The menstrual man


More often than not, fear of ridicule and societal pressures prevent us from doing things which are unconventional and controversial. Some persist despite that and survive to tell their tale, and what a tale they can tell. Here is an innovator from Tamil Nadu, A. Muruganantham, who persisted despite every odd, in inventing the low cost sanitary napkin manufacturing machine, and has given us a most inspiring case study of human doggedness and conviction. S. Saraswathi.

I N the year 2011, A C Nielsen (a global marketing research firm) publicised the fact that only 12% of Indian women used sanitary napkins. Even as the nation was trying to assimilate this data, Arunachalam Muruganantham, a social entrepreneur from the Pappanaicken Pudur village near Coimbatore threw up another startling fact. He emphatically stated that if all the metros were taken off the equation, then the figure would be reduced to a pathetic 5%! As unbelievable as it may sound, 88% of women in India resort to dirty old rags, newspapers, dried leaves, ashes or even sand to absorb menstrual blood. Much before these facts were made known, Muruganantham had been travelling the length and breadth of the country advocating the use of sanitary pads among rural women.

For over seven years, he has struggled to make napkins that were affordable to women in rural India, who barely had enough for their sustenance. Today, he not only provides pads for as low as ` 1.50 per towel, but his simple easy-to-operate machines are installed in 27 states across India and seven other countries, providing employment to thousands of women. His selfless efforts have earned him a place in the list of Time Magazine’s ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ in 2014. A documentary on him titled “Menstrual Man”has also been made by filmmaker Amit Virmani. Here is the story of his many struggles, the unforeseen success and his joy at finding the purpose of his life, in his own words.

Innocent childhood

I was 11 when my father died. He was a handloom weaver.My mother took over the responsibility of the family. Uneducated women in rural India do not have many choices. She was forced to take up employment as a farm labourer earning a paltry sum of Rs.5 a day. She was a simple woman, who enjoyed watching Tamil movies. Inspired by our on-screen over dramatised mother characters, she too believed that one day her son would grow up to be a police inspector and her two daughters, a doctor and collector respectively.

I was 14 when I realised the impossibility of this dream. I quit school to help my mother. My first job was as an errand boy for a workshop, buying beed is and tea for the workers.

When I grew a little older, I found myself a job with a welder. Even during those days I tried to avoid the regular square or triangular patterns on the grills and tried to create the beautiful rangoli designs my sisters drew at our doorstep every morning.

Things improved marginally, and I got married. Shanti came into my life. Little did I realise then that we would soon be parted. Life had other plans for me. Even my mother deserted me and the village, where my forefathers and I grew up in, callously kicked me out.

But I persisted with my dreams and eventually won back my wife, my mother and ironically, even the villagers, who swore that they always knew I would bring glory to our village one day!

But looking back, despite my father’s death, and our subsequent problems, and my quitting school, I still have no regrets about those days. Those were the best years of my life. It may sound unbelievable, but it took me the first 17 years of my life to realise that I was actually poor. Such was life in the village; everyone was bare-footed, in threadbare clothes and barely enough food to survive, but with no understanding of being rich or poor.

How the journey began

In all my talks to students, entrepreneurs, and industrialists, in both India and abroad, I have always stressed that you don’t need an elaborate plan neatly detailed in a spiral-bound book to create something brilliant. It can start from something as simple as wanting to make your wife more comfortable during her menstrual cycle. I was appalled by the filthy rags that she used. With three young women in the house, she said, it was impossible to afford the expensive pads available in the market.

With my weaving background, I thought making a cotton pad would not be too difficult. After all in Coimbatore, we have every type of cotton known to man. I did a quick study of the commercially available brand and within days came up with my first prototype.

At that time, I did not realise that I had just scratched the tip of the mountain; it was only as I dug deeper and deeper that I realised there was an entire mountain buried underneath.

My wife was neither impressed with my first effort nor the subsequent attempts. Waiting for a month each time for a feedback was frustrating, so I talked my sisters into using mypads. But they too had nothing positive to say. And after several consecutive failures, they simply refused to try out my pads anymore. But by then, I was totally fixated with the idea and Shanti began to get irritated.

Deciding to broaden my research, I approached the local medical college girls for their help. I offered them my pads in return for their feedback. This was the last straw for Shanti. Suspecting my intentions, she packed her bags and went straight back to her mother’s house.

I decided to carry on with my work. Unfortunately, even the medical college girls were not very straightforward with their answers. This was not very surprising, considering the subject is strictly taboo even in the privacy of our own homes. Imagine talking about it to a stranger. So I simply requested them to put the used pads in a separate bin, which I would later collect. I believed that the used pads would talk to me. Soon I had my first batch, which I eagerly collected and took home. I spread the foul-smelling pads in our backyard and was about to begin my evaluation when my mother walked in. She went completely berserk. She was convinced that someone had cast a spell and driven her son crazy. She refused to stay with me, but even that did not deter me.

