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Saathi makes biodegradable sanitary pads using banana fibre and has partnered with an NGO to distribute its compostable product to rural women in India. Saathi's co-founder Amrita Saigal tells Fibre2Fashion what inspired her and her partners.
What inspired you to make biodegradable sanitary napkins for Indian women?
It started when I was working for Procter & Gamble, specifically with Whisper and Always pads in the feminine hygiene division in the summer of 2009. I started looking at the Indian sanitary pads market and realised that only 12 per cent of Indian women use sanitary pads. Now, it has gone up to about 16 per cent.
I remember talking to my grandmother and she mentioned that in the 1940s, when she was growing up, they did not have sanitary pads. Every girl would miss a few days of school each month because of the lack of adequate sanitary protection. When I started digging into this more, I realised that this is actually the leading reason for higher dropout rate for school-age girls compared to boys.
At MIT, we started prototyping to see if we could make a sanitary pad for women in India. This was around 2010 when there was a lot of excitement with Arunachalam Muruganantham, the sanitary pad man of India, and a number of other people trying low-cost sanitary pads.
Between 2010 and 2014, a lot of good work was done to create awareness. At the same time we realised that there was a huge issue about disposal even if you took sanitary pads to women in rural India from start-ups. We talked to many rural women. They wanted to use sanitary pads, but they had nowhere to dispose them. Traditional pads are made from more than 90 per cent plastic. They also use wood pulp, which means cutting down trees. We wanted pads that were easy to dispose.
We realised that all of us care about creating products that do not have an environmental impact. We decided to design a fully biodegradable and compostable sanitary pad and look at naturally available, absorbent fibres. We tested a number of them and found that banana fibres are very absorbent. The fibre is waste material because the plant produces bananas only for a year after which you cut the plant down. Banana fibre is a by-product and there is no use for the stem of a banana tree. So, we decided to use that as the core of our pads.
Please share your background and the background of your partners.
There are four co-founders: Kristin Kagetsu, Grace Kane, Tarun Bothra and me. Kristin, Grace and I are from MIT where we studied mechanical engineering together. When we decided to move to India and set up our company in early 2016, we met Tarun, a graduate from Nirma University. The four of us started this company together.
What is your objective behind setting up this company?
Growing up abroad, Kristin, Grace and I felt that our period was always a pain. But for a lot of these women in India, getting their periods is more than that. It means missing a week of school every month. They fall so far behind that many of them drop out by class 8. We are giving every woman access to basic necessities so that they can achieve their core potential. Your period should not affect you from getting full education and doing the best you can. I was fortunate that this was not an issue in my life, and I do not want it to be an issue for any other woman.
How are Saathi pads different from commercially available sanitary napkins?
The biodegradable aspect of Saathi pads is the only difference. All raw material is sourced from India. The pads are manufactured in India. So they are India's first biodegradable and compostable sanitary pads. We want them to look and feel the same as other popular non-biodegradabale brands and so we spent a lot of time on R&D to make that happen.
How are Saathi pads manufactured? What is your manufacturing capacity?
We designed all our own equipment and set up our manufacturing unit in Ahmedabad. We can manufacture about a 100,000 pads a month. We are planning to increase that by 20-30 times. We are only selling and distributing pads in rural India through our NGO partner, Ekal Vidyalaya. They run 50,000 schools in rural villages in India, so we are selling the pads to the NGO. They distribute them in the villages.
We are giving banana farmers additional income, because they can now sell the by-products of the stem to us, instead of disposing it as waste. We also provide employment to eight women.
How environment-friendly are these pads?
Our pads do not create any waste since they are fully biodegradable. If you bury them, they completely disintegrate within six months. You can actually compost them and use them for fertiliser in farms.
How sustainable is your manufacturing unit?
We do not have any waste because we use up all the raw material. Any raw material that is not used is recycled.
What challenges did you face while establishing your startup in India?
What we did itself was a challenge. I speak Hindi, as I am an Indian American, but Grace and Kristin do not. Hiring, setting up a supply chain, setting up manufacturing was more a question of what challenges we did not face. There were a lot of challenges in setting up a supply chain. How were we to make sure that we get consistent high quality raw material? How could we ensure that our product is of high quality? How do we do road distribution because it would be too hard for us to go to the end customer? So, finding the right NGO partner, hiring capable people and designing the product were also challenges. We actually designed a fully biodegradable and compostable pad that we are proud of and that we want people to use. We are the biggest critics of our own products, so getting to a point where we were happy and had a product that I would want to use took nearly two years of R&D.
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