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An Indian Inventor Disrupts The Period Industry

[Reprinted from Co-Exist, Fast Company. I have reprinted this story as the website features some photos in advertisements that may be offensive]

When Arunachalam Muruganantham decided he was going to do something about the fact that women in India can’t afford sanitary napkins, he went the extra mile: He wore his own for a week to figure out the best design.

When Arunachalam Muruganantham hit a wall in his research on creating a sanitary napkin for poor women, he decided to do what most men typically wouldn’t dream of. He wore one himself--for a whole week. Fashioning his own menstruating uterus by filling a bladder with goat’s blood, Muruganantham went about his life while wearing women’s underwear, occasionally squeezing the contraption to test out his latest iteration. It resulted in endless derision and almost destroyed his family. But no one is laughing at him anymore, as the sanitary napkin-making machine he went on to create is transforming the lives of rural women across India.

Right now, 88% of women in India resort to using dirty rags, newspapers, dried leaves, and even ashes during their periods, because they just can’t afford sanitary napkins, according to "Sanitation protection: Every Women’s Health Right," a study by AC Nielsen. Typically, girls who attain puberty in rural areas either miss school for a couple of days a month or simply drop out altogether. Muruganantham’s investigation into the matter began when he questioned his wife about why she was trying to furtively slip away with a rag. She responded by saying that buying sanitary napkins meant no milk for the family.

"When I saw these sanitary napkins, I thought 'Why couldn’t I create a low cost napkin for [my wife]?'" says Muruganantham. That thought kick-started a journey that led to him being called a psycho, a pervert, and even had him accused of dabbling in black magic.

He first tried to get his wife and sisters to test his hand-crafted napkins, but they refused. He tried to get female medical students to wear them and fill out feedback sheets, but no woman wanted to talk to a man about such a taboo topic. His wife, thinking his project was all an excuse to meet younger women, left him. After repeated unsuccessful research attempts, including wearing panties with his do-it-yourself uterus, he eventually hit upon the idea of distributing free napkins to the students and collecting the used ones for study. That was the last straw for his mother. When she encountered a storeroom full of bloody sanitary napkins, she left too.

Analyzing branded napkins at laboratories led to Muruganantham’s first breakthrough. "I found out that these napkins were made of cellulose derived from the bark of a tree," he said. A high school dropout, he taught himself English and pretended to be a millionaire to get U.S. manufacturers to send him samples of their raw material.

Demystifying the napkin was only the first step. Once he knew how to make them, he discovered that the machine necessary to convert the pine wood fiber into cellulose cost more than half a million U.S. dollars. It’s one of the reasons why only multinational giants such as Johnson & Johnson and Procter & Gamble have dominated the sanitary napkin making industry in India.

It took Muruganantham a little over four years to create a simpler version of the machine, but he eventually found a solution. Powered by electricity and foot pedals, the machine de-fibers the cellulose, compresses it into napkin form, seals it with non-woven fabrics, and finally sterilizes it with ultraviolet light. He can now make 1,000 napkins a day, which retail for about $.25 for a package of eight.

Though he’s won numerous awards (and won his wife back) he doesn’t sell his product commercially. "It’s a service," he says. His company, Jayaashree Industries, helps rural women buy one of the $2,500 machines through NGOs, government loans, and rural self-help groups. "My vision is to make India a 100% napkin-using country," said Muruganantham at the INK conference in Jaipur. "We can create 1 million employment opportunities for rural women and expand the model to other developing nations." Today, there are about 600 machines deployed in 23 states across India and in a few countries abroad.

The machine and business model help create a win-win situation. A rural woman can be taught to make napkins on it in three hours. Running one of the machines employs four women in total, which creates income for rural women. Customers now have access to cheap sanitary napkins and can order customized napkins of varying thicknesses for their individual needs.

It is not an easy path, though. "Lack of awareness is the major reason, next to the apathy of NGO’s," says Sumathi Dharmalingam, a housewife who runs a napkin-making business based around the machine. According to her, rural women are clueless as to how to use them, think twice about spending even the small amount of money to buy a packet, and sadly have a devil-may-care attitude about their health. "When I caution them that they might have to have their uterus removed because of reproductive infections, they just say, 'So what? How long are we going to live anyway?'"


To learn more about Mr. Muruganantham's invention, go to the following link:

To listen to him speak about the product, click here.


Paulina Lawsin's picture

thanks for sharing this. He

thanks for sharing this. He is such an amazing human being for understanding, empathizing with the reproductive needs of women and for taking the risk and being all out to help womanity.

JaniceW's picture


It took a lot of courage to do what he did given all of the challenges and what people thought of him. Truly amazing as you say.

Tash's picture

this i quite a touching

this i quite a touching story! i met a woman in Kenya, trying to do the same thing for rural women in Kenya, she believed that if, as is normally the norm for women who are going through their period to stay home and do nothing but sit on this hole made of sand until the period is over, her belief was that it was keeping the women back by mere days and she enabled them to still work and be comfortable at the same time. The plus was how environmentally friendly these sanitary towels are!

Kind Regards,

JaniceW's picture

A simple idea

It's amazing what women around the world have to go through at that time of the month. I love that they are coming up with real solutions in Kenya too.

Mukut's picture

Very innovative and low cost idea

Truly innovative. Muruganantham has managed to help so many rural women with his low cost innovative technique of making sanitary napkins for them. We need more men like him who dare to think beyond and above any social stigma. The best part is, he has managed to employ more women into the napkin making industry which helps garner little extra income for them. More power to him.

Thank you for sharing this.

Much love

Mukut Ray

We need to let all women in the Global South know so that they can write to him and use the machine to create their own industries, foster self-reliance, generate employment and income.

inshahkashmiri's picture

Very powerful

Let me share this, as I have experienced working with poorest of poor sections of India, who cannot afford a dollar a day for their expenses. During a flood, some aid organizations distributed sanitary napkins and we could find women use them as 'tissue papers' or 'cleaning towels' as they have no idea about how to use them. So the issue is far much bigger the wide spread poverty and accumulation of riches by a particular class in india alone, That is shinning India as they would like to call it.


JaniceW's picture

Aid organizations ideas

Yes, I have seen this before when aid organizations go in without understanding the culture. Good intentions but poorly thought through.

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