Suddenly, I was struck by a clever idea. I thought I would conduct the experiment on myself. I created an artificial uterus with a deflated soccer ball, filled it with goat’s blood bought from the village butcher and wore it throughout the day, squeezing the blood at regular intervals into the pad, I wore under my clothes.

The experiment failed miserably and I only ended up with messy blood stains on my clothes. I was washing my bloodied clothes at the open well in the village, when someone spied me and spread a rumor that I was suffering from some sexually transmitted disease.

Some even believed that I had turned into a vampire, who feasted on the blood of young girls. Soon they were discussing about tying me upside down to a holy tree in the village. I knew then it was time to leave or be prepared to die. So like a thief, I fled from my village in the middle of the night to Coimbatore.

Even living in the city, I constantly pondered on my inability to create something so simple. After all my father was a handloom weaver, who survived in a city with 400 fully mechanised mills.

If it were a complex mechanism with an intricate electronic circuit, I would probably have given up a long time ago. But here, I had the design and the material, so where was I going wrong?

Threadbare investigation

I decided to get the one of the store bought pads analysed at a lab. And finally I understood that the material used was not regular cotton, but cellulose obtained from pine wood pulp. Cellulose not only helped to absorb the liquid, but retained the moisture and maintained the shape of the pad.

Now came the real challenge. Like Pepsi and Coke monopolise the soft drink industry, it is Procter & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson for sanitary pads.

The machine I needed to process the cellulose would have to be imported and was estimated to cost several crore rupees. But after coming this far, I was not prepared to give up.

Armed with the knowledge I had, I set about making my own machine. After five long years of trial and error, I finally had my first pad, designed on my very own machine.

I went back to the medical college. The old batch had already graduated, so I found some new recruits. I still remember my first positive feedback.

The girl claimed she forgot she had them on and barely worried about her menstrual cycle any more. That was the day, I stopped asking for feedback. If my pad was so comfortable that she had forgotten about it, then I had achieved what I set out to do.

I came back and sent my machine for evaluation to IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Chennai. Without my
knowledge, someone entered my invention at the National Innovation Foundation’s ‘Grassroots Technological Innovations Award. And from among 644 entries, I won. That was in the year 2006.

Nothing succeeds like success

It is funny how people simply assume that winning the award solved all my problems and I became rich and famous overnight. The truth is, even today I continue to struggle. I took my first machine to a small village in Bihar, where I educated some women about its usage and the raw materials used. I stayed there for a month, spreading awareness about the traditional unhygienic practices and its adverse effects. I got the women in touch with a bank and was finally able to recover my money.

I came back and worked on my second machine, and visited another village. It was tough job convincing the women, while simultaneously trying not to antagonise their husbands, who did not like a stranger talking to their women about such personal issues.

From one machine, I went to 50; all supplied to women in remote villages reaching them through self help groups, who also helped providing financial aid. Slowly, people understood what I was doing, they wrote about me in newspapers and magazines. And when BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and The Hindu came knocking at my door, I knew I had succeeded.

I was hounded by investors and venture capitalists. I received many more awards and was invited to talk about my life and my invention on national and international platforms. I was invited to IITs and IIMs and even visited the Harvard University. From Coimbatore, I travelled to Tokyo, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, the United States, United Kingdom and Spain. And one day, five years after she left, Shanti came back to me.

The social entrepreneur with a purpose

My machine has the potential to provide a livelihood to millions of rural women. Growing up in a village, and surrounded by women in my family, I know what they have gone through. When I started, it was the comfort of my wife that motivated me, today it is the thought of millions of my sisters in every village across the country that drives me. At present, there are over 800 brands available from the 1300 units that I have installed across 27 states in the country. They are able to sustain against the big American and European companies.

Several African countries too have expressed an interest in our machine, and if all goes well, we will soon expand to Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Nepal and Bangladesh. The machine is very simple and you don’t need any special skills to operate it. This is an extremely practical solution to a problem that has been completely ignored for the last 60 years since our independence.

We dare to talk about women’s empowerment in a country where 88% of the women are believed to be using unhygienic practices like reusing dirty old rags, sand, dried leaves or saw dust to absorb menstrual blood.
Today India ranks No. 1 in cervical cancer deaths. Poor menstrual hygiene is also one of the major causes for several reproductive diseases.

Why can’t a nation capable of sending a Mission to Mars, provide its women with something as simple as affordable sanitary napkins?

We are chasing after all the wrong things in life today. For some, it is a three-bedroom apartment, while others crave an Audi. Nobody has time for anyone today. Today I feel proud that I did not turn to investors, vulgar (venture) capitalists I call them. The more educated you are, the more complicated everything gets. Luckily I am not educated, my needs are simple. I have moved back to my rented house in the village with my family.

Monetary success and material possessions mean nothing to me. What gives me the greatest joy is that I have found my purpose in life. I have made it my mission to convert India into a 100% napkin using country while imultaneously providing employment to millions of rural women in India. Tomorrow I will die, but this product will live after me.


S. Saraswathi

The writer is a freelance journalist residing in Chennai and specialises in features and human interest stories. She is a voracious reader and contributes frequently to Rediff and other publications.