India claims the lowest usage of feminine hygiene products in the world. Of the 496.4 million women in India, only 6% — around 30 million women — use some sort of hygienic sanitary napkin during their monthly menstruation. Compare this to the 96% rate seen in developed countries, like the United States, and India’s statistic is pitiful.
According to a recent AC Nielsen survey conducted in major metropolitan areas of India—Aurangabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Delhi, Gorakhpur, Hyderabad, Lucknow and Vijayawada—inadequate menstrual protection is a serious hindrance to everyday life. Indian women resort to methods of feminine hygiene that have been practiced for generations: old strips of cloth or napkins fashioned out of natural fiber husk that can be reused. Disposable sanitary napkins are expensive for poor consumers, and a lack of awareness also limits women’s comprehension of how sanitary napkins should be used and why they promote good health and hygiene.
There are no satisfactory alternative methods of maintaining feminine hygiene for the average Indian woman; as a result, women often endure embarrassment, infection and loss of workdays due to the negative social stigma and discomfort associated with monthly menstruation. Reproductive tract infections are 70% greater among women who lack access to hygienic supplies. As many as 31% of adult women in India note a drop in their productivity levels when they menstruate, resulting in missing an average of 2.2 days of work each month.
Understanding the Market
Although they are not yet the national standard, sanitary napkins are being perceived as more of a necessity and less of a luxury in India. Urban women make up 20% of the country’s sanitary napkin market. In 2008, there were 96 million women in urban India and, at that time, it was projected that that number would increase by 17% to 1.2 billion women in 2013. With this predicted population growth, the sanitary napkin market could potentially be valued at as much as USD$365m in 2013, up from US$166.1m in 2008.
India’s sanitary napkin market has significant profit potential. The demand for such products is stable; purchases are recurring and not subject to normal business cycles. Historically, the price of feminine hygiene products have been relatively expensive, but that is changing as small and large businesses enter the market and make an accessible, lower-priced offering to a wider consumer base. How can the market continue to grow and increase accessibility and awareness of feminine hygiene?
Traditionally, multinational corporations (MNCs) have dominated the manufacturing of feminine hygiene products. It is important to note, however, that the machinery used in manufacturing is expensive to procure and maintain. There is also the additional cost of the raw materials required to make the sanitary napkins. Although MNCs have achieved economies of scale that benefit consumers in relatively richer markets, the bottom of the pyramid (BoP) consumer is left out. There is need for affordable, quality feminine hygiene products.
Inventor Arunachalam Muruganantham at Jayaashree Industries, a Coimbatore-based company, has found a solution with his mini sanitary napkin-making machine. He was inspired to design and invent the mini machine after learning from his wife that if she, along with all his other female family members, bought sanitary napkins, they would have to reduce the monthly milk budget significantly. The low-cost mini machine’s design is based on small-scale production. Large-scale production of sanitary napkins requires as much as US$782,000 as an initial investment. However, Jayaashree’s mini machine can be purchased for about US$1,680. It is estimated that the mini machine can make 120 sanitary napkins per hour.
The affordability of the mini machine presents a unique opportunity to expand availability of this necessity while also increasing local employment opportunities. Entrepreneurs, or even local female-led self-help groups, can acquire the machine and set up a business to sell in underserved markets, thus creating more employment locally. Such groups can also address the social issues that constrain the uptake of sanitary napkins. Jayaashree notes on its website that a sanitary napkin manufacturing business can employ up to 10 women.
“With our low-cost technology innovation, women will not only be able to get access to affordable, hygienic, eco-friendly sanitary pads,” declares Muruganantham on the Ashoka Changemakers website. “But most importantly, [women] participate in the entire lifecycle of the technology development process not just as users, but also as technology designers, manufacturers, marketers!”
Jayaashree’s mini machine has scooped up a host of accolades, including the National Grassroots Innovation Award by Indian President Pratibha Patil on behalf of the National Innovation Council on November 18, 2009.
Clearly, social entrepreneurship and innovation are hard at work to help underserved women. But what steps has the Government of India undertaken to alleviate shortfalls in awareness and accessibility of feminine hygiene products?
In 2010, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare revealed that it was working on a scheme to provide rural women living below the poverty line with free sanitary napkins. The plan involves supplying 100 sanitary napkins per person per year to 200 million women at a budget of US$45m over a three-to-six month period.
When reports of the new sanitary napkin scheme were published, two immediate issues became apparent. One concern was that such a scheme would stifle innovation from enterprises like Jayaashree who, though a small player, was providing a necessary social service, inspiring the same spirit of grassroots innovation in local communities and empowering women to take control over their own health. Effectively, the scheme was heavily subsidizing MNC production of sanitary napkins. How can this sort of market environment encourage smaller-scale innovation? Promoting affordability of sanitary napkins again falls to the wayside when that should be the focal point for improving the health and hygiene of women irrespective of whether they live in rural or urban India.
It ultimately should not matter who is producing low-cost, quality sanitary napkins, but the potential of this market cannot be ignored, especially since it sees stable demand. There is tangible entrepreneurial opportunity in the feminine hygiene market that can allow the average poor person to start a business, as well as be a tool for awareness for herself and her community. Government subsidization of MNC offerings may have short-term benefits, but over the long run, it can hurt the income-generating prospects for many lower-income people.
The second concern to arise from the scheme is its limited scope. It is true that rural women have more restricted access to sanitary napkins, but this issue of accessibility and affordability also exists for lower-income women living in cities. In eastern India alone, 83% of families say that they cannot afford sanitary napkins. The goal should really be universal access for women throughout India, and the new scheme does not promise that.
Even though it may have positive short-term outcomes, the scheme does not address a longer-term vision of improving the quality of life for women across the country going forward. There is no publicly available data to illustrate how successful the program has been thus far.
The Indian government has, however, learned to expand its thinking with regard to feminine hygiene in the past year since the unveiling of the free sanitary napkin scheme. Current data shows that inadequate menstrual protection causes girls aged 12 to 18 to miss around five days of school per month, or approximately 50 school days per year. More startling is that around 23% of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating. In July 2011, a new government program will be launched to improve menstrual hygiene among adolescent girls. The goal is to reach 15 million adolescent girls between the ages of 10 and 19 in 152 districts across the country. The program will first be launched in Gujarat, Maharashtra and southern India. It is estimated that only 20% of adolescent girls can afford even a single sanitary napkin, but under this program, a pack of six sanitary napkins will be sold to each girl at schools for INR 1 (~US$0.02). With this new program, accessibility and affordability, as well as hygiene education, are confronted head-on.
As the feminine hygiene market expands, it cannot be assumed that MNCs will be the primary purveyors of sanitary napkins to the BoP consumer. The general consumer culture of India favors smaller kirana stores more than large Walmart-style stores. What Jayaashree Industries has done is make manufacturing and usage of sanitary napkins more accessible, and this in itself is a huge feat. Since India has become a hub for social entrepreneurship and innovation, it is fair to assume that Jayaashree will not be the only player in the market. And if government programs can be interpreted as signals, the Government of India is also catching on to the depth of women’s issues, as well as the relatively simple solutions that can be invested in to help women help themselves and thereby improve the quality of life for girls and women in the generations to come.
The opinions expressed on the Searchlight South Asia site are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Rockefeller Foundation.
Photo credit: Jayaashree Industries