One MIT graduate's quest to turn stigma to empowerment

Saigal explains how the pads work to a woman at Saathi’s pilot village in India.
Source: Amrita Saigal

When Amrita Saigal's grandmother was a young girl growing up in 1930s India, she missed school for a week every month, for reasons that would puzzle most women around the world.

During those weeks, she also slept in a separate outhouse, and was not allowed to cook or visit the temple for prayer. The reason? Menstruation—considered a cultural stigma—forced her and other young women like her to temporarily remove themselves from society, and from their daily routines.

Decades later, Saigal, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard Business School, said she can't imagine dropping everything in her life for a week every month. But in many parts of rural India today, the monthly period continues to be a widespread reason for why thousands of girls miss school.

It's also why Saigal has launched her own entrepreneurial crusade to change that.

"Now there's not as much stigma, but women still don't have access to safe, hygienic sanitary pads—something you and I take for granted," Saigal said. Instead, women use bark, mud, or pieces of old saris for makeshift protection. The result manifests itself in unexpected ways, she added.

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"Girls fall behind so much at school that many of them end up dropping out completely," she said.

The lack of sanitary pads cause 23 percent of adolescent girls to drop out of school, according to a 2011 survey conducted by AC Nielsen, a market research firm. The research, commissioned by the Indian government, also found that only 12 percent of women use sanitary pads, with the rest using makeshift materials.

The evolution of an atypical college project

Where the (women & millennial) entrepreneurs are

Saigal's determination to tackle this issue first took shape as a college project during her senior year at MIT. She and 16 other mechanical engineering students had to create a product that could solve an emergency. They chose to address the lack of sanitary pads in India.

"Other students chose emergencies like falling down and hurting the one we picked was definitely not typical," she said.

The team developed a prototype for a machine that women in India could operate to make their own pads. Saigal drew from her experience interning at Procter & Gamble's feminine hygiene team, where she helped design machines that manufactured Always sanitary pads.

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Most mainstream sanitary pads use wood pulp for the absorbent core, Saigal said, which require whole trees to be cut down. Her team decided to use fiber from banana trees instead, which would be more environmentally friendly and cheaper.

The supply of banana tree waste is plentiful in India, since the country leads the world in banana production.

Saigal and her team drew from the expertise of MIT chemical engineering students to refine the process of breaking down the banana plant fiber to create absorbent and biodegradable pulp. The experience taught her a valuable lesson in the nuts and bolts of entrepreneurship.

"Other people were also doing research on banana fiber in pads, but no one has been able to successfully scale production and launch a company," she said.

'The pad is your friend'

Amrita Saigal and Kristin Kagetsu, the co-founders of Saathi, won Harvard Business School’s social enterprise New Venture Competition this year.
Source: YouTube

A few months and a graduation later, the college project grew into Saathi—the startup which took the top prize of $50,000 at Harvard Business School's 2014 New Venture Competition in the social enterprise track.

"Saathi is the Hindi word for 'friend.' My idea was, you want your pad to be your friend," Saigal said. "We wanted to create a small manufacturing process that works with eight to twelve women who would pool money to buy supplies, and create their own micro-business in their village."

Each micro-business is expected to make about 30,000 pads a month, which would be enough to provide for a rural village of about 10,000 peopleassuming a quarter of the population are female and at the age of menstruation, between 12 to 47-years-old.

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The machine, which the women would purchase for $500, can make four pads a minute. The women would also purchase monthly supplies of raw materials from Saathi, including the banana fiber, outer cover layers and adhesives, for 1.35 per pad (a little over $650 for 30,000 pads, based on current exchange rates).

Each group of women would produce and sell the pads in their village, charging 2 rupees a pad, which would yield total revenue of about $1,000. The $350 profit would then be split amongst the women.

"As the women travel from door to door to sell the pads, they spread awareness about why they need safe hygiene and sanitary pads," Saigal said. "A lot of these women have very low disposable income, so the microbusiness can earn them money."

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The women from Saathi's first pilot in a village outside of Mumbai helped Saigal and her partners fine-tune the machine to make it more user-friendly. The women also wanted to change some of the specifications of the pads.

Dialogue with village members was often restricted to expressive hand gestures and broken English, Saigal said, but the language barrier was overcome by investing time to get to know the people.

"Until more people are familiar with Saathi, it's crucial to build trust in the communities," Saigal said. "We want to be invested in the entirety of the village—we want to see how Saathi improves socioeconomic status, girls' school attendance, female employment and income."

Growing pains

A young woman from Saathi’s pilot village in India holds a Saathi pad.
Source: Amrita Saigal

As Saathi catches on to more villages, Saigal worries about the mounting challenges of running a startup in a country as vast and diverse as India.

As banana fiber pads become more popular, the cost of banana plant waste may rise, which may force the women to increase the price of the pads, she says.

"The farmers are happy to get rid of it either for free or at a low cost right now, but that may change as soon as they see there is a profit to be made from this waste product, Saigal said." To avoid this risk later on, Saigal is working with farmers to set a fixed price.

There is still much to learn and the process has been humbling—even for a Harvard and MIT grad. Yet Saigal hopes to launch micro businesses in five villages by early to mid 2015.

"It's amazing that people believe and have faith that we have a solution, a product, that could change the world."