A butterfly can suck honey from the flower without damaging it, he says.
He was once asked whether receiving the award from the Indian president was the happiest moment of his life. He said no his proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school.
Arunachalam Murugananthamspoke to Outlook on the BBC World Service.Listen again on iPlayerorget the Outlook podcast.
It was hard even to broach the subject in such a conservative society. To speak to rural women, we need permission from the husband or ther, he says. We can only talk to them through a blanket.
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Worse was to come. The villagers became convinced he was possessed by evil spirits, and were about to chain him upside down to a tree to be healed by the local soothsayer. He only narrowly avoided this treatment by agreeing to leave the village. It was a terrible price to pay. My wife gone, my mum gone, ostracised by my village he says. I was left all alone in life.
He used to wash his bloodied clothes at a public well and the whole village concluded he had a ual disease. Friends crossed the road to avoid him. I had become a pervert, he says. At the same time, his wife got fed up and left. So you see Gods sense of humour, he saysin the documentary Menstrual Man by Amit Virmani. Id started the research for my wife and after months she left me!
Unbeknown to him, the IIT entered his machine in a competition for a national innovation award. Out of entries, it came first. He was given the award by the then President of India, Pratibha Patil quite an achievement for a school dropout. Suddenly he was in the limelight.
Most of Murugananthams clients are NGOs and womens selfhelp groups. A manual machine costs around , Indian rupees a semiautomated machine costs more. Each machine converts , women to pad usage, and provides employment for . They can produce pads a day which sell for an average of about . rupees . each.
He shioned a sanitary pad out of cotton and gave it to Shanthi, demanding immediate feedback. She said hed have to wait for some time only then did he realise that periods were monthly. I cant wait a month for each feedback, itll take two decades! He needed more volunteers.
Shanthi and Muruganantham are now a tight unit. My wife, the business it is not a separate thing, it is mixed up with our life, he says.
After Shanthi, eventually Murugananthams own mother and the rest of the villagers who had all condemned, criticised and ostracised him came round too.
Murugananthams goal was to create userfriendly technology. The mission was not just to increase the use of sanitary pads, but also to create jobs for rural women women like his mother. Following her husbands death in a road accident, Murugananthams mother had had to sell everything she owned and get a job as a rm labourer, but earning a day wasnt enough to support four children. Thats why, at the age of , Muruganantham had left school to find work.
The hardest thing was when the villagers started talking and treating us really badly, she says. There were rumours that he was having afirs with other women, and that was why he was doing such things. She decided to go back home to live with her mother.
A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. Where Nehru iled, he says, one machine succeeded.
The first man to wear a sanitary napkin Murugananthams INK Talk
My inner conscience said if I can crack it in Bihar, a very tough nut to crack, I can make it anywhere, says Muruganantham.
However, this kind of ambition was not easy to live with. Not only was she shocked by his interest in such a matter, but it took up all of his time and money at the time, they hardly had enough money to eat properly. And her troubles were compounded by gossip.
When Muruganantham looked into it further, he discovered that hardly any women in the surrounding villages used sanitary pads fewer than one in . His findings were echoed by a survey by AC Nielsen, commissioned by the Indian government, which found that only of women across India use sanitary pads.
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MENSTRUAL MAN A documentary film by Amit Virmani