MIT graduate Amrita Saigal was working on a model to make low-cost Sanitary napkins in 2012 sampled after the P&G machine where Saigal previously worked. After many trial and errors, Saigal and New York native, fellow MIT colleague Kristin Kagetsu came up with one that used waste banana tree fibre that is not only helping women with safer menstruation product but also financial empowerment. Both engineers have worked with their team to create ‘Saathi’ sanitary napkins that act as companions for rural women.
When studies suggest that 70% of Indian women can’t afford sanitary napkins, a host of other unhealthy practices sweep in to plague half of the female population. A report stated that ‘over 88% of women resort to shocking alternatives like unsanitised cloth, ashes and husk sand. Incidents of Reproductive Tract Infection (RTI) is 70% more common among these women. Inadequate menstrual protection makes adolescent girls (age group 12-18 years) miss 5 days of school in a month (50 days a year). Around 23% of these girls actually drop out of school after they started menstruating.’
As a hardware engineer herself, Kristin wanted more women to stay in education and the work force and not let periods be an obstacle. She is a part of the Saathi team along with Amrita Saigal, Grace Kane, Ashutosh Kumar and Zachary Rose who are all MIT graduates.
Amrita, also an MBA from Harvard, won the ‘Social Enterprise’ award for Saathi in a competition hosted by Harvard for its alumni in 2014 where she and Kristin received $50,000 as prize. “Saathi has also won laurels such as the MIT DLab Scale-Ups Fellows for 2015 and the 3M-CII Young Innovators Challenge Social Track winner title,” stated the Indianweb2 report.
The award from Harvard propelled them to do more. Forbes reported in 2014 that Saathi had pivoted their original plan to suit the local ecosystem. The new product would biodegrade in 6 months from the time of usage. “Saathi Pad launched a part of the company’s #onemillionpads program. This will see distribution of a million pads to women in the states of Jharkhand and Rajasthan in conjunction with Delhi-based NGO Ekal Vidayalaya, who will help educate rural women on menstrual health. Key to the project was creating an environmentally friendly, non-toxic product. Disposable pads, as most of the world knows them today, are made using non-biodegradable plastics, chemical toxins and bleaches, and do not decompose in landfills. The Saathi Pads are made entirely of banana fiber, an absorbent, and abundant waste-material – the banana tree grows fruit once and then sheds it’s leaves. The team have created a new income source for farmers by buying waste banana fiber from them,” Forbes reported.
The pad is 100% eco-friendly and provides income generating opportunities to both the women as well as banana farmers based in Ahmedabad. “Kagetsu says they are continuing to research ways of up-cycling the product. Options include adding it as a supplemental product with cow dung for bio-gas creation, and using it in bio-loos, where the toilet collects the waste and converts it to energy. They’re also completing composting trials,” Forbes reported.
CNBC reported that ‘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 rupee 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.’
Saigal although was worried that as the pads popularity grows, the price may increase if farmers raise the cost of banana plant waste. “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,” CNBC reported.
As the taboos around menstruation are targeted, eco-friendly products for menstruation hit the markets and awareness reaches the farthest corner of the country, an initiative like a banana fibre based sanitary napkin is another drop that makes the ocean.